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Brexit Day: Historic moment after four years of bitterness passes almost unnoticed on border

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Traffic crossing the Strabane-Lifford border yesterday

Traffic crossing the Strabane-Lifford border yesterday

Traffic crossing the Strabane-Lifford border yesterday

It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life and we're feeling... well, flat.

At 11pm on Thursday the curtain came down on the UK's membership of the European Union.

But there was no fanfare, no token protest as Irelands north and south went their separate ways, with the Republic still in the heart of EU and NI merely still in the single market for goods.

The moment went past creating barely a ripple as the UK set sail on its lone voyage into the unknown. It slipped quietly into the waters with no one there to watch the launch. There was no champagne toast.

It's not quite the celebration Boris Johnson would have anticipated when he first embarked on his Brexiteering crusade over four years ago. He might have expected fireworks to herald the moment. But, like the fireworks that traditionally herald the New Year, they were kept well under wraps.

It all seems so far removed from the bitterness and division Brexit brought, a campaign that cost two Prime Ministers in the process as David Cameron and Theresa May abandoned ship long before the destination was in sight.

Driving into this new world - brave or foolhardy, depending on your view - I'm a few miles from Strabane when two mobile phones ping their alerts.

Is it a warning I'm about to leave the new, 'free' UK and enter EU territory? Well, no. It's the usual 'Welcome to Ireland' roaming messages. No change there.

The radio signal in the car starts to dip in and out, static crackling, voices garbled. No change there.

There is barely a car on the road. And any people who are out and about are power-walking off those festive dinners, or in the lengthy queue at McDonald's, tired of cooking.

It is a sleepwalking sort of day and Northern Ireland hasn't yet woken up to the world after Brexit.

There's barely a twitch at the curtains.

There is a more pressing concern overshadowing even Brexit.

Along the main road between Strabane and Lifford there's no telling when you cross the border. Pulling in to a petrol station for a snack, the southern Tayto Cheese'n'Onion still taste good. No change there.

The staff shrug their shoulders when you ask about Brexit. No one's saying much at all, I'm told. They are all more concerned with "the Covid".

And there's the thing. It has often been a political ploy to hide major news that might not be appreciated by all behind something even more important. The Covid pandemic has still come at a useful time for the UK Government, masking Brexit, pushing it to the shadows.

It is not at the forefront of people's minds.

Businesses are more concerned about getting doors opened again rather than how they are going to operate in the weeks, months and years ahead. Survive first; find out ways to prosper later.

The sunshine and clear blue sky gives way quickly to a blast of heavy rain. Typical Irish weather. No change there.

Coming back from Lifford, there is no sense of crossing any border. The only sentries watching as cars pass by are five 20-foot tall statues bedecked in Christmas garb looking out over the Great Northern Link Road. Both phones ping again. Apparently I've left the EU, not that you would know.

There would have been plenty of frantic political phonecalls over the last few weeks around Brexit. Two youngsters mapping out their future together, neither quite ready to end the call in an endless cycle of "bye, bye, bye", and "no, you hang up". Neither quite ready to accept that the terms for letting go were quite right. The conversation will continue. There are too many other things going on in the world to part ways just yet. A relationship will endure. It may be on different terms, but that's the way relationships develop. They progress, they change. The rules that applied yesterday may not be the same tomorrow. Things move on.

Any expected instant sting of Brexit has been removed. The after-effects will still arrive, but the short sharp shock has been lessened by events of more immediate concern.

But like a bad smell lingering under a Covid-covered duvet several hours after a hefty Christmas dinner of turkey, sprouts and parsnips, washed down with a generous helping of wine and a bottle of Guinness, as a nightcap, you know what is lying in wait. Breath is being held. No one has yet lifted the duvet to waft what lies beneath into the wider world.

Politicians will continue to point fingers, say: "Well, it wasn't me". But you know there will be a hangover come morning when the covers of Brexit are thrown off for good.

As I leave the European Union behind at the border and head back down the Glenshane Pass, a warning flashes on the dashboard. The temperature has dropped. There could be icy conditions on the road ahead. Rather apt.

Belfast Telegraph


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