BELCOO, NORTHERN IRELAND — On the short bridge between Blacklion and Belcoo stand two clues that the crossing links not only a pair of towns, but two jurisdictions.
The road-sign speed limits for Blacklion in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometers per hour. In Belcoo, in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, miles are used.
Over the last two decades — particularly since the 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland — Belcoo, population 540, and Blacklion, population 194, have are effectively operated as one town.
“There are no barriers, it’s how people want it,” said Eugene McCann, who runs a well-stocked grocery store and post office in Belcoo, his hometown.
“Some of the staff here live in the Republic [of Ireland] and cross that bridge every day on their way to work,” he explained.
But in 2016 the U.K.voted to leave the European Union – an outcome widely-known as Brexit. Any post-Brexit border could at least mean delays crossing the bridge, also a throughway for traffic from Northern Ireland to Sligo, a regional hub in Ireland’s northwest.
Ireland, of course, will remain a full member of what will be a 27-country economic and political bloc once the British leave.
The split is scheduled for 2019, but the negotiations are already increasing tensions between the British and Irish governments — and prompting disquiet along the border.
Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queens University Belfast who has researched the impact of the Brexit vote on border regions, found that “the predominant hope ..[..]..regarding the post-Brexit border is that there would be minimal disruption and change to the border as it is currently experienced.”
Many adults in Belcoo and Blacklion remember border checks all too well.
For three decades, Northern Ireland was torn by violence as groups such as the Provisional I.R.A. sought an end to British rule, fighting not only the British army but Protestant militants, or Loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the U.K.
Anybody passing from one part of Ireland to the other ran a gauntlet of Irish police and British army security checkpoints, the latter often targets for the gunmen.
The system of security and customs checks “was a nightmare,” McCann recalled. “And around here wasn’t even the most insecure part.”
The peace agreement, which came five years after the European Union’s Single Market was created, helped dissolve the 310-mile frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Border checks were dismantled allowing trade and business to flourish.
Now roughly around 30,000 people cross the border each day for work, along with thousands of trucks hauling everything from meat to milk to ingredients for Guinness, the creamy beer brewed in Dublin.
Compared to now, Blacklion and Belcoo were essentially cut off from each other, making daily commerce difficult.
“I remember the border when I was young fella, you couldn’t even go back and over to do your shopping,” said Hughie Nolan, whose antique store in Blacklion is lit up by gleaming yellow and red 1970’s sports-cars parked beside shelf-loads of 60’s vintage audio equipment being reworked to function with modern tech such as smartphones.
Around the corner is the Garda Síochána (the name for the police in the Republic of Ireland) station that was the main border checkpoint before 1998.
In some places the border is crossed by major roadways, such as the motorway linking Dublin with Belfast, the Northern ireland regional capital, 90 minutes drive north. In other places the frontier cuts through family farms — private property that straddles two jurisdictions, the boundary therein sometimes no more than a fence or brook any fit adult can hurdle
“Our parish [is] crisscrossed by hundreds of roads and laneways which local farmers have used for generations. Many farms straddle the border which is often only demarcated by a small stream less than a meter wide,” said Frank McManus, secretary of the Gaelic football club in Clontibret, a mile and half from the border in County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland and a 34 mile drive east of Blacklion/Belcoo.
In the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union by a 56%-44% margin, with the the constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone, of which Belcoo is part, voting to remain by 59%-41%. But the U.K. as a whole voted 52%-48% to leave, leaving Northern Ireland no choice.
The British government, the Irish government and the European Union all say they want the border to remain open once the split is complete. But without border controls and checks, it is unclear how that would be possible if the European Union wants to prevent untaxed goods from slipping into its single market or if Britain wants to stop migrants with free passage within the EU from entering through Ireland.
“If [Britain] the U.K. is leaving the customs union and single market then it seems there will necessarily have to be some kind of hard border,” said Federico Fabbrini, head of the recently formed Brexit Institute at Dublin City University.
That contradiction means that the border’s future status is unclear for now.
“Writing a Brexit update at this time is something of a fool’s errand. The landscape is constantly shifting and negotiations are tense and at a critical stage,” the Dublin office of Ernst & Young reported in December.
And with the final terms of the U.K’s exit from the E.U. a long way from being settled, there is a precarious and unpredictable tinge to political negotiations that is filtering down to day-to-day business along the frontier.
The main unionist leader in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, a close ally of British Prime Minister Theresa May, accused the E.U. and Ireland of “recklessly trying to use Northern Ireland for their own objectives,” suggesting that the Dublin government wants to use the Brexit crisis to corral Northern Ireland into an all-Ireland state, and that the E.U. aims to humiliate London by making Britain’s departure as onerous as possible.
But in a widely-welcomed move aimed at reducing tensions, last weekend Foster travelled south to Killarney in the Republic of Ireland to give a placatory speech in which she described Brexit, which her party supports, as not about “cutting ourselves [Northern Ireland] off” from the rest of the island, but about British people having “more control” over borders, laws and money.
That said, many of the 44% of Brexit voters in Northern Ireland, who likely back Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party and live in constituencies an hour’s drive or more from the Republic of Ireland, are less likely to worry about the imposition of a so-called “hard border.”
“They see such notions as ‘scaremongering’ from remainers, nationalists and the Irish government,” said Katy Hayward.
Such nonchalance does not extend to the towns close to the frontier, where, though there are not yet signs of localised political fallout from the Brexit negotiations, businesses appear reluctant to take any major decisions.
“From my perspective the current uncertainty as to what the border will look and function like and the broader Brexit economic uncertainty questions seem to negatively affect property market sentiment,” said William McFarland of Eadie, McFarland & Co., a real estate firm in Enniskillen.
A Northern Ireland market town about 10 miles from Belcoo, Enniskillen was site of one of worst atrocities of The Troubles — the widely-used euphemism for Northern Ireland’s conflict — a 1987 I.R.A bombing that killed 12 people.
“People in business and farming just don’t know what to expect and so at the minute are playing a waiting game,” said Frank McManus. “Will they have to set up a premises north of the border to facilitate cross-border and cross-channel trade and will those north of the border have to do likewise in the south?”
Nolan, the antiques shop owner in Blacklion, said that many of his customers were part of a “passing trade,” implying that stricter border controls would hurt that flow and his sales.
Still, he was hopeful that officials would find a solution, perhaps a technological one involving cameras and pre-clearance of certain goods to prevent delays if checkpoints are reinstated.
Across the bridge in Belcoo, McCann held the door to his grocery store as customers from both sides of the border came in and out. He was less confident about the future along the border. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” he said.Show