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The border toll: Relationships at the Irish border in the age of Brexit

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‘Although it appears to be an “invisible frontier” with sparse physical reminders, the border’s emotional impact is far from invisible’. Courtesy of the author.

There are few physical reminders that mark the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Unlike other border regions, there is no wall, no checkpoint, and in many places no sign to indicate a national boundary. Gradually, the Irish tricolour dissipates and the Union Jack appears. Signs begin to reflect miles instead of kilometres, reminding those on the move that a change has occurred. Although it appears to be an ‘invisible frontier’ with sparse physical reminders, the border’s emotional impact is far from invisible.


In the age of Brexit, journalists have focused their narrative on the potential implications of a ‘hard border’ between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Such remarks concentrate on trade, security, and diplomatic policy, leaving families and their relationships unseen and unheard. The media has devoted even less attention to asylum seekers and migrants in the region, for whom a hard border would serve as yet another barrier in their migration journey. The story of the border and its place in a post-Brexit Britain seems to have become a story with few human characters. This piece seeks to render such characters visible within the story of movement in this region.


The division between Ireland and Northern Ireland is rooted in long-held religious and political conflict between Republican Catholics and Protestant Unionists. Since 1921, most nations have recognized the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as two separate countries, two political entities with different passports, and two independent regions with separate governing bodies. As in many borderland regions, however, human relationships have paid little attention to where the metaphorical ‘line in the sand’ was drawn. Families in the region have suffered under, and triumphed over, the shadow of the border for centuries. In 2016 however, the Brexit vote threatened to uproot the stability that border communities had built.


Communities in border counties, like Cavan and Fermanagh, experience the border as a daily phenomenon. Plainly, the border crosses through fields, rivers, and roads as most colonially-imposed borders do. Less noticeably however, the border crosses through towns, communities, and even family homes. For some, the construction of a family home predated the partition, meaning that the modern day border invisibly divides the home in two. Some members of such communities have mounted strong opposition to Brexit, creating campaigns like Border Communities Against Brexit and fake customs checkpoints that imagine a border without freedom of movement. Although the official ‘Brexit Day’ passed on January 31, 2020, those travelling across the border still have the privilege of freedom of movement, a key tenet of the European Union. However, during the next year of negotiations, this freedom could be restricted, threatening the social fabric and connectivity of a region with a conflicted history.


This border region and the island of Ireland tell a complex story of people on the move. British rule in Ireland began in the 12th century and officially ended with the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949. Keeping with historical tradition, however, Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom. In the late 1960s, division sparked violence in the region, spurring 29 years of violent conflict and the deaths of over 3,500 people. During this period, known as the Troubles, the border’s hyper-visible presence loomed over the horizon. Watchtowers and militarised checkpoints dominated the landscape. Meanwhile, families lost children, schools lost pupils, and communities lost leaders. Given the circumstances of such deaths, the bodies of those killed during the Troubles often remained unrecovered, leaving families in perpetual emotional purgatory. Given this violent history, Brexit comes at a higher price for many in the Irish borderlands.


Officially, the Troubles ended when both parties signed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Both nations agreed that the majority’s vote would govern Northern Ireland’s membership in the UK. Despite this peace-making process, sentiments in the region remain complex. The 2019 murder of journalist Lyra McKee during a riot in the border city of Derry illustrated how fragile peace in the region is. As the UK’s exit from the European Union takes shape over the next year, a hard border threatens to render visible such scarcely hidden violence once again.

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland has served as a major obstacle in Brexit negotiations. A 2019 poll suggested that many Northern Ireland residents now favor reunification with the Republic, given the logistical consequences associated with Brexit. For many who did not witness the Troubles, the historic Unionist-Republican divide is increasingly irrelevant, making a United Ireland more plausible. Many young people are more concerned with educating themselves, finding stable employment, and creating a good life. As Lyra McKee wrote five years before her death, ‘I don’t want a United Ireland or a stronger Union. I just want a better life.’


For others, however, inherited anger, hardship, and frustration remain. Such sentiments are often displayed by Unionists on the Twelfth of July and by Republicans around Easter. The New I.R.A., a modern version of the Irish Republican Army, have recently pledged a ‘show of strength’ during 2020 Easter Rising commemorations in Derry. The same group murdered McKee just one year ago in the same town at the same time.


For families in the borderlands of Ireland and the North, Brexit is not only a threat to trade, diplomacy, and the privileges of the European Union. Such a dramatic change to life in this region could threaten the peace that families have worked tirelessly to foster. For the most part, this threat goes unacknowledged, and the emotional toll of Brexit remains invisible.

Maeve L. Moynihan

Maeve is a writer, researcher, and advocate of social change. She is interested in how migration can strengthen and transform communities. A 2019 graduate of the MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, she now works at the Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development (WICID) and as a member of the Europe’s Stories research team at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Maeve can be found on Twitter @maevemoyn

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