Sunday 20 October 2019

Father Brian D'Arcy on Brexit: 'The hard-won peace and lifestyle we fought for is in danger of collapsing'

BORDER: no deal will bring us back to terrifying time

Fr Brian D'Arcy, met up with John Sheridan, a beef and sheep farmer, with 1,150 acres to farm on the Co Fermanagh,& Cavan Border.
Fr Brian D'Arcy, met up with John Sheridan, a beef and sheep farmer, with 1,150 acres to farm on the Co Fermanagh,& Cavan Border.

The booby trap bomb on the border last weekend is a stark reminder of how things were in the past and, even more tragically, how things will be in the future if a no-deal Brexit happens.

I was reared near the Fermanagh/Cavan border. I've been negotiating borders from a young age. Borders divide people and, pointedly, borders challenge people to destroy them.

The Border influenced every part of my young life.

On Saturdays it was 'normal' for us to cycle to Swanlinbar or Blacklion to smuggle whatever was cheaper or more available in the Republic. The border was controlled by customs officers who worked out of two wooden huts on the road - one for the North and another for the South.

The Northern Ireland customs men were more likely to stop and search us on our way back from smuggling.

My parents took smuggling for granted. Everyone with a car or a bicycle did it. Before I set out to cross the border, I was given a few pounds, a shopping bag and a list - get sugar, butter, jams and Sweet Afton cigarettes for my father.

We saved only a few pence at most but it was a question of principle.


Professional smugglers made better use of the border. For them it was a way of life. Borders were controllable on roads, but it was impossible to patrol fields. Cows and sheep don't recognise borders.

When I got to know which back road to take and which field to cross, smuggling became easy. I was never caught, probably because the customs men on both sides knew it was an economic necessity for border families.

We were small fry. We never believed Cavan and Fermanagh were in different countries.

Then in the late 1950s someone put a bomb under the northern customs hut near the Cavan border and blew it to smithereens.

That changed everything. Now, serious men in uniforms and with guns, known as the B-Specials, began to patrol the roads. They were our neighbours and we knew them all.

Yet they had the guns and we became frightened, angry nobodies. Men who lived beside us for a lifetime, on dark nights waved their red lights to stop us -just because they could. They knew who we were but they still insisted we tell them our names and our business.

That's what happens when borders come into being. The physical borders might disappear in time but the borders of mind endure. It will happen again with Brexit because there is no practical way to avoid manned borders. I fear for the future.

Borders bring division and division begets violence. Borders have to be guarded.

Freedom to travel and to trade, of necessity, will have to be curtailed. The hard-won peace, the lifestyle we fought for and negotiated, is in danger of collapsing.

Car bombs, like last weekend, will come back to haunt us. That's what happens when we allow meaningless borders to divide us.

John Sheridan has farmed on the Fermanagh/Cavan border all his life - just a few miles away from where I was raised.

While we came from different religious traditions, we have always shared the same outlook and values in life. We got to know each other very well during the days of the Peace Movement.

John raised his family on a hill farm which actually forms part of the border's frontier.

There have been tough times both politically and economically over the years, yet the Sheridan family, like their neighbours, survived. The prospect of a no-deal Brexit, however, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.


"The divisiveness of Brexit is terrifying," he told me with a palpable sadness in his voice. "It will divide everyone and everything, everywhere around here."

John knows how treacherous life was when the B order divided not just the land, but the people too. Like so many others, he knows there is a real prospect that a lifetime's work overcoming prejudice and difference could be lost forever on October 31.

"Europe has trade agreements with 78 different countries, how can Britain find a market for our products? Businesses and farmers are convinced that the backstop agreement on the table could have made Northern Ireland the Singapore of the West. Why do they want to throw it all away?

"I just see a no-deal Brexit as rendering our farming business as useless. And it will do the same to the Good Friday agreement. It divides every aspect of our lives. It is divisive for families, businesses and communities. It affects every aspect of community life."

John has been coherently arguing the case for a soft Brexit so long that he repeats well-rehearsed facts eloquently.

"It could drain £11 billion from our economy - more than the real cost of Britain's contribution to the EU.

"The delicate peace here in Ireland was hard won and is maintained by generous grant-aids to Northern Ireland from Europe and from the United States. Now the hard Brexiteers are willing to throw it all on a bonfire.

"How can we maintain the peace? How can we replace that massive injection into our economy?"

The Sheridans are sheep farmers. John sees no way of surviving.

"Forty-five to fifty per cent of our lambs go the Republic now. After Brexit there could be a £42 per head tariff on each lamb. Over thirty-five per cent of our milk heads south from here. There's talk of a 25 cent tariff on each litre. The milk is processed in the South and sold back to British markets. Another tariff will be imposed on the processed milk. We cannot survive."

He says 18 million breeding ewes go from Britain to Europe now. It's blindingly obvious that market cannot be replaced. No wonder he sees a depressing future for ordinary people in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic.


"Take chickens; forty per cent of brown chicken meat goes to Europe. Where will it go now? Then we have the prospect of cheap chlorinated American chicken coming here. Has anyone asked why they have to chlorinate their chicken? What happens in production that they feel the need to chlorinate it?"

The perilous future for John and other farmers on the border results from a loss of payments from the EU and the loss of markets for their produce. It's the perfect storm.

It's even worse for other industries, especially the pharmaceutical industry, where more than five thousand jobs are at risk already.

No wonder John Sheridan believes that the prospect of Brexit is terrifying. He knows in practical terms just how dangerously divisive it will be.


Irish Independent

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