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Fears of Ireland hard border nightmare - residents whose lives straddle line on a map

With a deal on Brexit yet to be thrashed out, Donna Deeney hears the concerns of people in Londonderry and Donegal about how it could radically affect their lives

June 24, 2016, is a date Ken Breslin is unlikely to forget. He had gone to bed the night before, confident that once all the votes were counted in the EU referendum everyone would wake up and nothing would have changed.

But when he did wake up everything had changed - and dramatically so.

The UK had voted for Brexit, plunging the country into uncharted waters.

While no one knows for certain what the lay of the land will be once the relationship has been dissolved, it is accepted that people living along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will be most affected.

Mr Breslin and his wife Louise, who are both from Londonderry, bought their home in Muff village, across the border in Co Donegal, two years ago because it offered the lifestyle they wanted for their family - quiet, relaxed and close enough to the city where they both work.

He said: "I remember waking up the morning after the voting and straight away it affected us because the pound fell in value. That meant our mortgage payments cost us more, but while the currency exchange seems to have settled a bit, there are still two more years to go before this is all finalised.

"We bought our house two years ago when sterling was strong, so we were getting good value for our money because both my wife and I work in Derry.

"Brexit has also affected the value of our house because people are not sure how this is going to pan out, so they are reluctant to move to Muff. There are houses around here that were on the market when we bought ours and still haven't been sold.

"They have fallen into a bad state so that's a bit off-putting, especially for people who might want to sell their own house.

"We are content here, we love living in Muff so selling up and moving back into Derry isn't something we are considering, so we are lucky that way.

"We have three children and we wanted to bring them up in a more rural environment, but still close enough that we didn't have to move them away from their friends or take them out of their schools.

"Muff is only five minutes away from Derry so it was perfect for us, but now the whole Brexit thing has risen its head.

"We cross from Muff to Derry about six or seven times a day between going to and from work, taking our children to various clubs and sports and to visit family. The idea that there would be a hard border is a nightmare.

"There are lots of secondary roads that we use but if they were blocked off the way they were during the Troubles then we would very likely have to add an extra hour to our journey every time we go out."

The interconnection between Derry and Donegal cannot be over exaggerated.

It is difficult to find a family that does not have roots in both counties and the ebb and flow of life between the two has been seamless since the Army check points were removed.

For a generation there has been no barrier and the biggest inconvenience for many is having to keep two purses - one for euros and one for sterling - but even this isn't really necessary because shops in one place will happily accept the currency of the other.

This weave of connectivity is taken to an even higher level by Davy Crockett who has a 300-acre farm straddling both counties. While his home is in Londonderry, three quarters of his land is in Bridgend in Donegal.

He keeps sheep, dairy cattle and grows cereal in both jurisdictions.

It is the mountain of paper work on his desk with files marked Sheep NI, Sheep ROI, Cattle NI and Cattle ROI that shows this is not your average farm.

Mr Crockett explained that, hard or soft, there has been a border on his farm since 1923.

"My grandfather bought this farm in 1911. He was milking cows here and sending the milk up to Derry, but after partition the border split the farm," he said.

"At the beginning of the financial year in April 1923 my grandfather went to bring the cows in from the Donegal side of the farm.

"There was a policeman standing there and told him, 'that's the last time you are going to do that'.

"He closed the gate up that day, so right away there was the effect of the border.

"I still cannot bring my cattle across that gate even though we are all in the EU.

"That's classified as a separate herd. I can't house them in here so if it's like that now when we are in the EU, it is going to be a disaster when we leave.

"The bulk of my land is in Donegal so it is in the EU, but if there is a hard border I couldn't go in and bring my cereal across without having to fill in forms because I would be exporting food.

"Whatever I produce in Donegal I would have to keep there and whatever I grow on this side I would have to keep.

"That's the way it has always been for my father and for me. It was my grandfather that actually saw the change from introducing a border.

"If they bring in a hard border I can see this farm as it is ceasing to exist and we will be farming only in the Republic because three quarters of land is there.

"The people living along the border are the only ones that know how bad it will be.

"The people living in Belfast, Liverpool or London are saying 'Oh, it will be all right' because it won't affect them one iota, not at all."

Mr Crockett has always been aware that there is at least a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which meant crop and herd segregation and extra paperwork.

Hard or soft, when it came to deciding where to live as a newly married couple, the border didn't even exist for Ruairi and Alicia O'Kane.

They bought their home in Muff seven years ago - just five minutes away from Mr O'Kane's family who live in Londonderry.

He said: "We could have bought a house in the north but we decided on this house because Muff is essentially a suburb of Derry.

"If people say to me where in Donegal do you live, I say 'the Derry part' and if people say where in Derry do you live, I say 'the Donegal part', that's how linked the two places are.

"There is a wonderful community feel living here, it is the rural lifestyle we both wanted.

"This is the perfect area for us, it is close to both our families in Derry but it also far enough away from Derry. It is peaceful, it has a rural feel to it, there are fields and you can hear the birds."

He added: "There is a lovely play park for the children but that was paid for by the community and you have to pay to see the doctor. However, because we are both working we pay to see our dentist which is the same no matter where you live.

"Anyone needing to get to a hospital quickly will get taken to Altnagelvin because that's the closest, but you would have to wonder if that will change once Brexit takes effect."

For the people in border communities such as these, the future holds only uncertainty.

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