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Thursday 19 September 2019

Brexit and Boris: Border people face 'bumps on the road'

Boris Johnson's 'bumps' may turn out to be more like boulders as he grapples with Brexit. As chaos unfolded in London, Kim Bielenberg met border people whose lives may be turned upside down

Dividing line: Garage owner Eamon Fitzpatrick stands on the border which divides the land on the forecourt. Picture by Gerry Mooney
Dividing line: Garage owner Eamon Fitzpatrick stands on the border which divides the land on the forecourt. Picture by Gerry Mooney
Party squabbles: Boris Johnson
Clones newsagent Eamon McCaughey. Picture by Gerry Mooney
SuperValu shop owner Bernard McNally. Picture by Gerry Mooney
Local historian George Knight at the Border outside Clones which previously was closed off. Picture by Gerry Mooney
Clones cafe owner Jessica Knight. Photo by Gerry Mooney

If Boris Johnson ever wants to gain an understanding of what his plan for Brexit really means, he should take a drive along a short stretch of road through the undulating borderlands of Monaghan, Fermanagh and Cavan.

Driving from Clones in Co Monaghan towards Cavan, on an 11km stretch of road, the motorist trying to keep an eye on the Border becomes almost dizzy as they criss-cross the frontier.

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On a Wednesday afternoon this week, as the Tory party ripped itself apart over Brexit and news came through of the latest eye-watering shenanigans, I crossed over from Monaghan to Fermanagh at the old Ulster Canal aqueduct - a road once spiked by the British army so that cars could not pass.

I barely had time to blink in the United Kingdom, before I had passed into the Republic again. I was travelling in an out of Brexitland faster than you'd say "backstop to the Irish backstop".

Party squabbles: Boris Johnson
Party squabbles: Boris Johnson

My mobile phone was pinging with warning messages from my mobile phone company that I was roaming in and out of Queen Elizabeth's disunited kingdom.

I traversed the Border another two times with my mobile phone pinging again before finally crossing the line into the Republic near a filling station selling fuel, and promising Halloween fireworks to banger-free southerners. This is a world entirely alien to such Tory luminaries as the reclining figure of Jacob Rees-Mogg; who one imagines devotes less attention to the plight of the Border people than he would to a beloved teddy bear or his former nanny.

On a nine-minute journey, I had crossed the Border four times.

***

It is hard to envisage how any kind of meaningful border could be reconstructed on a road populated with school buses, parents dropping their children to crèche, and elderly farmers wandering into town for a loaf of bread, or transferring cattle from one jurisdiction to another - that is one field to another.

In these parts, shoppers keep two wallets - one for euro and one for sterling, which doesn't buy you much these days - and they probably have a keener grasp of maths than citizens south of the border region.

Clones newsagent Eamon McCaughey. Picture by Gerry Mooney
Clones newsagent Eamon McCaughey. Picture by Gerry Mooney

Bernard McNally, owner of the SuperValu in Clones, tells me: "People up here can calculate exchange rates faster than the Central Bank.

"Up here, they talk about the exchange like a Kilkenny man talks about hurling.

"It doesn't surprise me that Monaghan has the highest percentage of entrepreneurs in the country," says McNally, who originally comes from Dublin. "They are quirky and resilient. They have to keep thinking and adapting to what is happening around them."

McNally has two favourite apps on his phone: one shows him the sterling exchange rate, and the other the weather. Both of these factors can determine how many customers he has in a day.

Hopes and fears rise and fall over Brexit like the up and down path of a Monaghan drumlin road. On the streets of Clones this week, they were keeping a close eye on what was happening in Westminster as despair over the prospect of a no-deal gave way to a faint hope that this would be prevented as a result of the prime minister's parliamentary defeats.

There is a sense in the borderlands of Monaghan and Fermanagh that the Conservative Party politicians are clueless about the practicalities of everyday life on roads that once had military checkpoints, watchtowers and customs posts.

Liam Strain, a local vet who crosses the Border up to 50 times in a day, conjures up the absurdity of what might happen if the UK government and the EU could not strike a deal.

He said he received notification that dog owners wanting to bring their mutts across the Border would have to have rabies vaccinations and tests done four months in advance. Was this supposed to apply to the farmer going into the village for a pint of milk with a sheepdog in the back of the car?

The vet scoffs at the very notion: "How could they possibly regulate that by technology - or through trusted-trader schemes? It's completely nonsensical."

Boris Johnson admitted there will be "bumps on the road" if there is a no-deal Brexit, a prospect that may have dimmed somewhat during the week.

Business dried up

To Boris and his acolytes, the idea of bumps in the road may mean trade blockages, meandering negotiations and more party squabbles, but in the borderlands there are fears that the bumps have a literal meaning. The bumps could be more like boulders

Showing me a now invisible line that is the Border between North and South at the Ulster Canal aqueduct, the local historian and former merchant seaman George Knight tells me that Clones is a town that was almost killed by bumps in the road.

In its heyday, the town was surrounded by roads that led into Fermanagh, and had thriving businesses serving a mixed population of Catholics and Protestants, from North and South.

But gradually after partition, and during the Troubles, the roads leading into the North were blocked and the town was almost suffocated - cut off dramatically from its hinterland.

Once thriving shops closed, as Fermanagh people were physically barred from coming.

On the only main road that remained open, motorists did not want the hassle of going through a checkpoint and having machine guns pointed at them. So, the free flow of people stopped and business dried up.

Neighbours, divided by steel girders across roads, lost touch with each other, but since the Good Friday Agreement, their sons and daughters have got to know each other again.

***

George Knight remembers the British soldiers putting up the barriers when he was a boy; he found the sight of real weapons as exciting as a cowboy movie

"I used to cycle through the blocks on the road to get to school.

"We have got used to having no border here and we can come and go as we please. It would be difficult to go back to how things were 20 or 30 years ago.

"Everybody who remembers that time had bad experiences of checkpoints. You never knew if your car would be picked out and torn asunder."

The Troubles impinged on the lives of Clones people such as George. "There was a girl who had been in my class at school and she was the girlfriend of an RUC man," he recalls. "He was gunned down outside the town just after visiting her."

It was just one of many local incidents.

George Knight's two daughters, Jessica and Tori, recently opened a café in the town.

Jessica is fortunate to have come of age during a period when Clones was reunited with its hinterland, but she still worries about the uncertainty of Brexit. For her, the main concern is the practicality of doing business.

"All our coffee for the café comes from Belfast," she says. "Now we don't even know if we will have to pay a tariff."

Tánaiste Simon Coveney this week warned that if there is a no-deal Brexit, checks on the southern side of the Border on goods coming in from the North will be required. The Government will enter negotiations directly with the European Commission about where to place these checks.

One can only wish good luck to the Irish, EU and UK officials given the task of deciding where these customs checks take place, if indeed they ever take place at all.

The latest official estimates show that there are 95 Border crossings in Monaghan, 59 in Donegal, 33 in Louth, 15 in Cavan and six in Leitrim. They range from heavily trafficked highways such as the M1 motorway to Belfast to unknown boreens used by only a handful of people.

Crossings may have been blocked or fortified during the Troubles, but even the might of the British army found the frontier impossible to police.

***

The writer and former newspaper editor Darach MacDonald grew up along the Monaghan-Fermanagh border.

One of his earliest memories as a toddler was of steel girders being driven into roads along the Border. One of these "spiked'' roads cut off the farm of Darach's uncle, the writer Eugene McCabe, from the town.

One of the talents of local people seems to be an ability to get around any barrier placed in their path.

MacDonald recalls how his uncle Eugene devised a way of getting into Clones. He built a small, secret link road through the corner of a field and called it the Khyber Pass. The road survives, ready to be used after Brexit if the need arises.

In this area, there is a whole folklore built around smuggling, a once thriving border business that is likely to be enhanced if customs duties lead to sharper differentials in prices. MacDonald says that anywhere there are customs posts and duties, there will be smuggling. As the former Northern Ireland minister Lord Gowrie put it: "The Border is an economic nonsense; anyone with initiative can laugh all the way to the bank."

Going back decades, there are stories of women feigning pregnancy as they crossed the Border with their coats stuffed with contraband butter.

In his book Hard Border, MacDonald recalled a woman being challenged by a customs man on a train.

"You're very big, what have you got in there?" asked the officer

"Come back in three months and I'll tell you," she replied.

Sense of unease

In Matthew's newsagents on the Diamond in the centre of the town, there is a bustling trade, as customers pick up lottery tickets and schoolchildren wander in to buy their copybooks.

The owner Eamon McCaughey says Clones is a town that has got back on its feet since the end of the Troubles, and he would hate to see the atmosphere change back to what it was before.

"It's scary around here at the moment with all the chaos in London," says Eamon.

A recent bomb explosion at Wattle Bridge across the Border in Fermanagh has added to the sense of unease. "What I don't like is that we are not being told by either government what is going to happen," says Eamon.

"We still don't have a clue even three years after the Brexit vote. There's no real leadership telling us what they are doing.

"My fear is about what happens to the community, especially when we have come so far."

Eamon Fitzpatrick, who runs a petrol station with the Border running through the middle, is a little more hopeful about the future.

Customers fill up their tanks in the South, and pay for the petrol in the North.

With a foot in both jurisdictions, Fitzpatrick says: "You can't really trust the English, but I would be optimistic that there will be a deal. There is no way that anyone wants to go back to the Border as it was."

In Britain, the Troubles and the plight of the Border people hardly registered in the debates before the Brexit referendum.

The UK government may not be paying attention to the detail of how traffic will be kept flowing between North and South.

But the border people have their eye on Boris Johnson and the farcical goings-on in Westminster.

And they do not forget what happened around them in the past. As Eugene McCabe once put it: "To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before."

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