The Hard Presence of a Hard Brexit

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Mount Cuilcagh border
The Hard Presence Of A Hard Brexit. Mount Cuilcagh border

In Northern Ireland, many fear for peace when the No Deal comes. Violence has deeply ingrained itself in the psyche of society. Visit along the border

For local politician Geraldine McAteer, it was inconceivable as a young person to be able to overcome borders easily. She grew up in West Belfast, on Falls Road, a Catholic neighborhood. In the sixties and seventies, Falls Road was something like the epicenter of the Northern Ireland Civil War, called troubles. “For the British army, all of West Belfast was a terrorist nest. We lived as if we cut off and organized our own lives. There were no regular external contacts,” recalls the Belfast woman. Today she got two children. “Today they belong to the Easyjet generation. That is great happiness. They can fly to other countries just like that.”

Different from her youth: repression, fear, violence, death – these were the constant companions in the life of Geraldine McAteer. A seemingly never-ending cycle of violence had seized the country. He spared no one, neither Catholics nor Protestants, for almost thirty years. It was not until 1994 that a ceasefire was finally agreed, and in 1998 Great Britain and Ireland signed the so-called Good Friday Agreement. The Irish and Northern Irish people approved the agreement in a referendum. “It still looks like a miracle to me today. I could not have imagined that it was possible,” says McAteer, a member of Belfast City Council for the Irish republican party Sinn Fein. After 1998, there were isolated acts of violence, but peace was maintained – also thanks to the European Union.

The Union’s peacemaking power should develop in Northern Ireland. So a massive amount of money went into the region to help it out of its economic misery. This was achieved with some success. Belfast, for example, has become a popular destination for tourists and investors alike. The Northern Irish and Irish economies have been fruitfully interwoven in recent decades. “We are delighted with this development,” says McAteer, “but now we are very worried.” If there is a Brexit without an agreement, there will be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The mere thought of it is a source of great fear here.

It may seem irrational to many Europeans on the continent. Why should the reintroduction of the border automatically lead to the return of violence?

Like a disoriented snake

If you want to understand the fears of the people here, you have to drive to the border and visit them. It is not so easy for a stranger to find out exactly where the border runs without knowing the exact location. On the one hand, it has de facto disappeared since 1998, on the other hand, it was never drawn clean and clear during the division in 1920. It winds through the landscape like a lost, disoriented snake. This is also a consequence of the geographical, social and economic realities of the region. On Mount Cuilcagh, for example, where the border reaches its highest point, flocks of sheep from the north and south have always mixed. Customs officers have never been able to work here. There are many places like Cuilagh on the 500 km long border. In 1923 Lady Lillian Spender wrote in her diary during her journey along the then freshly drawn border: “In the west, the wonderful blue mountains of Donegal rise up, cut off from us (…) it creates a painful feeling to see a land so unnaturally divided without taking into account the geographical conditions. It is as if one had divided a living body in two!

This living body, however, always remained connected in many ways. Along the border, there are more than 300 crossings, 125 of which are separate paths. Peadar Carpenter of the Irish Foreign Ministry has worked for many years on border issues. Now he stands here, in Killen-Ravensdale, in a rural landscape, on a narrow road from which a watercourse branches off. “There, you see, there runs the border,” he points with his hand at the stream and then further over the green hills, which are dotted with farms, crossed by stone walls and animated by grazing sheep. “The British army tried to block this road during the troubles. They first erected concrete blocks. The people cleared them away at night. They rammed stakes into the ground. The people cleared them up,” Carpenter says, “At some point the British army gave up! It retreated to the heights, from where it tried to keep the area under control and prevent the entry of fighters from the Irish Underground Army (IRA). This did not always succeed. A few kilometers from this point, on the banks of the Newry River, there was an ambush in 1979 that would go down in Northern Ireland’s history as the Warrenpoint massacre. IRA fighters ambushed 18 British soldiers – the most severe loss to the British army during the civil war.

All a long time ago, of course. But violence has deeply ingrained itself in the psyche of Northern Irish society. A total of 3,400 people lost their lives during this time, about 40,000 were injured. Carpenter makes a rough calculation: “Northern Ireland has about 1.8 million inhabitants. Germany has 82 million. That is almost sixty times as much. That would be as if the German population had lost over 200,000 people in internal conflicts and 2.4 million injured.” Every fourth inhabitant of Northern Ireland witnessed an act of violence. There is not a single-family here that has not been affected by violence. Everyone has their memories, and they are still alive, even 21 years after the peace treaty was signed.

It is sometimes inscribed in the landscape. Less than twenty kilometers from Warrenpoint is the village of Whitecross. Near the village, IRA fighters shot ten Protestant workers on their way home on January 5, 1976. The massacre was the bloody response to the murder of six Catholics the night before. Today a memorial commemorates the Kingsmill massacre. On a large stone slab, it says: “God hates those who shed innocent blood.” A few hundred meters away, at a crossroads, a large billboard reads: “No hard border! The slogan works like a warning of upcoming violence.

The omnipresent memories of the troubles are one thing, the other are the economic consequences of a hard border. A few figures can illustrate this. Around 110 million people cross the border every year in both directions, 66,000 cars and 13,500 trucks a day. There are products that cross the border ten times for processing before they come onto the market. Northern Ireland and Ireland have become increasingly interlinked over the last two decades. Following the British decisiveness to leave the Union in June 2016, several industries have tried to prepare for it, although they still do not know exactly what to do. Will there be a hard line? Or will everything remain the same after Britain’s departure? Joe Healy, Chairman of the British Farmers’ Association, says: “In recent years we have opened up new markets for ourselves, such as China. Last year we exported 3,000 tonnes of meat. That is a considerable increase. But what can I tell you? We export 269,000 tonnes of meat to the UK.” And then it becomes very clear: “The Irish meat industry will not survive a hard border.”

Now agriculture is not the most important economic sector in Northern Ireland. But there are 130,000 farmers and, according to Healy, 300,000 jobs directly or indirectly depend on agriculture. “Ireland has 4.9 million inhabitants,” he says, “but we produce food for 35 to 40 million people. If the Irish food industry were to collapse, it would mainly affect the rather low-skilled workers in agriculture and the meat processing industry. A study by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions confirms the risks of a hard recession for the labor-intensive sectors of the economy: “Agriculture, construction, retail, mechanical engineering, and aviation will be hard hit. The consequences of a hard exit will be felt mainly in rural areas,” it says. The union expects unemployment in Ireland to rise from five to seven percent. According to various estimates, Northern Ireland is expected to lose almost 40,000 jobs. Patricia King, Chair of the Irish Congress, also makes it clear that a tough Brexit would be a blatant violation of the Good Friday Agreement. The parties have committed themselves “not to do anything that undermines the economic and social fabric of Northern Ireland”. This commitment was attained in the knowledge that a deterioration in the economic situation could lead to the political radicalization of the population.

Massive amount of jobs could be lost

Of course, not all sectors would be equally affected by a hard Brexit; the banking sector, for example, is expecting additional jobs. But they would be created in the capital Dublin. But if the weaker sections of the workforce are hit at the same time, the already high social inequality in Ireland could worsen further. A recently completed study by the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce shows how flexibly at least part of the economy reacts to difficulties. According to this study, “up to 55 percent of the products coming from Great Britain could be replaced by imports from Germany”. The astonishing conclusion: “Products from the EU probably will replace most products from the UK. This would greatly limit the negative consequences of a Brexit.” Companies have long since started to calculate new import routes. And look who’s bypassing Great Britain gets away cheaper. Anyone who brings a container from the continent to Ireland via the traditional way via Great Britain has to fork out around 2,500 euros. Anyone who sends a box directly to an Irish port via the Dutch port of Rotterdam has to fork out 1,500 euros.

From this very pragmatic point of view, Brexit could even offer opportunities. But the Brexit is much more than just an event with economic consequences for the All-Island-Economy, as the Irish-Northern Irish economy is called. It is a historical break in the already difficult relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. And they were on the right track. In 2011, the British Queen visited the Republic of Ireland. “This was the culmination of the reconciliation process after centuries of difficulties,” says Bobby McDonagh, Ambassador of the Republic of Ireland to London from 2009 to 2013, “but the Brexit catapulted Ireland and Britain into two different orbits. The Irish have devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the European project, the British have said goodbye to it”. Where do we want to go? What goal do you want to achieve? Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have opposed answers. How the two countries, which will remain united by the burden of history, can shape their future in the face of this fact is an entirely open question.

The ghosts of the past are already moving, at least in the minds of many people. Geraldine McAteer, Belfast City Councillor, says: “When I was little, my parents told me that my grandfather had been detained by the British in the 1940s. The tales from a century-long past seemed to me – and a few years later I have interned myself.” What seemed so far away was suddenly for Geraldine McAteer, a vivacious, tough present.