Uncertainty & Confusion across the Brexit Divide
People in Northern Ireland voice their hopes, fears and frustrations
Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland became a key issue during the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU and, now, the so-called backstop remains a major stumbling block in the Brexit crisis that has engulfed Westminster and ended Theresa May's premiership.
It's estimated that there are 110 million people crossings per year between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The backstop is the mechanism included in the Withdrawal Agreement which maintains an open 310-mile land border on the island of Ireland, without any customs and regulatory checks, in the event that the UK and the EU fail to agree a trading relationship after Brexit or if a technological solution can’t be found to keep the border frictionless.
Those who oppose it say it undermines the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and is Brexit “in name only” if it becomes permanent. Those who back it welcome the fact that, under the backstop, the UK remains effectively in the EU customs union and Northern Ireland remains in parts of the single market.
In the run-up to the original Brexit deadline of March 29 and in the chaotic, uncertain weeks that followed we spoke to people across Northern Ireland. They voiced their hopes, fears and frustrations, as they now count down to the next Brexit deadline of October 31.
With fishermen at Kilkeel Harbour
An overwhelming majority of fishermen voted to Leave the EU in 2016.
We met fishermen at Kilkeel Harbour, which employs 1,000 people, on a rainy morning at the start of March 2019, when the UK was still due to leave the EU on March 29.
Watch them voice their hopes and their concerns in the video below.
The fishermen we met in Kilkeel say Brexit is the opportunity to right the wrongs of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). They say they will be able to catch more fish after Brexit, while the Government can limit or trade access for EU vessels fishing in UK waters.
The fishing industry is worth £100m to the Northern Ireland economy.
The CFP manages the entire European fishing fleet and fish stocks in EU waters, and part of the EU fleet depends on access to UK waters.
Alan McCulla (51) is CEO of Sea Source, a co-operative owned by fishermen in Northern Ireland. He says, for 40 years, EU fishing quotas have restricted what NI fishermen catch and earn every year.
He says Brexit will allow the UK to take back control of its waters and address what he calls the unfairness of the Common Fisheries Policy in the Irish Sea.
“The future looks positive for this industry,” he says. “We will deliver for the economy of Northern Ireland. There's a huge opportunity here. We are willing and we're able to take advantage of that and it will benefit the whole of Northern Ireland.”
Earlier this year, the Irish Navy seized two Kilkeel trawlers in Dundalk bay after the Dublin Government unilaterally pulled out of a “neighbourhood agreement" in 2016. The Irish parliament has since voted to regularise the Anglo-Irish convention which enables fishermen from Northern Ireland to fish in Irish inshore waters, and vice versa.
But, in case of a no-deal Brexit, EU fishing vessels would have to leave UK waters and UK vessels would have to leave EU waters, unless reciprocal access is agreed.
Arnold McCullough, the Director of Voyager Fishing Co, who owns a large 86m-long trawler and works in EU waters, says he favours a no-deal exit. He thinks no-deal could see the UK negotiate the terms of its future relationship with the EU from a position of strength.
“If you have the pain of moving the European fishermen out then it will be easier to get them to give concessions.”
"Brexit can only be a good thing for British fishermen", he adds.
But others are concerned about what lies ahead. Edwin Murnaghan says Brexit is a big worry for him since he catches prawns in Irish waters and exports them to the continent where tariffs and additional checks could soon apply.
“All our prawns go to the continent. Nobody seems to realise that,” he told us.
Brexit and the hospitality industry
"Post-Brexit, if we have a hard border, Guinness is an import. "
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster
Whether you’ve recently enjoyed a quiet drink in your local pub or a three course meal in a first-class restaurant, Northern Ireland is known for its hospitality industry.
This thriving sector, however, which generates £1.1 billion to the Northern Ireland economy each year, is like many others facing the challenges posed by Brexit.
Last February, the Government warned the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the UK’s food and drink sector would be more pronounced in Northern Ireland, where the sector comprises 5% of the economy.
We spoke to Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, a body which represents the many pubs, restaurants and hotels across the province:
Many of Ireland’s most iconic drinks (like Baileys) cross the border several times on the journey to the customer, leading many to speculate how prices could be affected if this journey is disrupted.
Baileys Irish Cream is manufactured in plants in Dublin and Mallusk. The cream originates from milk collected from dairy farms north and south of the Irish border.
Colin Neill said underlying cost increases could hit the customer.
“Brexit is already putting the cost up, because people are having to add in extra infrastructure, warehouse more product and indeed now you couldn’t get a warehouse in Northern Ireland, and southern Ireland is heading the same way,” he told the Belfast Telegraph in March, “so we’re already starting to see cost pressures there."
"It sounds ironic but post-Brexit if we have a hard border, Guinness is an import. And it is an iconic brand for the whole island."
The Duchess of Cambridge sips on a pint of Guinness to mark St Patrick's Day in 2017
Mr Neill said there are no tariffs on most alcoholic drinks, but there are in the packaging and container material they are shipped in, which could have a “knock on” effect on prices.
In the run-up to the original March 29 deadline, the UK’s exit from the EU made food and drink businesses spend more on stockpiling, which requires space, because they feared shortages after Brexit.
Patrick Derry, chief executive of Derry Transport, a Co Armagh firm specialising in refrigerated transport and storage for many wholesalers, said Brexit led to increased demand at the start of 2019.
“At the moment, with Brexit, there is certainly a demand and a need for more and more storage, both in dry freight, chilled and frozen,” he said when we spoke to him in March.
“Demand this past six months has been steady and I would say this past month there’s been high level demand for storage across the board."
The Brexit stockpiling boom has ended for now, with five months to go until the latest Brexit deadline of October 31.
“If there’s going to be border checks and there’s going to be delays in ports, booking times are going to change, the fresh product might not just be as fresh as it once was," Mr Derry said.
“The shelves could be potentially less than what they were before.”
A truck passes a former customs post on the northern side of the Irish border in Co Armagh
In order for the food and drink industry to function, it needs the staff to keep it running smoothly and the hospitality sector relies heavily on EU migrant workers.
With the end of free movement of people and a potential £30,000 threshold on migrant workers’ salaries, Colin Neill said access to this labour force is the “single biggest threat” to the industry.
"By 2024 we have 30,000 job vacancies to fill and need 2,000 chefs. If you take the total amount of those who are unemployed, which is about 26,000 people, if we got all those, and we won’t, it still wouldn’t fill our job vacancies,” he said.
“Unless we can convince Westminster to do something around their migration approach, it will stop growth and tourism in Northern Ireland.”
With its extended deadlines, political squabbles and uncertainty, Mr Neill also warned of how the public image of the Brexit process could hit the tourist trade on the island of Ireland.
“Anything that affects the image of a destination, the welcome of a destination, even if it is only perceived, is a downward spiral,” he said.
“If there’s a perception that ‘well, I’m going to visit Dublin, I would have went north, but I don’t know if I need a visa’ - that will stop people coming.” (*)
“We’re working very hard to grow our international market, and any negative - we had 40 years of negative - we don’t need, we need to be the most welcoming and wonderful place. The ironic thing is: we are.”
(*) The EU has agreed to give British citizens visa-free travel to member states for up to 90 days, even in the event a no-deal Brexit. The UK has also said that EU citizens will be able to make short visits without a visa after Brexit.
Farmers and Brexit
"If you have a family farm that you want to keep in business, certainly economics outweighs politics. "
Ivor Ferguson, Ulster Farmers Union President
The Ulster Farmers' Union has repeatedly warned that a no-deal Brexit would be "economically disastrous" for the farming industry in Northern Ireland.
The agriculture and food processing sectors are a large part of the local economy, worth over £1bn annually (at basic prices). Farms are located predominantly in border/rural areas.
Without certainty on the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU, the UFU says there are serious and immediate concerns for milk and sheep farmers who rely on cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland.
A lamb born in North Antrim (Julien Behal/PA)
“Some sectors would be more affected than others”, said UFU president Ivor Ferguson. “From that point of view, a no-deal would be a nightmare.”
After Brexit, tariffs and regulations on the export of beef, lamb, milk and cheese may make EU markets less open to Northern Irish exports, while cheaper imported food from outside the EU could disrupt the local market. Access to the agricultural workforce from within the European Economic Area will also end with free movement.
We talked to farmers from both the Remain and Leave camps:
Brexit means the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has underpinned the sector’s finances for decades, will no longer apply once the UK leaves the EU.
In 2017, farmers in Northern Ireland shared nearly £315m of CAP subsidies from the EU. The UK Government says they receive, on average, higher levels of direct support than farmers in other areas of the UK.
Farm subsidies in Northern Ireland could halve by 2030 due to Brexit, experts warned in April 2019 (Ben Birchall/PA).
But farmers who voted leave, like Derek Torrens, a cattle breeder in Ballybogey, say the CAP is not delivering for agriculture.
“I’ve always thought that farming cannot prosper when it’s being regulated to death. That’s exactly what the European Union is doing. I’d be happy with just walking out with no-deal, clean cut.”
The government has pledged to provide financial support to farmers in the UK until the end of this parliament, expected in 2022, once CAP subsidies end.
The UFU has backed Theresa May's Brexit deal, including the Irish border backstop. But not all farmers agree.
Opponents to the backstop say avoiding barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is the priority, while its supporters believe that ensuring as frictionless as possible cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is key.
“I would say there are quite a few farmers in Northern Ireland who, with their political hat on, probably don’t like the Prime Minister’s deal, but they have to get their priorities right... If they have a family farm they want to keep in business and make attractive for the next generation, certainly economics outweighs politics.”
With football fans at the Brandywell
Derry City v Dundalk, March 15th 2019
Derry City FC – the UK-based club competing in a domestic league in the EU
With the future of Brexit still uncertain, preparations continue in earnest to lessen its impact, especially in border regions like Derry and Newry.
Derry City Football Club are in a particularly unique position.
The club originally competed in Northern Ireland’s Irish League before withdrawing at the height of the Troubles in 1972, when the club was forced to play their home games in nearby Coleraine.
Many of the unionist dominated teams in the Irish League did not feel comfortable travelling to games at the club’s Brandywell stadium in Derry’s nationalist Bogside area.
The club eventually joined the Republic of Ireland’s League of Ireland in 1985.
Success followed, with massive crowds at the Brandywell and treble success under local manager Jim McLaughlin in 1989.
Another league win came in 1997 and the club also enjoyed a famous European run under future Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny in 2006.
Recent years have proved more difficult for the club, financial irregularities led to relegation and reformation in 2009, and the club lost their record goalscorer Mark Farren to cancer aged 33 in 2016. Derry’s captain Ryan McBride then died suddenly in March 2017 at the age of just 27. The club’s ground has since been renamed the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium in his honour.
Fans stand for a two minute applause in memory of Ryan McBride at the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division Derry City vs Dundalk game on Friday March 15th, 2019.
Although the club has now stabilised on and off the field, Brexit could make things difficult once more.
After Brexit, Derry City will be a unique position … the only UK-based football club competing in a domestic league in the EU.
Every time the club travel to the Republic of Ireland to play an away fixture, they will be travelling across the UK/EU border.
While the Common Travel Area (CTA) remains in place protecting freedom of movement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland (*), any changes to the border, such as infrastructure, could affect fans and players alike.
The Candystripes' former manager and all-time record appearance holder Peter Hutton told the Belfast Telegraph that Brexit posed real issues for the club.
“From the club’s perspective it’s just the uncertainty, for people not knowing what’s happening, especially when you have to cross borders,” the club legend said.
“It affects attracting players too, even with the fluctuation of the Sterling and Euro, for players and their wages.”
The club itself has said that it is “unable to comment on any issues Brexit-related while the matter remains unresolved”.
We spoke to a number of home and away fans ahead of Derry City’s 2-0 defeat to League of Ireland Champions Dundalk at the Brandywell on March 15:
Derry fan Troy Armour said the big thing was that “nobody” knew what was going to happen with Brexit, while fellow fan John McLaughlin said that the aim of sport should be to “unify people”.
Dundalk fans Barry Carr and Jason McKeown also gave their views, with Mr Carr saying the fact Derry fans required an insurance green card to travel by car to away games was an “absolute disgrace”.
Chairman of Derry City’s Northside Supporters Club Michael Kerrigan said the fans would not be deterred from travelling by any border issues.
Mr Kerrigan (75) has been supporting Derry since their Irish League days and also serves as the fan club’s bus driver. He has driven fans all over Ireland in the last 20 years.
“We don’t really know how we’re going to be affected, all I can say is right now to get to matches is pretty straightforward, there are no complications,” he said.
"When we had border issues in the past it didn’t stop us going to matches, it’s a way of life. At the same time, we couldn’t imagine going back to that."
“If we get a deal hopefully there won’t be any big difficulty, but a hard Brexit is something to worry about,” Mr Kerrigan added.
The Foyle parliamentary constituency, in which Derry City are based, voted 78.3% in favour of remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum.
On 29 March - the date on which the UK was due to leave the EU – Derry City defeated Sligo Rovers at the Brandywell thanks to goals from David Parkhouse and Ciaron Harkin.
(*) The British and Irish governments have signed a deal pledging to preserve the Common Travel Area (CTA) after Brexit. Citizens of both states will continue to move freely between the UK and the Republic. The CTA also guarantees cross-border access to education and healthcare.
Second year QUB politics student Niamh Oddy, from Birmingham, was 16 at the time of the referendum and therefore was not eligible to vote.
“I was really frustrated. I thought ‘Brexit is going to disproportionately affect me and people that are my age group’. I do think they should have lowered the voting age to 16 to give young people more of a voice and I do think that would have affected the outcome.”
The 20-year-old has concerns over the likely Brexit consequence of fewer European nationals choosing to study in Northern Ireland due to the introduction of higher international fees and the hassle of sorting visas.
“Because I study politics we have a lot of European students and I think it really does add something.
“It adds different perspectives. There is a diversity now that is good for learning and seeing a range of opinions and I think it would be a detriment to students to not have that experience.”
As vice president of the QUB Amnesty International society and the student representative for Northern Ireland, Niamh has thrown herself into campaigning for law reform in the province for issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.
She says Brexit has been a “massive distraction” to politicians who have people on their doorstep who need looked after.
“Brexit has meant that none of those other social issues are addressed or touched on in any other way - especially here with no assembly. Really, that shouldn’t have gone on so long and our priority should have been to get it back up and running.
“But there is nobody to legislate within Northern Ireland and there’s no political will within Westminster to rectify that.
“In the meantime, people’s human rights are being infringed, people are going through horrible and traumatic experiences and they’re pushed to the wayside in the name of prioritising Brexit and it’s vastly unfair.”
Jason Bunting, 21, from Lurgan, is a final year French and politics student at Queen’s University Belfast.
Jason was 19 at the time of the 2016 EU referendum and voted to remain in the EU.
As a languages student, he jumped at the chance to take part in the Erasmus Programme, an EU student exchange which has been running since 1987. It allows residents of EU nations to study in other EU nations as 'home students' and fees are generally lower or non-existent compared to those charged to international students.
But the future of the availability of the popular exchange programme to UK students is now uncertain, with funding not guaranteed for those who have secured places for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Jason went to a French city called Tours, south-west of Paris, to teach English in schools and improve his French.
“I had an amazing experience at the heart of a European city and that really hit home how important opportunities like that are for people,” said Jason.
“The difference, honestly, in terms of maturity and independence that Erasmus gives you is second to none. The difference in me is just incredible and it’s so sad to think that that might not happen in the future for people… I would recommend it to anyone and fingers crossed that in some iteration, it continues.”
Jason said that he can only describe how he feels about Brexit as “massive anxiety and confusion about where this country is headed and frustration at people who aren’t able to make a decision”.
“I don’t think there’s been any point during this process where students have felt actually consulted and it is going to impact us.
“The real thing that’s been left out of all of this is an acceptance or consideration for the fact that it’s young people’s futures that are going to be affected by this and this is the generation that are going to have to deal with the consequences of Brexit. And the people who are delivering it, or attempting to, don’t seem to be giving us much regard.”
Magdalena Wolska, 43, moved to Northern Ireland from her native Poland 12 years ago, a few years after her home country joined the European Union.
“At the beginning it was very difficult. People blamed me and said I took their jobs,” she recalls.
“When I moved here, my neighbours thought I was a cleaner because they assumed that all Polish people are cleaners. When I explained to them what I’m doing, I think they were very impressed”.
Magdalena lives in Glengormley, where she owns her house, and is an international officer at the Northern Regional College.
“I wanted (the UK) to stay in the European Union,” she says of the 2016 referendum. “But the more the process goes through, the more I want Brexit now because I want people to be happy.”
“(The majority of people) demanded Brexit and it wasn’t delivered. And because they are angry it goes against us, immigrants. I hope at the end they will get what they want.”
Latest data from the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency estimates that 96,000 people resident in Northern Ireland were born in the EU27, of whom 34,000 were born in the Republic (1.5% of the total NI population) and 62,000 were born in another EU country (3.3% of the total NI population). Of these 62,000 people, 44,000 are employed and working in Northern Ireland (representing 5% of the employment total according to latest figures from the Department of the Economy). The majority came from Poland and Lithuania.
The DoE says the sectors with the highest share of EU workers are manufacturing and distribution, hotels and restaurants.
Since 2008, employment growth in Northern Ireland has been driven by migrant workers from the EU26. But the DoE says that, since the EU referendum, the overall trend is for falling net migration into Northern Ireland.
"A lot of Polish people have left and are still leaving Northern Ireland," Magdalena told us.
"I’m very positive. Whatever happens I will make the most of it. I’m a free person. I can leave this country at any time. I can go back to Poland. I can move to another country."
Like all EU migrants already residing in the UK, Magdalena will need to apply for Settled Status in order to be able to continue living and working in the UK after Brexit, when free movement will end.
"My plan is to stay here forever. I hope (Brexit) doesn’t change anything for me."
"Brexit has me steaming mad"
"The EU has helped build a bridge between communities and its absence could be detrimental and divisive."
Northern Ireland man Dennis Kennedy has spent a lifetime reporting on, working in and studying the European Union.
He started out as a reporter for the Belfast Telegraph before travelling the world, landing at the Irish Times where he rose to the position of deputy editor. While reporting for the Times he was based in Brussels and was there during the negotiations before the UK joined what effectively became the EU.
"And back then it was all about the contest between the two sides," he said. "The UK at that stage was 20 years behind. There already were the mechanisms and functions in place - they were behind the curve.
"For the British it was about what they could get out of the deal, how they could make the European leaders compromise, how they could win."
Dennis tells a story of how in the days before rolling news and speculation on social media, there was one daily press conference on the talks between the EU and UK.
But that did not suit the deadlines of London's Fleet Street.
"So the British held their own press conference at 7pm," continues Dennis. "And it was always going great for them. They were getting this and not conceding on something else and running a hard bargain.
"Of course when the two sides held their press conference later, at times, it was a completely different story. But that maybe didn't get reported on the next day and the cycle went on."
Over the years Dennis found the London Press approach in Brussels - which once included a young Boris Johnson in his reporting days for The Daily Telegraph - as "stand-offish".
"There was a feeling 'we like these Europeans.. but they are a bit odd,' they were always looking for the quirky story, it was never taken as seriously as maybe it should have been."
A former journalist from Lisburn, Dennis Kennedy (left) was Head of the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland from 1985 to 1991.
From the referendum to the triggering of Article 50 and all the shenanigans since, Dennis admits Brexit has him "steaming mad".
"There are so many falsehoods," he goes on.
"You hear the claim of the EU being full of unelected bureaucrats, which is a nonsense. It may be difficult and complicated… but it is profoundly democratic," he argues.
"People talk of how we never signed up to what the EU has become. But even in 1972 there was talk of greater cohesion, economic unions and even a single European currency."
"Harold Wilson was cute in holding a referendum on membership. Like David Cameron he wanted to see off the Eurosceptics - except he was better at it, and he won."
In 1985 Dennis was appointed head of the European Commission in Belfast.
A "Dublin plant" was the claim of the late DUP leader and then MEP Ian Paisley, while the UUP MEP John Taylor - now Lord Kilclooney - vowed never to darken the door of his office in Windsor House, now the five-star Grand Central Hotel in the city centre.
"Paisley became both adversary and friend while Taylor kept his word, although he was often on the phone and helped greatly with research papers," Dennis smiles.
Research, briefing papers, consulting with various groups and the Press were the main work of the office, run with a tiny budget for carrying out its duties.
Dennis points to many tourism projects across Northern Ireland and around border communities which his office helped support - and which have in the main since folded.
"They were billed as 'tourism' projects but what chance tourism had as the Troubles were still going?
"There is a plaque somewhere in Navan with my name on it," he says.
He says the Waterfront project in Belfast would most symbolise the work of the commission in Northern Ireland during his tenure. The design and concept was brought about and supported by his office before completion after his departure in 1991.
"It has been transformative... that area of the city has been transformed from what it once was. "
Dennis is concerned about the uncertainty Brexit will bring in the short term but is adamant the debate on rejoining will prevail in the long term.
"For Northern Ireland," Dennis says, "Brexit brings uncertainty".
But he believes European integration will continue to be part of the conversation in the future and the debate on rejoining will remain prevalent and prevail in the long run.
"I would not credit the EU with the peace process - it was not instrumental but it certainly did help.
"The Belfast Agreement's identity aspect - allowing people to be British, Irish or both - was made possible because everyone was European.
"It was an underpinning of the agreement.
“It's been an umbrella - it has helped the majority of people - the majority in both communities.
"The EU has helped build a bridge between communities and its absence could be detrimental and divisive."