QUB, in conjunction with the Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN), have published a report finding that the anticipation of Brexit is already having an effect on communities along the Central Border Region of Ireland/Northern Ireland.
The research was led by Dr Katy Hayward from the Centre for International Borders Research at Queen’s University Belfast and comprised of survey and focus group data accumulated from a study conducted during summer 2017.
Dr Hayward stated: “This study is the first to explore the anticipated effects of Brexit specifically on the Central Border Region, which is the region currently most exposed to risks rising from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU”.
“Socially, politically, economically and in very practical ways – people living closest to the border will be the ones who feel the effects of any change to the nature of the border most acutely and they are already anticipating what this might mean.”
The study included respondents aged 16-85 from a range of occupations and backgrounds, across eight areas along the border region: Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon, Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh and Omagh, Leitrim, Mid Ulster, Monaghan and Sligo.
The eight key findings regarding the views of local communities in the Central Border Region towards Brexit, are as follows:
The Central Border Region is the most exposed to the impact of Brexit – Areas along the border have suffered tremendously in the past, during periods such as the Troubles and partition, and have faced long term consequences as a result.
The legacy of conflict – People fear a return to the infamous border violence that occurred throughout the twentieth century. Physical manifestations of a border would be targets for paramilitary violence and a symbol of regression for both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The effects of Brexit are already being felt in the Central Border Region – Confidence in living on one side of the border and working on the other has been diminished due to political responses to Brexit (Nationalist and Unionist) having a polarising effect on the community, as well as the consequences of the exchange rate on local businesses and everyday life.
Leave and Remain voters differ in their anticipation of a hard border – 73% of respondents believe that Brexit will affect their local community ‘to a great extent’, however, Leave voters are less likely to fear a hard border because they are less likely to believe that negotiations will result in such an outcome (largely due to the position of the Irish government).
The paradox of the current Irish border – Although it seems almost non-existent, the border is at the centre of present day politics, economics and peace. EU cross-border links have helped to foster informal relationships and trust-building. Many respondents said they would cross the border less if there were to be complications in doing so; again, harking back to a ‘border of the past’.
Overwhelming sense of uncertainty – This is detrimental for the Border Region, an area with a legacy of conflict. Brexit has evoked strong emotions from people who would otherwise not describe themselves as ‘political’.
Brexit is exacerbating the sense of marginalisation and invisibility felt by residents in the Central Border Region – Respondents who anticipated negative effects from Brexit tended to show even less confidence in the current democratic system; aggravating feelings of having no voice.
There is a risk of return to back-to-back development – Opportunities for development for the Border Region/Northern Ireland tend to be framed as being at a cost to the other.
The most striking aspect of the views on the potential impact of Brexit for the Central Border Region, is the fear of what a return to a hard border would do to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
Residents along the border are not only anxious about what effect Brexit will have on their jobs and the economy, they are also conscious of the dangers of a return to a ‘border of the past’ and the violent and polarising effects this could have on their community.
For a region that has often felt forgotten about or invisible, it is vital that the governments in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Westminster now have the border area at the forefront of their minds while negotiating an acceptable Brexit deal.