By Trudy Prescott
During the ‘Troubles,’ two tiny quintessentially Irish villages, Blacklion and Belcoo, nestled in the stunning Cuilcagh Mountains and the Marble Arch Caves area (now a UNESCO Global Geopark), were divided by a ‘hard border’ bridge. This bridge over the Belcoo River (Béal Cú meaning mouth of the river) critically joins the N16 to the A4, the major artery between Sligo (Republic of Ireland) and Belfast (Northern Ireland). Growing up with constant stops and checks with the overshadowing presence of police and army patrolling during the Troubles, residents reflect back that they identified themselves not as from County Cavan, Republic of Ireland or County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland nor indeed as from the province of Ulster which encompasses both, but rather they described themselves as ‘from the Border.’
This weekend, marking the supposed formalised UK departure from the European Union, provoked protects demanding that the ‘people’s voice’ of the Border Communities to be heard. The Saturday 30 March 3 pm protest was staged symbolically at the critical midpoint of the Blacklion/Belcoo bridge where kilometres per hour change to miles per hour (notably lacking any ‘national’ signage) and was organised by the two-year-old movement, Border Communities against Brexit. This was one of six protests at strategic locations along the border at this temporal decisive historical moment.
Against the sounds of regularly-flowing private and commercial vehicles crossing the bridge northwards and southwards, the speakers voiced their central protest themes: Britta O’Dolan, German-born daily commuter between County Fermanagh and County Sligo, called for a people-based pragmatic (not political-based idealistic) mutuality. Karen Maye, sociology and politics student at the Sligo Institute of Technology, spoke up for students, expressing outrage that ‘the peace and social cohesion of the Good Friday agreement both are under threat’ by Parliament. Blacklion GP Carroll O’Dolan appealed for representation since ‘no one is speaking for us, the majority’ (here referring to the Democratic Unionist Party) within the British corridors of power and that the time for abstentionism’ (here referring to Sinn Féin) ‘has now passed.’
Responding to these contributions, organiser and cross-border farmer John Sheridan declared what Northern Ireland stands to gain from the backstop is ‘independence: to stand on our own feet and to have unfettered access to the UK and EU.’ The alternative threatens Northern Ireland becoming a ‘sink hole’/a ‘wasteland’, the prospect of which appears now to him to be where they are headed.
Underlying the rhetoric, the passing vehicular horn-tooting, the placard-waving, and the blue-with-stars face-painting (reference to the EU flag which was fluttering on a light pole mid-bridge), the speakers articulated poignantly what was at risk to the border communities in terms of health, education and social cohesion. In academic regulatory analysis promulgated by Professor Tony Prosser, these comprise ‘social solidarity’ – the ‘public goods’ beyond the economic goods (in economic welfare theories where the ‘desired’ economic goal is an unfettered market), which in turn support the argument that these norms and values should be protected by regulation imposed for the good of society as a whole. The 30 March 2019 Blacklion/Belcoo Communities Against Brexit protest event provides a opportune moment to pause and take stock, against the embarrassing backdrop of the Brexit political debacle in Westminister, about what the real effects of Brexit might be on the people who are ‘from the border’ and their desire to continue the momentum of the Good Friday Agreement for the good of society as a whole.
Now I have an admission to make. Due to the regular flow of north-south border traffic, I did not hear every word and could not take the thorough notes for which I have a certain reputation. (I’m ‘old school’ pen and notebook, which stood me in good stead in my academic career and former employment). But this interfering static held both a symbolic and pragmatic significance. Every word missed, represented up to two or more vehicles whose occupants’ lives and free movement would be directly affected by border controls. Furthermore, as John Sheridan reflected from his own personal experience of the Troubles, one layer of border arrangements, ‘even put in place for a supposedly ‘soft’ border,’ will be ‘added to and added to, until there are layers upon layers that divide families, hospitals, and schools:’ ‘we don’t want any border, soft or hard, coming back here.’ Beyond ‘inconvenience,’ what exactly do the border communities stand to lose and why it should matter to those not ‘from the border’?
GP Carroll O’Dolan, who returned to practice in Blacklion (on the Republic of Ireland side of the bridge) after the Troubles, spoke of the shortages of staff which are now being made more acute because EU doctors and those involved in the related professions (for example physiotherapists) were reluctant to move to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, given the uncertainty. Further he noted that cross-border medical cooperation particularly impacts the rural communities: the promised cross-border initiative to enable GP practices to share home visits will now be jettisoned – these as with many other medical cross-border projects that have been in the pipeline involving years of discussion are in jeopardy—and in the future ‘we won’t even know that we have missed.’ Also, at risk are existing cross-border arrangements allowing patient access to specialised health care not available locally (he cited Donegal cardiology patients coming to Omagh) or requiring otherwise lengthy journeys (here he gave the example for paediatric specialists requiring a population of 5 million to justify the costly infrastructure— and that therefore children will have to travel to Scotland for treatment, rather than Dublin).
German-born Britta O’Dolan, spoke as a reflective outsider of her experience growing up in an area that historically periodically changed ‘national’ ‘ownership’ (French and German) producing a festering legacy of nationalistic resentment and presumed entitlement. She lamented that ‘all the talk was about money, not about Peace’ and paid tribute to the EU being the ‘biggest Peace project in history.’ Due to the success of this Peace project, the French and Germans now travel seamlessly back and forth and are freed from the divisive nationalistic historical mindset. She expressed her shock that the UK Parliament was ‘not treating Peace with respect’ and deplored the lack of ‘middle-of-the-road pragmatism’ which is being overshadowed by idealism (she noted that ‘Hitler was an idealist’); such nationalistic-based political idealism she regarded as dangerous and detrimental to the peoples’ well-being and social cohesion.
Mature student Karen Maye (a neighbour in my own remote rural setting) raised a rousing flag on behalf all students. She regarded the lack of plans for their educational well-being and disregard for the social benefits of the exchange of academic research work and ideas as totally unacceptable. She pointed out that since 1987 the Erasmus plus programme has allowed 3m students to travel all over Europe to study. Now Northern Irish, Republic Irish, and UK students are all potentially affected, because they cannot take the funding with them across borders.
While the EU has stated that until 2020 UK students will be funded (provided the UK lives up to its financial commitments), ‘there are no plans in place for the 17,000 students who expected to start university this coming September,’ she observed indignantly. The practical issues these might raise include NI students wishing to study in the Republic of Ireland being considered as international students and therefore charged prohibitive international student rates; students wanting to go home for the weekend may require a VISA to do so. This impedes the intent of the Good Friday Agreement. Student disability funding will be impacted, affecting their access to further education and to degrees of their choice. Restriction of free educational movement will affect the quality of research and the nature of the research undertaken, but also, critically, the free exchange of ideas that such movement engenders, thereby ultimately having a broader detrimental social impact. Maye issued the rallying cry: ‘We will not be a dumping ground for toxic Parliamentary divisive nuclear waste.’
Adding further fuel to Maye’s arguments, John Sheridan observed that Northern Ireland South West College will lose £7m worth of research funding per year while Queen’s University will lose £100m per year: ‘Such is the price of Brexit which the Border Communities rejected in ‘their’ vote, which was not heard.’
Aside from the formal contributions by public speakers, the Blacklion/Belcoo protest enabled other voices in the crowd to be heard. Former Union representative and American ex-pat Randolph Cecil, who with his wife moved upon retirement to stunningly beautiful Kesh, reflected that ‘the border is already a problem;’ this process ‘makes it worse for the people living here who voted against leaving.’ Helga Keogh, a member of the Border Communities Against Brexit, came to Blacklion from Dublin in 1981 and had been involved in supporting the hunger strikers during the Troubles. She observed, ‘why would we want to destroy all that Peace furthers and jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement?’ During this two-year Brexit period, ‘there has been a great deal of mellowing in the business and farming communities, and the DUP must be losing support. The BCAB (Border Communities Against Brexit) was formed by business people and farming communities, who were worried. Students travel back and forth to study and take exams; dogs travel back and forth between the land on either side of the border that the farmers own. Profits are already so tight for cattle farmers, that they are worried that they cannot afford to keep going.’ Yet, ‘we’ve seen what people power can do: look at the case of water supply charges and fracking both opposed successfully by people power. Maybe its time now for people power to hit the Brexiteers.’
The protest ended with a staged border crossing, complete with ‘Customs officer’ (with rifle-bearing ‘army’ protectors—both sexes) stopping traffic and enquiring ‘are you carrying ‘any butter or washing powder?’ (which conjured up in my mind, a hilarious mix-up of the two on route…..). A lorry, ‘carrying’ sheep from Northern Ireland to be delivered to Northern Ireland via the Belcoo/Blacklion bridge (thereby entering momentarily Co Cavan) was stopped. Lacking the ‘proper’ documents, it was turned back. Good fun? Yes, but its enactment focused the mind: ‘will Belcoo (Co Fermanagh) children have to produce passports when they cross the bridge to go swimming in Blacklion,’ as John Sheridan had wondered? Will dogs have to have two sets of licences and have their passports produced to Customs officials as farmers cross the border to check twice daily on sheep and cattle? Ultimately, as Helga Keogh reflected, ‘why would we want to destroy all that Peace has brought us here?’
The 30 March protester’s pronouncements were not idealistic manifestos of a remote politician detached from the realities of rural Ireland. These were not gaffe-prone pronouncements of an equivocating politician testing the winds of opportunity in Parliament’s corridors of power. These were not Ministerial pronouncements exhibiting a deplorable lack of basic historical understanding and knowledge of tortuous Irish history or, indeed, of legal due processes. (With my academic hat on I assign as required bedtime reading for this ‘public’ appointment, McKittrick and McVea’s 2001 Making Sense of the Troubles: History of the Northern Ireland Conflict).
These Border community voices are rational and polite, pragmatic and evidence-based. Their pronouncements’ aim is to promote the social cohesion founded upon the Good Friday agreement and the Peace and benefits of that social cohesion which has emerged from the Agreement’s foundations.
The Border Communities Against Brexit assert that it’s time that Parliament listened for the greater good. As Karen Maye proclaimed: ‘LONDON: THIS IS IRELAND CALLING.’