A long line of cars runs step by step towards the border on the outskirts of the city of Londonderry. Two cops with mouth caps are gonna stop every car. “Where are you going? What is the purpose of your visit?” Motorists must turn around for no valid reason.
This is the first time in many years that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will once again be visible to the people of derry / Londonderry. Once stood watchtowers and checkpoints of heavily armed British soldiers. But since The Good Friday agreements, which ended the bloody civil war in Northern Ireland in 1998, the hard border has disappeared.
It is not the brexit, but the pandemic that has led to renewed border controls. In 2020 it is the Irish police who have set up checkpoints. In doing so, the Irish authorities intend to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The county of Donegal, which borders Londonderry, has the highest number of per capita infections on the island. The Irish government’s strict lock-down rules stipulate that residents should not leave their own region unless they have a valid reason, such as work or a visit to the home.
In Northern Ireland, however, there has been less fear that the brexit will result in a permanent hard border with border posts and customs controls. London and Brussels reached an agreement last year on a separate status for Northern Ireland. The once turbulent province continues in part to follow the EU’s trade rules. It means that the border will move to the Irish Sea on 1 January. There are no controls on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and from the ports of Belfast, where the goods from the Uk mainland arrive.
Yet the concerns in Londonderry have not completely disappeared. The British are still engaged in tough negotiations with the EU on a new trade deal. A no-deal brexit could have a major impact on this Northern Ireland border region where the economies of Londonderry and Donegal are intimately linked.
Take contractor Andy O’donnell from Londonderry, who operates with his construction company on both sides of the border. “Despite the pandemic, we managed quite well this year. My biggest fear is that a no-deal is pushing the economy into a deeper recession. A no-deal will lead to price increases on 1 January.”
Entrepreneurs like O’donnell have had a taste of this in recent weeks. Many British companies build emergency stocks quickly before the end of the year to avoid any problems in January. It caused great crowds and miles of trucks in Calais, which were delayed for hours before they could make the crossing to Britain.
The crowds resulted in a shortage of some products, which had an immediate impact on O’Donnell’s company. “Many of our building materials come from the European Union. Wood, cement, concrete blocks,drywall… we all have to import it. Because of the congestion at the border, the prices of all these products have increased. We’re suddenly paying 15% more for wooden planks.”
It is not just economic problems that are of concern. In Londonderry, the city of Bloody Sunday, the violence of the Troubles is still fresh in the mind. ” Everyone thinks that the conflict in Northern Ireland has ended since The Good Friday agreements, ” says Michael Doherty. “The violence has fortunately largely disappeared, but the conflict still exists. It just changed its shape.”
Michael Doherty acted as a mediator between Catholic and Protestant groups in Londonderry during the Northern Irish Civil War. Since the 1998 peace agreements, he has worked for several peace projects. He fears that a no-deal will lead to collisions if the economy gets hit again.
‘There are still groups out there who want to force the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland by force. They can use new tensions to engage in an armed struggle.”
And whether or not there is a trade agreement, Brexit has in any case upset the fragile balance in the Northern Ireland peace process. “Since the agreements across the border, Protestant unionists have felt oppressed. They see that their relationship with the rest of Britain is weakened now that Northern Ireland has been given a separate status. On the contrary, the Catholic nationalists are hopeful that the reunification of Ireland has come a step closer. That’s a nightmare scenario for the unionists.”