Aoife, Paraic and Neil McGenity are pictured with the 'wall' erected on the old Dublin road to Newry last weekend as part of a BCAB protest
Brexit. It is the word on everyone's lips at the moment and, as we go to press the storm surrounding Britain's exit from the EU is set to grow with British MPs aiming to 'take back control of Brexit' with a number of amendments up for discussion before the House of Commons.
The irony is that, even though these discussions are being carried out in London, the impact of decisions made in Westminster will be felt throughout Ireland, and most particularly in the border region.
One of the biggest challenges has been the actual lack of dialogue around the Brexit issue. Oh, there has been plenty of talk. Plenty of accusations and posturing, but realistically, little has been achieved in the two years since Article 50 was triggered, starting the process of Britain's withdrawal from the EU.
Last Saturday, Border Communities Against Brexit (BCAB) a cross border, cross community organisation which seeks to protect people from the negative impact of Brexit, organised a 'wall' protest to highlight fears over a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
BCAB held the protest on the old Dublin Road between Dundalk and Newry on January 26, erecting a temporary concrete wall to show just what a no-deal Brexit could mean for this island if a Brexit withdrawal agreement is not reached by March 29.
Spokesperson for the group, JJ O'Hara, who lives in North Leitrim, points out that there is real fear along the border that we will see a return to customs posts and armed crossings.
“We heard that gardai received texts (last week) looking for people to volunteer to work along the border”
“There are 277 border crossings from the South into the North,” he said. “We don't want to see a hard border back here after March 29”.
He points out that, despite assurances that some sort of agreement could still be reached, moves are already underway to prepare for a hard border.
“We heard that gardai received texts (last week) looking for people to volunteer to work along the border,” said JJ.
“The Irish Government is stating there will be no hard border and yet they are putting plans in place for one. 400 new customs officers are being recruited by Revenue and that is just the start,” he said.
“We hear so much from the UK government, so much from the Irish government and from the EU on Brexit. They all have something to say, but the real situation on the ground here along the border, our story is not being heard.”
And what is that story? JJ points out the impact of a no-deal Brexit on this island is critical and will be far more devastating than what other parts of the UK will experience.
“What about the farmer in Kiltyclogher who has land on both sides of the border and wants to feed them with a round bale?"
“If no deal is reached and no extension is sought by the UK government, then we will wake up on March 30 and there will a hard border. There is no way around that. What will that mean for people living along the border? “What about the farmer in Kiltyclogher who has land on both sides of the border and wants to feed them with a round bale? Will he have to drive miles and miles to do this after March 29?” he asked.
BCAB has been working tirelessly behind the scenes for the last 18 months to try and protect communities both sides of the border.
“We are a group with both Nationalists and Unionists. We have business people and ordinary people, people from all backgrounds and we are working together because we don't want to see a hard border back here on this island. We don't want to see a noose back around the neck of the island of Ireland,” said JJ.
BCAB has met with MEPs and chief Brexit negotiators in Brussels, they have had talks with British MPs and the Irish government.
Brexit will impact our abilities to access our own properties, our abilities to work and travel and it will seriously impact areas such as the peace process
“We're trying to show people what will happen here. The reality is that the average person in the UK doesn't realise what a border here on this island will really mean. It will have a huge impact on communities North and South. It will impact our abilities to access our own properties, our abilities to work and travel and it will seriously impact areas such as the peace process. We have put so much work into building up good relations between communities, so much has been achieved since the Good Friday Agreement. A no-deal Brexit will destroy everything we've worked for,” he said.
Since 1994 phenomenal work has been undertaken by border communities to breathe life back into areas devastated by the troubles.
“We have come such a long way in developing things such as tourism. When a tourist comes to this island now they aren't even aware of the border. They come to an area like North Leitrim and they visit Glencar Waterfall and they go back to Fermanagh to visit the Marble Arch Caves and it is all so easy. There is no difficulty. No checkpoints. That shows how successful the peace process has been.”
He said that other areas of co-operation will also be negatively impacted if Brexit sees the return of a hard border.
Farmers are also facing serious issues around the movement of cattle by Brexit. Students, points out JJ, will also be affected, regardless of whether the border is reinstated or not.
“When Britain leaves the EU Northern Ireland students will also loose access to European grants such as Erasmus and Erasmus +. These were used by thousands of students North and South last year.
At the moment there is co-operation with the ambulance service s and if you are in Kiltyclogher or Glenfarne in North Leitrim and you have to go to hospital, you will be picked up by the closest ambulance. If that is from Northern Ireland, then that's what happens.
“Will that continue if there's a hard border?” asks JJ.
"People are not going to stand for a hard border to return to this island.”
This cross border health service co-operation extends to cancer services with people in Donegal availing of services in Derry. Will these continue in the wake of a hard Brexit?
“Nobody knows,” said JJ but he points out that “this time round, we're going to be united. People are not going to stand for a hard border to return to this island.”
He is encouraged by the fact that people are starting to realise that Brexit is coming.
“12 months ago there were no conversations about Brexit here. Now people are starting to realise just what it could mean.
“The principals of the Good Friday Agreement must be kept and taken into consideration with Brexit. It cannot be allowed to stop the free movement of people and goods.
“We've re-built communities here and in the North. We have worked together to build peace and we will stand together against the return of a border on this island.”
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