Borderline Insanity – What Does Brexit Mean for Northern Ireland?


By Jörg Schindler

For almost 20 years, Northern Ireland has largely been at peace. Brexit now threatens to tear the scabs off of old wounds. London recently presented a plan for the country, but it is vague and lacks detail.

Declan Fearon is standing with one leg on a grave while his second is in a different country. “The border runs right here,” he says, pointing to a wall covered with moss. The wall is part of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Jonesborough, as is the cemetery behind the church. But an invisible line runs in between, dividing those saying their prayers from those lying in eternal repose. For almost 100 years, the line has also divided the largely Protestant Northern Ireland from the Catholic southern part of the island.

Fearon walks over to a gravestone. In gold lettering on a black background, it reads: “Brian Fearon” and “Rest in Peace.” The dead man’s son grins: “After Brexit I’ll have to bring my passport along when I visit dad, just to be on the safe side.”

Declan Fearon, 60, is a soft-tempered Catholic with a thick accent. He was 11 years old when his homeland essentially became Europe’s most violent warzone. At the time, the centuries-old conflict over Northern Ireland — which belongs to Great Britain, but which most people on the island see as an integral part of Ireland — erupted once again. In the ensuing 30-year-long conflict, quaintly referred to by both the British and the Irish as the “Troubles,” some 3,500 people lost their lives, hundreds of them in County Armagh, where Fearon’s father lies buried.

“Bad days,” says Declan Fearon, but “they’re over, done, finito.” His company, which builds kitchens and sells them on both sides of the border, is located on top of the erstwhile demarcation line. The border is open and it is only possible to tell which side you are on by whether the mailboxes are red or green.

People from the north drink their Guinness in the south, parents from the south send their children to school in the north. In some houses, residents sleep in the north and brush their teeth in the south, or vice versa. People here run into the border all the time, without noticing. “We want it to stay that way,” says Fearon. But he knows that things are likely to change.

‘Investing in Your Future’

Ever since a small majority of United Kingdom citizens voted in favor of leaving the European Union in June 2016, the border has been back in the minds of the Irish. And in the future, it likely won’t just be there. If the UK leaves the EU in 2019, the European Union’s external border will run directly through the island of Ireland — 500 kilometers across 300 streets, including bridges that were only recently built using EU funds. The plaques on those bridges read: “Investing in your future.”

The future of the island hasn’t been this uncertain for quite some time. In London, the government only now seems to be realizing just how vast the task they are facing really is. Brexit has presented London with hundreds of unsolved problems for England, Scotland and Wales. And all of those problems are present in spades across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland.

Particularly for the 1.8 million citizens of Northern Ireland, Brexit threatens to become a Kafka-esque maze of confusion. Ever since the Good Friday Agreement, which established a delicate peace between the conflict parties in 1998, they aren’t just citizens of the UK anymore. The Irish government in Dublin also guarantees them Irish citizenship, which means that they also belong to the EU. It is a right that Catholics in Northern Ireland are particularly eager to take advantage of. Following Brexit, they will become EU citizens outside of EU territory — and between them and their fellow Irish citizens in the south, there will be a border that won’t be nearly as invisible as it is today.

And this in a fragile region in which the majority of residents voted to remain a part of the EU and where questions as to which side one stands on have been answered with brutal violence for centuries. And sometimes still are.

Northern Ireland is a difficult case. Even Brexit Minister David Davis admits that the problem will be a difficult one to solve. The long-awaited position paper that the government released last Wednesday revealed little more than goodwill. The intention, the paper made clear, is for a border that is “as seamless and frictionless as possible” and one that should do nothing to endanger the peace process, yet no details are included regarding how that goal is to be achieved. The European Union has made clear that Brexit negotiations would fail absent a solution to the Irish question. But London seems to be at a loss. If Brexit is comparable to Britain playing simultaneous games of chess against 27 national grandmasters, then for Northern Ireland it is like playing such games blindfolded.

Five Different Countries

In McNamee’s Bakery, the men in their white chef hats look as though they are performing a complicated ballet. One throws the dough into baking molds while two others shake the molds to even it out. Four men empty and refill the huge oven, which is the size of a garage. They do so 14 times a day, producing 21,000 loafs of soda bread for the Irish and British markets.

“It is a well-practiced team,” says Michael Waddell, who runs the bakery and whose employees come from five different countries.

The bakery is in Crossmaglen, a Northern Irish border town that is still in the process of recovering from its dark history. Beginning in the 1970s, Republican paramilitaries and the British army transformed the place into a battlefield. Soldiers housed in the heavily defended barracks in the town center only emerged in helicopters while snipers waited on the surrounding rooftops. Reporters from around the world would drink up their courage in Paddy Short’s pub before describing the horrors they had witnessed in the heartland of the Troubles. Those who could, moved away.

Waddell describes a typical cake order when asked what Brexit would mean for McNamee’s, which is now the largest employer in Crossmaglen. When a customer orders a birthday cake in a branch across the border in Ireland, the order is sent to headquarters in Crossmaglen, where Waddell employs four cake bakers, two Croatians who live in Ireland, and one each from Latvia and Lithuania, both of whom live in Northern Ireland. Much of the flour comes from Germany, the margarine from Belgium, the sugar from France and the fruits from Greece and Turkey.

Once finished the next day, the cake is taken across the border, where the customer pays in euros, but it appears on the books in Northern Ireland and the company pays its sales tax in pounds. “Sound complicated?” Waddell asks. “It’s actually quite simple, as long as there isn’t a hard border.”

He says he would love to have the opportunity to speak with Boris Johnson. The foreign secretary produced one of the most memorable platitudes in the platitude-rich history of Brexit when he said: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it.”

Expecting the Worst

There are hundreds of companies on both sides of the border that are in the same predicament as Waddell’s, and they tend to be expecting the worst. In the 20 years of relative peace that have come following the Good Friday Agreement, the island of Ireland has transformed for them into a single economic entity. More than a third of the milk produced in Northern Ireland is processed south of the border while around 400,000 Irish sheep are slaughtered in the north every year. Even the Guinness brewery, which is headquartered in Dublin, operates a huge canning and bottling facility in Belfast. Fully 30,000 people commute to work across the border each day, including many people from elsewhere in the EU, particularly from Eastern Europe.

But if the UK ends up leaving the EU single market and customs union, goods will no longer be able to pass through the border as freely. Nor will people. Brexit hardliners, after all, have promised to protect their country from “mass immigration” from the EU. British Prime Minister Theresa May said in July that “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past” — a pledge that left many wondering: What borders will replace them?

It is inevitable that some sort of border control regime will have to be reintroduced. The EU also has an interest in such checks, if only to prevent products such as chlorinated chicken from finding their way into the bloc via Britain. Some in London have begun speaking of an “E-border,” which envisions using technology to monitor the border. While such a thing may sound enticing, the Irish government has said it won’t work. Dublin has also said that it cannot be relied upon to help the British construct any kind of border facilities.

Many have begun to fear the tensions that a visible border could produce. If even just one customs official were posted to the region, he or she would have to be sheltered somewhere. And each border structure could become a possible target for radicals from either side. They would have to be secured by police or even by soldiers. Slowly but surely, the border would become visible again — as would old wounds and new targets. The path to violence is a short one: Even if the division between the two Irelands has become largely invisible today, it is still there.

A Monstrosity of Stone and Steel

Nowhere is that easier to see than in Belfast itself. On a recent dreary summer’s day in the Northern Irish capital, Garrett Carr was standing in front of an eight-meter (26-foot) high monstrosity made of stone and steel. “If that’s not a border …” he said.

Carr had proposed a meeting at Short Strand, a Catholic enclave in Protestant East Belfast. The neighborhood is full of walls that are high enough to make it extremely difficult to throw garbage, bottles or excrement over the top to the other side. Known optimistically as “peace walls,” they divide Catholic republicans from Protestant unionists. There are hundreds of them in the city, population 340,000, more even than before the Good Friday Agreement. “But the new ones are prettier,” says Carr and points to a bright yellow bit of wall on Woodstock Link. The word “hope” has been painted on it.

Carr, 42, walked the entire length of the 500-kilometer border between Northern Ireland and Ireland for his book, “The Rule of the Land.” Nowhere, though, did he see as many barricades as he does back home. “In Belfast, you can see how obsessed we are with borders.”

Even today, almost 20 years after the peace deal, 90 percent of Belfast parents still send their children to exclusively Catholic or exclusively Protestant schools. Republicans and unionists don’t intermarry, they support different football teams and they are buried at different cemeteries. And not all of them end up in their graves as a result of natural causes. Between July 2016 and June 2017, Northern Irish police counted four dead and almost 100 injured by paramilitary violence, including 54 shootings and 32 “bomb incidents.”

Elsewhere, the dominant form of terrorism may have become Islamist in nature, but on the island of Ireland, it still tends to be homegrown.

Brexit is the most treacherous explosive to have been laid on the island in the last 20 years — and far and wide, there is nobody who might be able to calm the situation. Northern Ireland hasn’t had a government since January, with the Catholic party Sinn Féin and the Protestant DUP — damned to forming a coalition together by the Good Friday Agreement — hopelessly at odds with each other. Now, the country is being administered by London where the hapless Theresa May is only able to hold on to power because she negotiated a deal with the 10 DUP members of the House of Commons. Since then, the Catholics have been furious.

Too Good to Be True

Given these circumstances, will it even be possible to negotiate a fair solution to the Irish question? And what might such a thing look like?

If you ask Irish and Northern Irish Catholics, they would like to see Northern Ireland receive a “special status,” which would allow the country to remain part of both the United Kingdom and the European Union. Were that to happen, the border between Britain and the EU would run through the Irish Sea, all controls would take place at air- and seaports and the current status quo on the island would remain. It is a nice idea. But likely too good to be true.

To make it true, not only would London and the remaining 27 EU member states all have to grant their approval, but so too would the almost 1 million Northern Irish Protestants, most of whom are loyalists through and through. For them, any solution that makes Irish unification more likely would be seen as treason. “Many of us served the United Kingdom in uniform and died for the United Kingdom. That should never be forgotten,” says Howard Brooker.

He is sitting in an old Mercedes bus on the shore of Lough Erne with a perfect rainbow arcing over the lake. It is the kind of landscape one typically associates with Ireland: verdantly green, lonesome and idyllic. Brooker, though, has turned his back to the view. He is looking at a farmhouse and telling the story of Doreen, a young woman who was shot here in February 1980 by two fighters from the Irish Republican Army, a Catholic terrorist group. “Because she was a Protestant,” Booker says. Behind him, 30 people nod solemnly — before the bus continues its journey to the next crime scene.

This bizarre tour through Fermanagh County in Northern Ireland lasts four hours and hugs the border. It is organized by the South East Fermanagh Foundation and founded by “victims and survivors” who refuse to forget and are unable to forgive. Like Brooker, many of them patrolled the border as members of the British army.

For them, there was always only one aggressor: Catholic terrorists who wanted to “ethnically cleanse” the north. And that is why Brooker tirelessly explains who was shot by how many bullets and when as the bus rolls through the most peaceful-looking landscape you can imagine. In the late evening, when the bus reaches its final destination, Brooker says in farewell: “Let’s not forget: We beat them. We beat them!”

It doesn’t sound like he and the others would accept a present or a future that included Northern Ireland coming even a little bit closer to Ireland. If that is the alternative, they would prefer a hard border. No matter how high the price.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here