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Next: Nexit

Free movement of persons has always been essential to fragile border areas

The spectre of strict border controls surfaced during the UK referendum on membership of the European Union (EU). Certainly, it was part of the ‘Project Fear’ tactic of the Remain campaign.

It has also struck a chord with many in communities on the border.

However, this ignores the historical fact that controls were at their tightest after 1973 when both states on the island were members of the EU. For a generation most traffic had to pass through about 20 fortified military checkpoints on the border. Those passing through usually had to produce identification. Long waits were common. Prolonged and unpleasant searches were also common, particularly of young males whose names indicated they were Catholic.

Small roads across the border were open from 1922, long before either state was in the EU. For a generation after 1973, during EU membership, at least 192 were closed. Farms were divided, with farmers having to do round journeys of up to 30 miles to gain access to fields a hundred yards away. Every single road on the Border between Leitrim and Fermanagh was closed. Border towns were strangled economically.

Kiltycloher main street
Kiltycloher main street

Kiltyclogher in Leitrim is half a mile from the border. Historically, it was the market town for a large part of West Fermanagh. However, the three roads leading into Fermanagh were closed, leaving the nearest legal crossing a dozen miles away. Six of its eight pubs have closed down the years. The population has fallen by approximately 50% since the 1960s: it can no longer support a GAA team, or the secondary school it once had.

Clones in Co Monaghan was for a long time the market town for much of South Fermanagh. Much of that trade continued after partition. For a generation after EU accession in 1973, five of eight roads into the town were either blocked or had permanent military checkpoints. As a result, in 20 years the population fell by over 33%. There are at least a dozen closed businesses on its principal thoroughfare, Fermanagh Street.

Counterintuitively, the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been strong in saying that free movement of people across the border has to continue.

Currency is another area where differences between North and South have developed since EU accession. Before 1979 there was currency union: it was possible to use the same notes and coins from Bushmills to Baltimore. That changed after 1979. In border areas sterling and euro notes, and frequently coins also, are both accepted. That is not the case further away. Moreover, there are great problems with bank payments, with heavy charges levied on cheques.

Another strengthening of division is that since both states joined the EU, there has been a reduction in free movement for students, with fewer Northern students coming South.

TCD historically educated significant number of Northerners, most notably from Protestant backgrounds. Their numbers are greatly diminished. There were only 160 Northerners there in the academic year 2014-5. UCD also used to attract many Northerners. Its numbers have held slightly better, with 229 in 2014-5.

Dundalk Institute of Technology (IT) is approximately four miles from Co Armagh, thus within walking distance for a fit student. On most recent figures, it only had 17 Northern students. Letterkenny IT is only 17 miles from Co Tyrone. It only had eight Northern students, according to the most recent figures.

Clearly, on some counts, division has thrived, even without Brexit.

An element of moral panic surrounds the whole vote. Certainly, there was a significant right-wing racist element. However, what was most notable was the exposure of the political elites as out of touch with those they purport to represent.

In the North, the majority voted Remain. However, being the North, there was a sectarian element to it.

Forty-four point two percent voted to leave the EU. That indicates that a majority of Unionist voters followed the DUP’s lead to do so. Seven of the North’s 18 constituencies, all majority Protestant, voted for Brexit. However, North Down, the second most Protestant of the North’s 18 constituencies, voted Remain. So did the majority Protestant constituencies of North Belfast and East Derry.

There were divisions, however. The majority of the Ulster Unionist Party was pro-Remain. The two People Before Profit Assembly members called for a Leave vote, from a left-wing perspective. The annual Conference of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), the largest public-sector union, also voted in support of withdrawal.

There was a significant Leave vote among the Catholic community. Many were embarrassed to come out publicly on this, given its perceived connections to right-wing Unionism.NI-results
While the Sinn Féin leadership was enthusiastic, the party base was much less so. This was another u-turn, the Party having opposed membership and opposed every previous referendum in the South. Significantly, the electoral machine did not swing into action to mobilise Remain support. Gerry Adams has referred to voters who were driven by a traditional desire to generate difficulties for England.

In West Belfast, the imperative to vote is part of the culture. This time, it had the lowest turnout in the UK, at 48.9%. The constituency is 80% perceived Catholic, and 25% voted leave.

From a constitutional point of view, the vote will not have an immediate effect on the North. However, in the long term it will. It has strengthened calls for Scottish independence.

Scotland is a significant part of Unionist-Loyalist identity. Not only did many come from Scotland during the Plantations, but there has been movement before and since. Presbyterianism is the largest Protestant denomination. Scottish flags used to be common around the 12th of July. There has been a growing interest in Ulster-Scots culture.

On a day-to-day basis, Glasgow Rangers Football Club was a major part of identity for many young people. Before its implosion, and removal from the Premiership, buses left every sizeable town in the North for games every Saturday.

It now seems the momentum towards Scottish independence will be unstoppable. The UK state will be at an end. The effects on Northern Unionist-Loyalist identity are as yet unclear. It will certainly be changed.

"Take your entitlement"
“Take your entitlement”

Meanwhile, the result is throwing up paradoxes. Ian Paisley Junior, known to Loyalists as ‘Baby Doc’, no model of sage consistency, tweeted encouraging Northerners to apply for Irish passports to keep EU citizenship: “My advice is if you are entitled to a second passport then take one”.

By Anton McCabe