CLONES, IRELAND: The daffodils are out, there’s a warmth to the sun and the car park just off the main street here is pretty full. The small market town is thriving, and about one-third of the vehicles have Northern Ireland number plates – yellow and easily distinguishable from those here in the Republic of Ireland in this corner of northwest County Monaghan.
The main road to Clones, the N54, twists and turns around low hills – and come March 29, there’ll be a few more twists thrown in for good measure.
If the United Kingdom does indeed leave the European Union on Brexit day with or without a deal, then Clones becomes an isolated outpost of the Republic of Ireland surrounded almost entirely by territory that’s outside the EU. Driving to Clones on the N54 will entail leaving the EU and going into the UK, where the road is known as the A3, leaving the UK and crossing back into the Republic, driving a few more kilometres, then crossing back into the UK, driving some more, and crossing back into the UK.
“Back in the Troubles it was a nightmare,” Paddy Smyth tells Gulf News over a beverage in a Clones hostelry. “It took more than two hours to get to Cavan” – a journey of 30 kilometres.
The Troubles refers to a three-decades’ long terrorist campaign that saw more than 3,600 killed, another 36,000 wounded and one that ended with the Good Friday Agreement that brought a lasting peace in the British ruled province of Northern Ireland. And with peace came prosperity.
“Sure you wouldn’t know now if you’re in the North,” Smyth says. “You’re in Cavan in 15 minutes. God knows what’s that’s going to be like after Brexit. Do the Brits really know what they’re doing?”
He’s a truck driver who has been pensioned off through disability – a bad back and a dodgy ticker as he says himself. “Sure, I’m only too glad I’m not driving now. Can you imagine what it’ll be like. There’ll have to be border checks.”
And Smyth says a hard border will mean a return of the “rummagers” – local slang for customs officers – who’ll be stopping and searching vehicles and lorries.
“There’s a lot of fellas ‘round here who made a good few quid shifting loads of fuel and cattle across the border,” he says with a sort of a wink-wink nudge that’s common knowledge. “A lot of the big houses here were funded through smuggling, and there’s fellas now squaring up trying to figure out how to make hay if the sun shines, if you know what I mean.”
The border is some 700km long, has more than 400 crossing points and, in some places, you can be sitting in a kitchen in the Republic and watching television in Northern Ireland.
Because Northern Ireland will be part of a UK that’s outside the EU, it will no longer be in a customs union – where goods, services and people flow freely across international borders.
“Can you imagine four customs checks driving into Cavan just to get a pint of milk?” Smyth says. “We can’t go back to that.”
That’s why EU officials have said that the border must be kept free of checks – the so-called backstop clause. It says that no matter what happens down the road in any future trade relationship between the UK and the EU, the border must stay open.
“[British Prime Minister] Theresa May signed on to the backstop 15 months ago,” Smyth says. “Now she wants to get rid of it. The danger is that Brussels might throw Ireland under the bus if they’re desperate for a deal. That’s what everyone around here is really afraid off.”
The television is showing horse racing from England and Smyth is invested for €20 on horses running at Wolverhampton.
“How are Irish horses going to be able to race in the UK after Brexit?” he asks. “Can you imagine the vet checks and all the rigmarole stables and trainers will have to go through to get their horses to any meet in England. There are a lot of Arab owners who have stables in Ireland. It’ll destroy our [horse] racing, and we’ve the best horses and stables in the world. Do they know what it’s going to be like once Brexit happens?”
Right now, no one does. And no one knows for sure just what’s going to happen in four weeks’ time.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe