Locals fear being cast away on Brexit border 'blip' in Ireland

16 October 2018 - 15:52 By AFP
Ireland and the border with Northern Ireland (part of the UK) highlighted on an adapted view from space. The border control is one of the last stumble blocks in the Brexit negotiations.
Ireland and the border with Northern Ireland (part of the UK) highlighted on an adapted view from space. The border control is one of the last stumble blocks in the Brexit negotiations.
Image: Tomas Griger/123RF

For people living in and around the Drummully Polyp, a squiggle on the map of the Irish frontier, life without an open border is unimaginable and a reminder of the bad old days of checkpoints.

Threaded through emerald farmlands with serpentine disorder, this section of the border all but hems in locals in this part of Ireland surrounded by British-ruled Northern Ireland.

"There's no border in our eyes because it's a road that you travel every day," said Bernie McElwain, 40, who has lived her whole life astride this peculiar boundary.

With only a 100-metre narrow tract of impassable countryside linking the Polyp to the Republic, it is accessible only by crossing through Northern Ireland.

This cartographic curiosity is officially called a "pene-enclave" and explains why the handful of locals - no more than 200 souls - jokingly refer to their home as "the island".

Only a line in the tarmac, a change in road markings and a shift in signage from miles to kilometres delineates north from south on the patchwork of roads that criss-cross the border up to four times in a 10-minute journey.

When Brexit comes this boundary will be the new frontier between the UK and the EU -- and could mean new controls.

For locals that would make life here difficult - potentially marooning them in their homes. "Really and truly it's not feasible, and we don't want it," lifelong Polyp resident John Connolly said.

The peacefulness of the landscape belies growing unrest among locals, aimed at politicians governing Britain's withdrawal process.

Post-Brexit the EU, Britain and Ireland have pledged to preserve "frictionless" movement between the North and the Republic, but as the deadline approaches little progress has been made.

"They don't really know what the border is," said Connolly, 59. "They just think there's a road and it's a crossing. It's a whole different scenario when you're on the ground."

Nearby, Eamon Fitzpatrick runs a hardware store and petrol station which thrums with steady traffic from the north and south.

The border cuts directly through his forecourt, but for now the only indication is a notice on the till saying both pounds and euros are accepted.

In a single day Fitzpatrick can cross the border up to 25 times, often passing in and out of the Polyp, which covers no more than 10 square kilometres.

"We can hop into the car now and we can go north, south, and there is no hassle," he said.

McElwain was born in the Republic and raised in the family home in the North, before moving south once more.

Her mother still lives in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, on the outside cusp of the Polyp, but is considering building a new house in the Republic as she approaches retirement - fearful that a border will separate her from family. "The mood is not good on the ground," McElwain said during a tour of the border crossings.

These borderlands are also freighted with a history of conflict.

Older residents remember The Troubles - the 30-year conflict between Protestants and Catholics that formally ended with a 1998 peace deal - when crossings were militarised and armed republicans fought unionists and the British to unite the north and south.

Portions of the land inside the Polyp were then left under-farmed, as the ordeal of trips through border controls made the exercise cost-prohibitive - a demonstration of the very real cost a hard border could bring to the local farming economy.

For some, the chaos of Brexit contains a glimmer of political opportunity. Local Sinn Fein councillor Pat Treanor recalls the cat-and-mouse games that he and others played with the British army, tearing down border controls as fast as it could erect them.

Treanor lost a finger at the height of the tensions after Irish Republic Army (IRA) paramilitaries ambushed a police car, not realising he was being detained inside. 

"They forget that in this region, should they proceed with a border, they're wrecking people's lives," he said.