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Brexit from across the Irish border

The UK has one land border with the EU. Here's what things look like from the other side of it.

Letterkenny high street, by Sleepyhead2 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Letterkenny is a border town located around 20 miles from Derry and the first major town in Donegal encountered when you leave Derry and head south into the Republic of Ireland. Its high street is a mix of retail, coffee shops, restaurants and charity shops. Cross border trade and tourism plays a key part in its economy.

The Brexit conversations are happening amongst locals but there appears to be some ambivalence as if they are oblivious as to the upheaval happening in London. When I asked locals if they expect border controls to return they say they just don’t know what is happening yet. Much like the rest of the population of the islands, then. However, one local tells me “I think a lot of people from this town never really saw the impact of the troubles and now because of mass unemployment they can’t leave the town so it is insular and they are ambivalent to all of this”. They also believe that the English electorate might come to their senses saying “I think a lot of people over here think because it was so close there will be a 2nd referendum”.

In Grianan Arts centre there is concern amongst staff who tell me the centre is heavily funded through the PEACE 4 programme “We’re concerned about out funding being cut, our health services are connected in the North West border region too and its barbaric to expect cancer sufferers to travel to Galway instead of Derry because of this vote. A lot our trade comes from the north, people don’t know what is happening and what to expect when the politicians don’t know either but you can be damn sure it will be the ordinary person who will pay for this”. She further goes on to compare the vote to the Irish left by saying “I think like Irish Water this was a protest vote by English people but its affecting everywhere else as well. Things were looking up for us in the North West now, because of politics that’s all changed again but we’re used to this nonsense in the border area, things are always changing” and adds “but, there could also be benefits as we are an English speaking country in the EU”

However, some believe there lies scope and space for a narrative to begin on the reunification of the island with this being discussed by Sinn Fein predominantly. Gerry McMonagle a local Sinn Fein councillor told me “Yes of course we are advocating for a border poll but out of the Brexit there is a lot of issues that need to be addressed by the Irish government. There is an onus on the Irish government to protect the mandate of the people in the 6 counties who voted to remain. We are in favour of a referendum on Irish unity, the Irish government needs to be ensuring the people’s rights in the 6 counties are protected and they work in close partnership with the executive and in the future with the EU”.

On the status of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), cross border health services and EU funded peace projects like ‘Interreg’ and ‘PEACE 4’, McMonagle states “We don’t know the working of that yet. The GFA is very important and we have strong connections with Derry and Strabane district councils and are working on a number of projects especially around provision for much needed infrastructure like the A5 – Monaghan through to Derry City road. There is now concern over that. How can we then draw down monies for cross border projects? We need to be assured commitments made that the EU present for us are still acceptable this could all be in jeopardy”

Another area affected is cross border workers and the lack of clarity around the cross border movement of workers on a daily basis to which he urged “The Irish government should recognise the vote that was taken in the 6 counties was Remain. The island of Ireland should not be affected by the vote taken in England and Wales but we should also listen to voters and what they are saying. There is a wide alienation of working class people away from big conglomerates like the EU and we need to use this time as part of the Brexit to see reform of the EU”.

The viewpoint from Fianna Fail however is different as Charlie McConalogue a local FF TD categorically tells me “Fianna Fail is not calling for a border poll” and that cross border institutions and EU funding which the north and border counties are reliant on could now also be in jeopardy as he states “There’s a lack of clarity, everything is up in the air and it all depends on the negotiation agreement done between the UK and Ireland” when probed about the status of the Good Friday Agreement he say’s “The GFA still stands and the implications are anybody born in the north is entitled to dual citizenship”.

In terms of PEACE 4 monies which are EU funded he states realistically “It’s a strong possibility this could be gone once the UK leaves the EU” and from a trade point of view “new negotiations as to how the UK trades with the EU will need to be done”. The answer to the major question of border controls is ambiguous though “From an immigration point of view it will all depend on the position Britain takes to control its borders – there is no clarity, it’s an open question at the moment”.  

About the author

Polly Lavin is a freelance writer, researcher and MSC graduate. She has a background in EU project management and has previously developed and delivered peace projects in the border counties and North of Ireland.

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