Trade, not trouble, is the big Brexit fear for Irish border towns - Metro US

Trade, not trouble, is the big Brexit fear for Irish border towns

By Clodagh Kilcoyne

BELCOO, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – Along the narrow country roads that weave across the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, locals fear Brexit may curb trade and gut farm funding but few see a return to the dark days of military checkpoints.

The British province of Northern Ireland would represent the only land frontier between Britain and the European Union once the United Kingdom leaves the bloc following June’s referendum and politicians north and south fear that could mean the return of a hard border across the island.

As with many communities dotted along the now invisible border, just 500 meters separate the tiny Northern Irish village of Belcoo from Blacklion to the south.

Mairead O’Dolan, an 88-year-old Belcoo resident who still lives in the old railway house, has seen their links change dramatically over the years.

She remembers the demolition of the decommissioned Belcoo-Blacklion railway bridge in 1976 by the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) who said it was being used by nationalist smugglers and militants.

“I don’t think we’re going back to that. My gut feeling is we’ve been through that much, we’ll not go back to that horrific time,” said the retired civil servant, who voted ‘remain’ in the June vote. “It’s all over now and I want peace and quiet.”

At the time, many nationalists in Belcoo considered the destruction of the bridge and its smuggling route as a form of economic warfare from an oppressor depriving them of their basic human rights.

Three decades of sectarian violence largely ended with a 1998 peace deal, but Belcoo farm equipment supplier Peter Gallagher fears similar economic damage is being inflicted on his community, this time via the ballot box.

Alongside the prospect of trade barriers, economists warn that Brexit could cause lower growth, higher unemployment and cutbacks in government spending. It could also cost the agri-food sector – a bigger proportion of the Northern Irish economy than in any other part of Britain – vital EU funds.

“I would certainly be worried about the long term and even short term implications, especially the more marginal parts of Northern Ireland in relation to farming,” Gallagher said.

“It’s hard to see how Westminster will fund Northern Ireland to the same extent as Europe did and how they’d offer the same protection for rural marginal areas.”

To the south in Blacklion, Helena Corcoran helps run a UNESCO geological park that straddles the border, and fears any barriers could deter tourism in the area.

She agrees nobody wants to go back to the “Troubles” between Catholics seeking a united Ireland and Protestants wishing to remain British that cost over 3,600 lives, but the situation remains sensitive.

“The peace process is very fragile,” Corcoran said. “Living on the border here I’d be very much aware it’s very fragile and it has to be treated and nurtured that way.”

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(Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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