Living On The Irish Border: 'People Care A Lot About What Is Going To Happen With Brexit, But They Feel Powerless.'

Rachel Wearmouth
Seamas O'Reilly (right) with his dad Joe

“When I say we live on the border, I mean we literally live on the border,” says Seamas O’Reilly, his words speeding up with frustration. 

The 32-year-old, from the outskirts of Derry in Northern Ireland, is trying to articulate how he and his dad Joe, a retired civil engineer, will be affected by Brexit. 

The UK-Ireland border, which is proving to be the one puzzle Brexiteers can’t solve, runs through the back garden of his family home. 

He points to a garage visible from the kitchen window. During the Troubles, it was a border checkpoint, monitored by soldiers with guns. Often the exchanges there were a simple a passing of documents and a nod of the head, but not always. 

“Basically, it was blown up a couple of times,” O’Reilly says. “We had our windows blown out by the explosions.

“These places were never particularly well-liked and in the last 20 years they haven’t been there.” 

Boris Johnson has played down the Irish border’s significance by likening it to the divide between the London boroughs of Camden and Islington. To say the reality is more complicated is an understatement. 

This week Brexit Secretary David Davis and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier unveiled an agreement for transition arrangements, but how the border issue would be resolved was far from clear. 

Theresa May insists there will be no return to a hard border, but beyond vague notions of technology providing a magic solution – or the UK plumping for remaining in the or “a” customs union, something Brexiteers will fiercely resist – it is not clear what else is possible. 

Foyle, of which Derry, the scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday tragedy, is part, had the highest remain vote outside London at 78.2%.  

“I grew up at the border, I know how porous it is and it just won’t work if you try to control it here,” says O’Reilly, furious that with a year to go until Brexit no practical solution has been agreed. 

“The other thing, which is by far and away more damaging than the logistics, is the psychological impact of putting a border in place.

“Even if it is relatively easy to pass through, it still creates a separation and a feeling of separation.”

After the Good Friday Agreement brought a formal end to the Troubles in 1999, the land beneath the customs hut at the end of O’Reilly’s garden was sold on.It is now a garage and kickboxing gym. 

“There are 300 miles of border,” says O’Reilly. “The Government has until April next year to buy everybody’s gym, buy everybody’s house and garden, buy everything.

“You can’t have all that there when you need to have a man with a hut, scanning apparatus, machine guns and some dogs. Because the fact is that they will need to have someone there. You cannot have a residential house on this border. 

“Can they tell me how they plan, logistically, to evict thousands of people from their properties, from their businesses – and how are they going to afford to pay for it, because they will need to use compulsory purchase orders.”

Seamas O'Reilly's family home on the border of Derry and Donegal. An explosion at a nearby former checkpoint blew out their windows during the Troubles. 

“The reason you may never have heard anyone say this to you before is because they just are not serious about it. If they were going to do that in the next 14 months, they would already be talking about it. They would be investigating the idea, sending letters. We would be getting a knock on the door from people with clipboards surveying.

“They haven’t done even the simplest parts of their job because they are not serious about it.” 

O’Reilly says he and his family feel forgotten by the government. 

“They are just saying anything – anything – to get to 5pm every single day,” he says. “They’re saying whatever they need to every day to keep the maddest, right-wing fringe of the Conservative Party happy long enough to make it to the next morning. 

“It’s like if you can abandon the ability to feel shame then, in British politics, you can do whatever you want.

“This could also sow the seeds of civic disruption in Northern Ireland. It could lead to violence again.” 

The Irish Government has estimated around 30,000 people cross the border every day. Most are commuting to work, travelling to see friends and family or to use health services. Thousands of them are schoolchildren. 

“Half of my school bus were from Donegal,” says O’Reilly. “There is no border. There is no Donegal-Derry rivalry.”

In his opinion, the answer is simple. “I want Brexit not to happen,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense. People make mistakes. 

“It just seems like madness that we are all being carried along like this, like this has to happen. There is a sort of throwing up of hands, particularly within the London media.

“It’s like the rules of the game are that because the maddest, ring-wing fringe of the Conservative Party keeps saying ‘a vote is a vote is a vote’ that hundreds of thousands of people have to be impoverished throughout the UK we have to have this stand-off, even if it means an absolute bonfire of the credibility of the UK.”

Frustration in Northern Ireland is not confined to Brexit, though the vote has become a flashpoint for old feuds. 

Stormont, the home of the Northern Irish assembly, has been without a government for 14 months after power-sharing talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP broke down in January 2017. Direct rule from Westminster, a term which has deep-rooted negative connotations, looms. 

Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the assembly has not been sitting for over a year

The last general election saw support for moderate parties disappear, with the SDLP, Labour's sister party in Northern Ireland, and the moderate unionists the UUP losing their remaining seats to either the hardline unionist/Brexiteer DUP, who have since entered a confidence and supply deal with the Tories, or Sinn Fein, who refuse to even take up seats in the House of Common. 

The apparent regression to polar opposites is a prospect that fills 26-year-olds Heather Wilson and Jamie Pow with dismay. 

The pair, alongside others, have built Northern Slant, a news and blogging site, aimed at “breaking the cycle of pessimism” and showcasing a diverse Northern Ireland. 

I meet them in an achingly cool bar in central Belfast. Around 60% of 16-to-24-year-olds do not identify as nationalist or unionist, Pow, Northern Slant’s deputy editor, says, but an Ulster equivalent of a Jeremy Corbyn surge is not on the horizon. 

“There is no place for them to go, politically,” he says. “The party system is still so structured along those ethno-nationalist lines.

“Some of the parties have tried to move beyond that but when you have the big two who Hoover up the votes, it is so hard to mobilise young people.”

Although Wilson identifies as nationalist and Pow as unionist, neither are comfortable with being represented solely by the DUP, with Arlene Foster’s party being so closely tied to the Tories.

“It seems to me that the DUP is calling the shots way too much,” says Wilson, a SDLP staffer. “It was supposed to be a confidence and supply deal but now it is this big, joint operation.”

Pow, a PhD student at Queens University, adds: “It’s so counterproductive, because it makes voters in Scotland, England and Wales resent Northern Ireland as a whole because it seems the one party which is currently the mouthpiece for Northern Ireland, is Northern Ireland.”

Northern Slant deputy editor Jamie Pow

Wilson is gloomy about the political outlook for Northern Ireland and fears no anti-Brexit Northern Irish voice is being heard. 

“I don’t know if Stormont is coming back for the foreseeable future and I think most people are of that opinion,” she says. “I don’t feel power-sharing has failed, I feel that politicians have failed power-sharing. 

“There needs to be a whole new cohort come forward.” 

Pow has also written off progress in the coming few years and worries Brexit will reopen old wounds.  

“For me, it does feel very frustrating because we can see the effects of Brexit coming down the line,” he says. “It’s frustrating also because Northern Ireland did have relative stability for a while.

“In a deeply divided society, it’s always going to take a long time for things to normalise. We were on the right path for most of those 20 years, things were going in the right direction, but then you have something like Brexit and it just pulls the rug from under us because it just opens up all those sensitivities again.” 

While voters on the mainland were debating immigration and “taking back control”, the mood in Northern Ireland was one of apathy, Wilson says. 

“People care a lot about what is going to happen with Brexit, but they feel pretty powerless,” says the ardent remainer. “They realise that Northern Ireland is 1.1 million people in 60 million and that, when it comes to what the Westminster government doing, even though there is a DUP influence there, they are resigned to the fact it’s going to be what someone else decides.

“I feel like Brexit is absolutely reckless, I really do. I feel like no one saw it coming and that no one can now speak for us.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster, with party colleagues Simon Hamilton and Edwin Poots (right), speaks with media at Carson Statue after talks with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley at Stormont House.

Both fear the impact Brexit could have on the Good Friday Agreement and claim Brexiteers are aiming to weaken the Government’s commitment to it. 

“The EU underpins so much of the GFA,” says Wilson. “People can say that is overstated but I don’t think it is.

“Strand 1 of the GFA talks about Britain and Ireland being part of the EU and how that is fundamental to the peace agreement.

“But we have also benefited so much from peace money. There may be parts of the GFA that will be null and void because of Brexit and we are going to lose so much money.

She adds: “Some people are talking about a return to violence, but I can’t see where the violence would come from. Nobody is actually able to pinpoint what group it would be, what would be their motive.” 

Both agree a referendum of the state of border is inevitable.

Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Fein's party president Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion

“I think within the next ten years – and I wouldn’t have said that before Brexit,” says Wilson, who grew up in a household of staunch unionists. “It goes back to upending the constitution, by leaving the EU it throws open other bits of the constitution.”

Pow describes himself as a unionist, but says he and many others are no longer staunchly wedded to defending the UK. 

“I do usually support Northern Ireland staying within the union but, to be honest, I am one of those people that would say Brexit throws things up in the air a wee bit,” he says. “It does make me question things. Usually it is the economic arguments that support Northern Ireland staying in the union and for me that argument is now harder to make. So, now I am one of the people on the fence in constitutional terms.” 

Given the turmoil they fear Brexit is wreaking on their communities, would they support a second referendum? 

“Maybe in 20 years, a new generation and a new movement may want the UK to rejoin the EU but I think the mistake has to be lived out,” says Pow. 

Heather Wilson

 

Sinn Fein has so far resisted calls to take up their seats in the Commons to stop Brexit. 

“I know it will not happen but I was hoping Sinn Fein would renege on their abstentionist policy because Brexit is so serious,” says Wilson. 

“I get why they won’t, but there must be some constitutional republicans who are thinking please just for this one issue, come out and back us.”

Pow adds: “Sinn Fein’s voters will not want their MPs to take their seats.

“Plus, purely strategically, from Sinn Fein’s point of view, if Brexit does go the hardest way possible, that is the strongest argument for a united Ireland possible.  

“In 20 years’ time, when you look back at the events of these few years. To me, it will be that these are the moments that the union was really weakened and Northern Ireland was pushed away from the mainstream.

“It undermines the UK. If the UK does leave the customs union and the single market, it creates a bigger divide between north and south and that pushes softer nationalists, previously who felt more Irish than British but backed the status quo because it made more sense, economically.

“If those economic arguments change then I think those people are far more likely to vote for a united Ireland in a border poll.”

But if there is a new generation trying to reshape the centre ground in Northern Ireland, some are more determined than ever to refuse compromise. 

Jamie Bryson is the founder of the grassroots loyalist organisation, Unionist Voice. He campaigned to leave the EU precisely because he thought it threatens the Good Friday Agreement. He resents the fact that politicians are reluctant to impose a hard border and represents a force on the ascendancy within Ulster politics to which the DUP must listen.  

“I am probably a hard, hard Brexiteer,” he says, getting comfortable at a table at the near-deserted Stormont Hotel. “As far as I’m concerned, people in a UK-wide vote made their decision and that now has to be implemented.” 

I put it to him that Northern Ireland voted to remain by 55% and, given its history, a specific solution is needed to square the circle of the border and the democratic deficit. 

“If we start going down that path, where does it end?” he asks. “Should London remain in the European Union? Will we start chopping up the United Kingdom into streets, towns and cities and say half will stay in the Customs Union and half won’t?

“The referendum was UK-wide, we joined as a United Kingdom and therefore the only option is to leave as a United Kingdom.

“Why are we embarrassed of the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the UK and will have a land border with Ireland. Why are we hiding away from that. I am trying to push on the hard Brexiteers.”  

He claims the peace process is at risk and says any prospect of a border poll is being whipped up by Sinn Fein. 

“I call it the Belfast Agreement, because calling it the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ is putting a religious spin on it, like it’s sacrosanct or a holy writ – and of course it’s not,” he says. 

“When you boil it down it is a piece of legislation, which the British Parliament can amend and repeal at any time. 

“I always thought that Brexit would break down this nonsense that Northern Ireland had some kind of hybrid British-Irish status.

“That is why I campaigned for Brexit, because I saw it as a Trojan horse that would demolish the Belfast Agreement. I don’t know why the British government is continuing to pretend that we have to protect the Belfast Agreement, because we don’t.