Damian McGenity looks out from his hilltop farm across a valley of chessboard fields in County Armagh in Northern Ireland??????s south.?? He fears Ireland??????s peace agreement is threatened by a ??????hard?????? Brexit. Photo: Nick MillerDamian McGenity looks out from his hilltop farm across a picture-perfect valley of chessboard fields, glowing peacefully under the gentle spring sun, deployed with dozing cattle.
“This was a war zone,” he says.
And he fears the war might come again. He fears Ireland’s peace agreement is threatened by a “hard” Brexit.
A line is about to be redrawn on a map, and he believes it will be redrawn in minds, too – accompanied by economic devastation for Northern Ireland’s farming-dependent border communities.
McGenity, 43, a cattle farmer, has lived his whole life in the little village of Dromintee in County Armagh in Northern Ireland’s south, literally overlooking the border.
He was 19 when the IRA agreed to a ceasefire in 1994.
“I grew up in it,” he says. “Conflict raged where you’re sitting.”
We’re sitting in the sun at a wooden table outside the home where he, his wife and four young children live. He’s taking a lunch break from planting strawberries on his day off.
“If we were sitting here in the mid-’80s, there were three to five helicopters in the air, 24/7. There were random army foot patrols, there were 5000 British army personnel in South Armagh alone. It was a war zone.
“It was very difficult. It was a very risky part of the world to live in.”
Just down the road is a pub where, in 1977, a British army captain, posing as an itinerant musician to try to collect intelligence, was abducted and killed by the IRA.
It was one of many violent deaths, from car bombs, land mines to shootings, in this region during the Troubles.
McGenity gestures over the valley to a looming bare-topped, brown hill where, he says, a huge British military installation used to sit, closely monitoring movement across the border on the highway below for potential IRA traffic.
Now people don’t even notice when they’ve crossed the border – or they wouldn’t if it weren’t for the notices that McGenity’s group, Border Communities Against Brexit, have just posted on border roads to try to generate greater awareness of the problems to come.
He crosses into the south almost every day – for fuel or farm supplies, visiting friends, a football match. The quickest route to several nearby Northern Ireland towns crosses the border twice, even four times.
His wife crosses it for work – she has a job as a water scientist in Monaghan, one of tens of thousands who now live on the opposite side of the border from their workplace.
“It’s just something you do,” he says. “For us to contemplate a ‘hard’ border, we can’t even get our minds around it. We really can’t. The damage it will do, economically it will be a catastrophe, but even socially.”
They’re picturing long border queues, car searches, customs administration. They’re wondering about tariffs on their farm produce that would make it impossible to sell at profit outside the UK, and whether their farm would even be viable without the EU’s agricultural subsidies.
They’re wondering if the tourist trade into the region will evaporate – 80 per cent of tourism in Northern Ireland originates in the Republic.
“It’s all negative. There’s no positives from this.”
Last weekend, the EU published its negotiating guidelines for Brexit, setting out the process and priorities for the fraught battle to come.
Ireland was prominent among them. The benefits of the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, “remain of paramount importance”.
“Flexible and imaginative solutions will be required ??? with the aim of avoiding a hard border while respecting the integrity of the [European] Union,” the document said.
The hopeful phrasing was an echo of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge earlier this year, in her major Brexit speech, that “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution”.
That solution would “allow the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the UK’s immigration system”, she said.
Her government’s White Paper acknowledged that the ability to move freely across the border was an essential part of daily life, and “when the UK leaves the EU we aim to have as seamless and frictionless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland, so that we can continue to see the trade and everyday movements we have seen up to now”.
But if you spotted the weasel words and evasions, you’re not the only one. There is a lot of talk of priorities, aims and a hypothetical solution. There is not much clue as to what that solution might be – how it is even possible to implement new customs and immigration rules without new barriers.
The UK government has acknowledged the biggest message from the Brexit referendum was control over immigration. It has pledged to leave the single market, and probably the customs union. An unpoliced, wide open land border with the EU after Brexit would be a smuggler’s wonderland.
The alternative hard consequence is already being planned. Ireland’s transport department is looking at the M1 highway from Dublin to Belfast and writing contingency plans for lay-bys and customs stops, modelled on posts at the EU’s other land borders in the east.
They, like others, appear cynical that a soft border rabbit lurks in the hard Brexit hat.
“I’ve done this myself, when you say you’re going to come up with an incredibly innovative solution, it often is playing for time and hoping for the best,” Professor John Garry, a politics expert from Queens University in Belfast, says.
“The border issue in Northern Ireland is not only tied up with Brexit; it’s tied up with ongoing issues and discussions and debate between unionists and nationalists anyway. We kind of had thought the border issue was settled.”
Once the current invisible line becomes an external border of the EU, it will play more than just a symbolic role.
“Do you want to organise it for free movement of people, or for customs [checks] for goods or for security matters?” Garry asks.
There is a lot of confusion about this at the moment, he says.
“Anyone who tells you they know what’s going on – be sceptical. A lot of people are going about scratching their heads as to how this is going to play out ??? The really big potential problem is if you have a physical manifestation of a border to do any of those things, some check of persons, opening the boot of your car to see what’s in it, that’s likely to annoy a fair amount of people.”
Northern Ireland’s Catholics voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and would most likely feel more of an isolated minority after Brexit.
McGenity puts it like this: Europe allowed an “open society”. The disappearance, for all practical purposes, of the border between north and south changed people’s mindsets. The Good Friday Agreement made everyone EU citizens, free to travel.
“Before, we were almost hemmed in, if not physically, then psychologically,” he says.
“For a hard border to be constructed, a physical one, it will also be constructed very much in people’s minds. It could cause enormous resentment.”
There are still elements around who would like that to happen, he warns.
“The dissident republicans are a spent force ??? to all intents and purposes they’re an irrelevance. My real fear is that a hard border would give them relevance. It would give them a focal point, it would give them a target and it would allow them to say that Ireland has been partitioned.
“When you add the economic consequences of a hard Brexit, negative consequences, into that mix you have a pot that will fester. My fear is that those people who wish to return to violence – it would be a magnet for them.
“I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Garry, the Queens University professor, says one solution could be stricter border elements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
“If one wanted to keep the north-south border as free as possible, then what that means is that anyone in the south of Ireland could wander up to the north ??? in many people’s minds the whole point of leaving the EU was that you wouldn’t be able to do that,” he says.
“So you’d have to impose some kind of strict-ish checks between east-west, if you’re travelling from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK.”
But that would annoy a whole other segment of the population – the Protestant unionist community who don’t want Northern Ireland to be separated in a clear way from the rest of the UK.
“One of the challenges of the border question is not only how hard or soft it’s going to be but where it’s going to be and who it’s going to annoy,” Garry says.
It could even end up with a mixture of both – north-south could be hard for security, and east-west hard for customs.
“That would annoy everyone,” Garry says.
On the weekend the EU provocatively pointed out another solution. In the minutes of its meeting, after lobbying from Dublin, it noted that Northern Ireland would automatically return to being part of the EU if it voted – as anticipated under the Good Friday Agreement – to reunite with the rest of the island.
Garry says this is a remote chance that would require a huge change in public opinion in the north – but one effect of Brexit could be to start pushing sentiment in that direction.
“It was simply a statement of the obvious, in a way, a logical necessity that Northern Ireland would have East Germany status,” he says.
Others have seen it as more than just a legal note. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams viewed it as a step on the pathway towards a referendum on Irish unity.
“The government needs to discuss with our EU partners how all of Ireland can remain members of the Single Market and the Common Travel area,” he said in a statement.
Sinn Fein wants a “special status” for the North – within the EU – after Brexit, and has promised a “diplomatic offensive to bring it about”.
Former Irish diplomat Ray Bassett has a provocative, opposite suggestion. Rather than move the EU border into the Irish Sea, he asks why not push it down to the English Channel?
“We have a choice in Ireland: do we go with the other 26 countries in the EU or do we decide that our interest with the UK is greater than with the other 26? In my view, it is greater. The disruption of our going with the other 26 and breaking ties with Britain would be more injurious, more damaging in the end than if we maintained a customs union with the UK and negotiated trade with the other 26.”
He has a point. Brexit is going to hurt Ireland, a lot.
On Thursday, Ireland’s central bank chief economist told an Irish parliamentary committee that Ireland would be the hardest hit by Brexit of any remaining EU country.
A “hard” Brexit would slash 3 per cent from the country’s GDP and kill 40,000 jobs over 10 years, Gabriel Fagan said, though there were possible opportunities in the shift of financial services out of the City of London.
Bassett points out that 80 per cent of all Irish exports go through the UK transport system – even if they’re on their way to the rest of the world.
And small and medium enterprises away from the affluent Dublin belt trade much more with the UK than do the new foreign investment industries in the capital.
“So you’re affecting rural viability as well ??? huge damage can be done to the country with [the UK under] WTO most favoured nation status. Our biggest export to the UK is very much food. They’re taking billions worth of agricultural goods. If WTO barriers come down, there could be up to 50 per cent tariffs into the UK and that will kill that trade.
“If you can’t facilitate the Irish:British relationship then maybe we would be better off as an associate of the EU, something like Norway or Iceland, very closely linked to the EU but not members.”
There has been a political decision to stick with Brussels, so no one has looked at the benefits of the alternative, Bassett says – and this was a mistake. He believes Ireland should defy the EU and negotiate with the UK separately.
“Clearly there are people in Brussels who don’t want Brexit to be a success. From Ireland’s point of view we have a huge interest in Brexit being a success. If you punish Britain you punish Ireland, it’s as simple as that.”
And he agrees there is more than just an economic danger to hardening the border with the north.
He was one of the Irish government’s negotiators on the Good Friday Agreement, so he’s familiar with the old tensions, and worries they could return.
“If you put [the border] back, even the most moderate in Northern Ireland would be affronted and it would lead to difficulties. I don’t know how big the difficulties would be – but the former chief constable for Northern Ireland says it would embolden dissidents.”
There would also be a “huge amount” of smuggling, he said, which would lead to very unpopular counter-measures.
“It certainly endangers the peace process,” he says.