Brexit is maddening and saddening, according to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
He told an audience in Dublin on Tuesday that Britain’s departure from the EU made him “furious”, but might also be “one of the saddest moments in 21st-century European history”.
Tusk chose the right location for his comments, which reflect the feelings of large portions of the population both north and south of the border in Ireland, and nowhere more so than along that almost invisible (for now) divide.
It’s been well reported how unpopular a potential return to a hard border is in Ireland. For people in Northern Ireland, where the majority voted to Remain in the EU referendum, it’s even more unappealing.
One of the immediately evident changes the Good Friday Agreement, signed 20 years ago this week, affected was the removal of border checkpoints, making travel between Northern Ireland and the Republic seamless.
People who have for the past two decades lived their lives in a cross-border fashion – maybe living in the Republic while working in Northern Ireland or vice versa, crossing the border for a shortcut to their kids’ school, shopping in a different currency depending on rates and prices – are now facing potentially huge changes.
I’m from a border town. I remember a time when it was normal to wait in a queue of cars to be waved through by armed soldiers on the way back from a day at the seaside, but I grew up mainly not noticing what side of the line I was on. In most border areas, both euro and sterling are accepted in shops, bars and restaurants, so aside from the road signs, it might be hard for an outsider to tell whether they’re in one place or the other.
Coming from a border town, with family and friends still living there, it’s easy to appreciate the frustration felt by people who have no way to plan for the future, because they don’t know how or when their lives might be massively disrupted. It’s also not hard to share the feeling of sadness that a way of life as we know it could be coming to an end.
However, it’s clear from events earlier this week that there are some who really don’t understand the dread, the worry and the sheer annoyance felt by those waiting for certainty on an issue they thought had been dealt with 20 years ago.
The proposed renewed border of course carries with it a problem more pressing than disruption to people’s everyday lives – fears of a return to the violence of the past. The Good Friday Agreement is acknowledged to be an incredible force for good, but it hasn’t miraculously evaporated tensions, and it certainly hasn’t put a stop to paramilitary activities. Beatings and shootings carried out by dissident groups, both Loyalist and Republican, aren’t completely out of the ordinary even now, although the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want nothing more than to avoid any escalation of the violence.
Which makes it even harder to stomach Labour MP Barry Gardiner’s claims that the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish border were being “played up” for economic reasons during the course of Brexit talks. Despite his apologies since they came to light, the remarks betrayed a total disregard for the people who are actually affected by these matters. For many, Gardiner confirmed that this dismissive attitude towards Northern Ireland still exists on a broader scale – the comments weren’t terribly surprising for people still waiting for any hint from their government of what the future will hold. And they certainly haven’t done much to dissipate the sadness and the anger that Tusk highlighted in his speech in Dublin.
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