Residents who live along the Irish border worry that if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal this spring, it could tear their communities — and their country — apart.
“Without a deal, we go back to a hard border. We go to fences and check-points,” said Irish businessman Terry Hughes.
Hughes owns and operates a gas station nicknamed ‘The Straddle,’ because it literally straddles the border between Northern Ireland in the U.K. and the independent Republic of Ireland — which is a member of the European Union.
“The back door of the store is in the UK and the front door is in the Republic of Ireland,” Hughes explained. “So we’re not sure how this is going to work with Brexit, whether there’s going to be a fence put through the middle of our store.”
Hughes’ store is partly located in the Irish border village of Belleek, on the westernmost edge of the United Kingdom. The boundary that marks the village’s southwestern border isn’t just open, it’s invisible.
“The only difference that you’ll see (crossing the border) here is that the signposts change from kilometres to miles,” Hughes said.
An open, unobstructed Irish border formed the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brought peace to Ireland after decades of violence — a period commonly referred to as The Troubles. Border communities, such as a Belleek, saw some of the worst fighting.
Robert Keys’ father was a policeman in Northern Ireland and was killed by a rocket attack on Belleek’s police station in 1972. “No one was ever arrested and no evidence gathered at the scene, either,” said Keys, who was eight years old at the time.
“Looking back at it now, it was one life and three and a half thousand lives that were totally wasted,” Keys added. “And there was no justification whatsoever for all the loss of life.”
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Many of Belleek’s 1,000 residents worry that Brexit could spell a return to the days of violence, if a hard border is resurrected.
“Twenty to thirty years ago, news reports here were filled with attacks on a daily basis. Nobody wants to go back to that. But that’s something that could possibly be on the horizon. And that fills everybody in this area with fear.”
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British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to share those concerns.
May’s proposed Brexit deal included a so-called Irish “backstop,” which guarantees the Irish border will remain open, free of customs posts and any other physical border checks. But May also wants to put an end to the free flow of migration from EU countries (passport-free travel is a mandatory requirement of EU membership).
The UK will officially leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but the British government is still grappling with how to stop EU migration without building a hard border in Ireland.
May’s plan called for a transition period of approximately two years to negotiate a new UK-EU free trade deal and to solve the Irish border conundrum. But the Irish “backstop” guarantee means that if no solution to the hard border is found, the UK could remain trapped in the Brexit transition phase indefinitely, unable to sign new free trade deals while also forfeiting its say on EU issues.
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For that reason, the so-called “Brexiteers” in May’s Conservative Party are fiercely opposed to the Irish “backstop” and have dubbed it the “Hotel California” Brexit deal. May has delayed a planned vote in Parliament on her Brexit deal, which she was widely expected to lose. If the British government cannot agree on a deal, the U.K. will either need to hold another Brexit referendum or leave the EU without a deal. The latter option would almost certainly result in a hard border in Ireland.
“The United Kingdom government has come back with a deal that no one wants,” said Keys. He still lives in Northern Ireland and voted in favour of Brexit in 2016, but he’s now having second thoughts.
“I voted to leave Europe because of the migrants and the bureaucracy coming out of Europe. But if I was asked to vote again I don’t know what I’d do.”
Keys said his preferred outcome now would be for the UK to hold a second referendum. “My feeling at the moment is go back to the people,” Keys said. “Let them decide if they want to stay in Europe or crash out (of the EU with no deal).”