Monday 16 September 2019

Kathy Donaghy: 'Best Christmas gift would be Border remaining just a memory'

'In the days before Christmas, thousands of journeys will be made across the Border to stock up on everything from laptops to lager' (stock picture)
'In the days before Christmas, thousands of journeys will be made across the Border to stock up on everything from laptops to lager' (stock picture)

Kathy Donaghy

Amid fears of Brexit meltdown bringing with it a hard Border, Christmas shoppers are getting on with the immediate task at hand and focusing on gifts for under the tree and turkey for the table.

In the days before Christmas, thousands of journeys will be made across the Border to stock up on everything from laptops to lager.

On the Co Donegal-Co Derry Border where I live, there are nearly 327,000 traffic movements on three Border crossings alone every single week. At this time of year these journey numbers will increase significantly.

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Already at the Border village of Muff, traffic is moving at a snail's pace at certain times of the day as shoppers descend on Derry city. Looking out of the window from where I sit writing this piece, the steady hum of cars heading into the city 19km away continues without let-up.

The same pattern is replicated at other Border crossings between the Irish Republic and the North, with queues heading into big shopping towns such as Newry, Co Down, from as far away as Dublin.

Since the Brexit referendum, the sterling- euro rate has been very attractive for consumers looking northwards. Before the referendum one euro would get you 76p, today it will get you 88p. Lured by the competitive rate, people will stream across the Border in their droves to shop.

Historically the flow of traffic northwards always increases at Christmas when shoppers fill up the boots of their cars, making big savings on alcohol and other items such as nappies. Scenes at the Buttercrane Shopping Centre in Newry, where cars join long lines just to begin to queue for parking spaces, are common.

And while for some people crossing the Border might be a festive tradition - right up there with turkey and ham, and mince pies - for others it's a daily reality. These are not just trips to the shops. Here in Inishowen, the very fabric of our lives is stitched up with Derry, which lies on our doorstep. The city's fortunes are our own. We are its hinterland. Our binds are familial, economical and recreational and they run deep. For decades the security delays at the Border held back much of the interaction we now enjoy. In all the debate about the Border and Brexit, about freedom of movement of goods, exports and trucks, perhaps what gets forgotten is the lives being lived on a daily basis and the effect that any impediment to crossing a Border would have.

Trips to schools, colleges, places of work or recreation, visits to grandparents, are all done without a thought to any obstacles to making the journey freely and easily.

As I watch the stream of cars heading into Derry city, I'm transported back to the Christmases of my childhood. I recall sitting looking at tail-lights of cars on Christmas Eve battling to get home from the last-minute run around Derry with my mother. It could take a while to get through the army checkpoint at Culmore, where soldiers and policemen were stationed. I remember their attempts to make it festive by offering gold coin chocolates to the kids in cars being stopped.

Those days are long gone. But it still amazes me that we can just drive through now. Children growing up now have no sense of the stops and starts, of the queues or the questions asked as you crossed.

While we won't go back to the dark days of the Troubles and military installations, any step to hinder the ebb and flow of daily life would be a backward one. It is unthinkable that it could be foisted upon us.

Christmas present is dominated by the latest twists and turns in the tale of Brexit. Where it ends is anyone's guess. This Westminster political pantomime is full of intrigue, guileless characters beyond caricature and others blindly self-interested.

But memories are long and we know the price of a hard Brexit would be a heavy one. We can only wish for a future unfettered by any kind of Border, one where our freedoms are not curtailed. The comfort of knowing that everything is not about to change would be a gift worth cherishing this Christmas.

Irish Independent

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