Until last June there was nothing to observe on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland except a change in the colour of markings on the verge of the road from yellow to white. But 14 months after the UK voted to leave the European Union, giant billboards calling for “no EU frontier in Ireland” and “no hard border” mark the divide between the countries.
The concern on both sides of the open 310-mile (499km) border is whether the signs represent just the beginning, a change made worse by an air of mistrust of all politicians.
Hugh Morgan, who has a dairy farm that straddles both sides of the border in Carrickarnon but also runs a fuel business for hauliers in 16 countries, complained that people like him were ignored.
“We are the people who will be affected: we employ 80 people here on the border, we are putting bread on the table, and not one politician, from Dublin, Stormont, Westminster, Brussels or the local council, has come here to ask people like us how is it going to affect us, or do we need help,” he says.
Morgan describes Brexit as just another challenge for business, arguing “no matter what, business people will have to adapt”, but wonders if the process will ever be concluded because it so complicated.
“I’m not living in oblivion, but there will another election, then European elections, then more negotiations with another set of politicians. I can’t see this ever happening because it will take 20 to 30 years to get straight.”Andy Lecky, a truck driver, who is taking a break at the derelict customs inspection post on the south of the border, stressed the importance of north-south negotiation. “I think Brexit could be a good thing if they would knuckle down instead of fighting everybody.
“This scaremongering about the border isn’t helping anyone. If only Ireland and England could just work together and stop fighting. I don’t think this hardline stance helps anyone,” he says.
On this point there is wide agreement among locals: a hard border is in nobody’s interests. But it is not clear whether the British government’s desire to retain a largely invisible border is realistic.
Conor Patterson, chief executive of the northern Irish Newry and Mourne Entreprise Agency, describes the paper as “strong on aspiration” but “weak on deliverability”.
He welcomes the British proposal to mirror customs arrangements with the EU in order to exempt small businesses from customs checks on the border but says this amounts to staying in the EU customs union. “If it walks like the customs union, talks like the customs union, which it does, then why not just commit to the customs union?” he asks.
Morgan makes the additional point that it is misleading to assume the border is invisible today. His cross-border farm is essentially divided in two – one south and one north of the border. Under EU law he cannot move cows registered as grazing in the north to the Republic, because of strict controls on moving livestock to stop cross-border infection such as foot and mouth disease and swine flu.
A few miles south of the the border, Paddy Malone, the president of Dundalk chamber of commerce, said the “British elite” had no idea what they were landing Ireland with and should have started working on the programme three years ago.
Malone said there was “merit” in the British government’s proposed trusted trader scheme but said the proposal to exempt small business from a host of customs regulations was “a recipe for chaos”, facilitating everything from smuggling of alcohol and cigarettes to hormone-treated beef that may find its way onto Northern Irish supermarket shelves as a cheap alternative to homegrown food.
“It will be a back door in and out of the EU and that cannot be allowed to exist,” said Malone. “Who would regulate or police that? “The answer is the European court of justice. So, congratulations Britain, you are right back in the EU. Britain has not figured out how to square the circle, because the circle cannot be squared.”