By Trudy Prescott in Belcoo
During the Troubles two tiny Irish villages, Blacklion and Belcoo, nestled in the 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), joins the N16 to the A4, the major artery between Sligo in the Republic of Ireland and Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Locals grew up with constant stops and checks, the omnipresent shadow of police and army patrols.
They identified themselves not as from County Cavan, the Republic of Ireland or County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, nor indeed as from the province of Ulster, which encompasses but as ‘from the Border.’
Last weekend, on the date that was supposed to be the UK’s departure from the European Union, the local people protested to demand that the voices of the Border communities 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 (but there’s no signs anywhere to tell that to unsuspecting motorists).
It was organised by the two-year-old movement, Border Communities against Brexit and was one of six protests at strategic locations along the border at this moment in history.
A steady flow of private and commercial vehicles crossed the bridge in both directions. Straining to be heard over them the speakers voiced their concerns: German-born Britta O’Dolan, who commutes every day between Fermanagh and Sligo, called for a people-based pragmatic approach.
Karen Maye, a sociology and politics student at the Sligo Institute of Technology, expressed outrage on behalf of her fellow students that ‘the peace and social cohesion of the Good Friday agreement…are under threat’ from MPs at scoring points off each other in the Commons.
Blacklion GP Carroll O’Dolan bemoaned the fact that ‘no one is speaking for us, the majority’ in the House of Commons and said and that the time for Sinn Fein abstentionism ‘has now passed.’
Protest organiser and cross-border farmer John Sheridan spoke in favour of the backstop so opposed by hard Brexiteers and said the backstop could give Northern Ireland “the independence to stand on our own feet and to have unfettered access to the UK and EU.”
But the alternative, which he feared now seems more likely, is that Northern Ireland will become a ‘sinkhole’ or a ‘wasteland’.
Speakers articulated what was at risk to the border communities in terms of health, education and social cohesion – the ‘public goods’ beyond market economics.
John Sheridan recalled his own personal experience of the Troubles and said 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,” he said.
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 becoming more acute because EU doctors, and those involved in related professions, like physiotherapists, are now reluctant to move to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, because of all the uncertainty.
He pointed out that cross-border medical cooperation especially impacts rural communities.
The promised cross-border initiative to enable GP practices to share home visits will now be abandoned – as may many other cross-border medical projects that have been in the pipeline for years.
“We won’t even know that we have missed them,” he said.
At risk are the many already existing cross-border arrangements for patient access to specialised health care not available locally, for instance, Donegal’s cardiology patients travel to Omagh, or that would otherwise require lengthy journeys – children will have to travel to paediatrics departments in Scotland rather than Dublin.
German-born Britta O’Dolan, spoke of the area in which she grew up – an area that prior to the EEC and EU – periodically changed its ‘national’ ‘ownership’, alternating between French and German. The legacy of that had been nationalistic resentment and presumed entitlement. The EU ended that with the “biggest peace project in history” and the French and Germans now travel seamlessly back and forth, free from the divisive nationalistic historical mindset.
She lamented that all the talk about Brexit and the Border had been “about money, not about peace” and was shocked that MPs were “not treating peace with respect” and deplored the lack of “middle-of-the-road pragmatism”.
Mature student Karen Maye said the lack of plans for students’ educational well-being, and the disregard for the social benefits of the exchange of academic research work and ideas, was totally unacceptable.
She pointed out that since 1987 the Erasmus plus programme has enabled 3 million 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 is far from the spirit 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 and nature of research undertaken, but also, critically, the free exchange of ideas that such movement engenders, thereby ultimately having a broader detrimental social impact.
Maye said the Border area was at risk of becoming a dumping ground for Parliament’s own toxic waste.
John Sheridan added that Northern Ireland South West College will lose £7m worth of research funding a year while Queen’s University Belfast will lose £100m per year. The Blacklion/Belcoo protest enabled other voices in the crowd to be heard.
Former Union representative, an ex-pat American, Randolph Cecil, who retired with his wife to Kesh, said the border is already a problem as MPs make 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 to support the hunger strikers during the Troubles.
She said she could not understand “why would we want to destroy all that peace furthers and jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement… why would we want to destroy all that peace has brought to us here?”
The BCAB (Border Communities Against Brexit) was formed by worried business people and farmers. Margins are already so tight for cattle farmers, that they are worried that they cannot afford to keep going, they said.
The protest ended with a staged border crossing, complete with ‘Customs Officer’, and rifle-bearing ‘Army’ protectors of both sexes) stopping traffic and enquiring ‘Are you carrying any butter or washing powder?’ A lorry, ‘carrying’ sheep to be delivered to Northern Ireland via the Belcoo/Blacklion bridge (thereby momentarily entering Cavan) was stopped because it ‘lacked’ the ‘proper’ documents and was turned back.
John Sheridan wondered: ‘Will Belcoo children (in Fermanagh) have to produce passports when they cross the bridge to go swimming in Blacklion? 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?”
These Border community voices are rational and polite, pragmatic and evidence-based. Their aims are to promote the social cohesion founded upon the Good Friday agreement and the peace and benefits that emerged from the Agreement’s foundations.
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