Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Day in the life of a Northern Ireland border crossing where fears of Brexit economic devastation and return of barriers loom large

Leona O'Neill visits Bridgend, a village at the epicentre of the Brexit earthquake

By Leona O’Neill

Long gone are the corrugated iron military installations that blighted the stunning Donegal landscape near Bridgend during the worst days of the Troubles.

Today the only indication you are gliding from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland at one of the busiest border crossings, apart from the Irish speed signs, is the change of hue of the Tarmac on the road - the southerners prefer their roads a slightly darker shade of grey than their northern counterparts.

It was a detail that amused Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US's House of Representatives, when she visited the border in April and praised the Good Friday Agreement that helped bring the walls down.

This is one of the key crossing points between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

In just over a fortnight's time, it will be a frontier with the European Union.

Cars and lorries pass through here continuously each day.

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Statistics from Transport Infrastructure Ireland show that last Wednesday, the day we visited, 8,358 vehicles crossed this particular point over a 24-hour period.

That was 6,756 cars, 1,462 goods vehicles, 84 caravans, 32 buses and 24 motorbikes.

On average six vehicles crossed the border every minute - or one every 10 seconds.

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Irish border crossings over a 24 hour period

For some, it is more than a daily occurrence.

Conor Page is a business developer in IT. He and his family live in Donegal but he works in Londonderry, where he was born and where his parents and siblings still live.

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Conor Page

He is concerned about "someone putting a barrier between him and his family".

"I would cross the border at least three or four times a day," he explains.

"A border of any description will have a massive impact on me. My family home is in Buncrana but my mother and father still live in Derry so I have strong connections between the two places. I am not looking forward to whatever is projected.

"The unknown is the worry for everyone at the moment. I don't want to see a return to a hard border. I grew up during a time in history that means I remember the physical hard border there and all the connotations that go along with that. It was great to see it all go away."

Conor is concerned about the border becoming a target, meaning that transporting his children and loved ones across it on a daily basis might become dangerous.

"It worries me greatly that any border installations will be a target," he adds.

"You can't just put customs officials at a border installation. They are going to be looking for security. Both police forces, the PSNI and the Garda, have said they do not have the personnel or the resources.

"The only other option then is that it will be manned by the British Army. It's complete madness."

The thought of a physical block between he and his Derry-based parents is, Conor adds, "frightening".

"My mother and father still live in Derry," he says.

If something goes up along the border, that is something that will put a block across me and my family life. I wouldn't want to see any barriers come between my family and not be able to cross the border three, four, five times a day. Conor Page

"I don't want any hassle. I don't want to see it being militarised. It is frightening to think of a physical border going up and what it will put between families."

Here at Bridgend the small border line goes up the mountain and carves into the back roads of Donegal, once the haunt of masked men dumping dead bodies. It cuts through rivers and slices fields and even farms in half.

It is here, in the shadow of the Donegal mountains, where soldiers would have plastered their faces with boot polish so as not to stand out to IRA snipers as they manned the Coshquin checkpoint.

That border checkpoint became a symbol of the sheer brutality and callousness of the Troubles when, in October 1990, the IRA strapped a Londonderry father to his work van, packed with 1,000lbs of explosives, and forced him to drive there.

In what is widely considered to be one of the most despicable and sickening attacks of all those years of violence, an IRA gang held Patsy Gillespie's wife Kathleen and their teenage children hostage at gunpoint until minutes before the bomb exploded, killing him and five Kingsmen soldiers.

Today the only reminders of that Army base are the vibrant and beautiful pots of flowers Patsy's wife leaves religiously for him beside a plaque dedicated to peace at the spot he died.

Where once a virtual no man's land stood on either side of the Army checkpoint, a thriving business community has now grown, packed with restaurants, cafes, bars and shops.

Patsy's memorial plaque can be seen from the window of the Cosh Bar and Restaurant, built on the Coshquin site of the Three Flowers Bar, which was destroyed in the bombing.

A bustling and popular bar frequented by people from both sides of the border, staff are worried about what the future will hold, particularly since they are at the epicentre of the border issue.

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Declan Burke chef in the Cosh Bar and Grill on the Londonderry side of the Border

Head chef Declan Burke says it will have a huge impact.

"Any type of border will be detrimental to business here," he adds. "Even with regards the traffic flow, it will do us a lot of harm. We rely on people coming across the border and if that stops it will have a big impact on our business.

"Nobody wants to go back to a border again. There should be no border on this island."

Since 1994 we have had free movement. We have had businesses make their home here from each side of the divide and it has been great. No one wants borders again. Declan Burke

"Emotions are strong at the moment, especially the closer we get to it, and I think people not knowing, not even the people on the ground, the politicians who are meant to be running it, is having an impact.

"If they don't have a clue, what chance have the rest of us got? It will definitely have a huge impact on everything if it goes ahead.

"This country does not need to be divided again. It doesn't have to be like this. No one wants to go back to it. The people on the ground are telling me that no one wants a border. We are all in limbo."

Declan says that a border will essentially strangle business, which has spent years getting up off its knees. He has many questions.

"A border here will put a stranglehold on this thriving community," he says.

"If the politicians have their way, we will be going from an EU to a non-EU country with tariffs and taxes. In our business we are worried about what tariffs will be on our meat, on our food, and does that mean we have to raise the price for our customers and then we lose customers?

"With us being right on top of the border, this will have a hugely detrimental impact on our business."

Across the border in Bridgend's Gap Coffee Co, baker Sean Boyle says his community depends on Northern Irish customers and he worries about whether they will still come through a border.

He himself crosses the border several times a week. "Personally, for my work here, our custom comes from both north and south," he says. "It's maybe 50/50, so if there is a hard border, then it will obviously impact on this business and the people who are employed here who come from both sides of the border.

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Sean Boyle

"Family wise, I would go and visit my mother and father in Derry once or twice a week.

"The way things are going we could be cut off from our families. All people from both sides of the border in this area are going to find it difficult to keep family ties together."

Sean feels that border checks will cut the "lifeblood" from Bridgend.

"Economically, it will have a disastrous impact on this area," he says.

If people stop coming down from Derry, it will take 50% of trade away from businesses here. That means that our jobs will be in jeopardy should there be a hard Brexit. Sean Boyle

"This area of Bridgend is thriving at the moment. I feel like a border now will cut the lifeblood from this place. I remember the border as it was before. I think that people are determined not to go back there.

"None of us know if the threats being made are real or if a hard Brexit is actually going to happen. I'm not sure what people are going to do, but it's scary and I think that there is a chance that we could go back to the way things were.

"I don't think people realise how easily things can happen. It just takes a couple of cross words at a checkpoint. The next thing someone is throwing a stone. The next thing someone is arrested. You can see how quickly things can flare up. To put us in that position again is unfair. It's ridiculous."

Analysis of the hourly traffic flow at Bridgend last Wednesday shows movement right through the day.

Thirty-eight vehicles passed between midnight and 1am, dropping to just six between 2am and 3am. Unsurprisingly, the peak period in the morning was from 8am to 9am, when 725 vehicles passed through.

The peak evening period was 5pm to 6pm, when a further 839 vehicles passed.

As evening moved into night, the traffic flow dropped, with 78 vehicles clocked in the final hour of the day.

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Irish border crossings over a 24-hour period

Ciaran Brolly is an operations manager at a company in Londonderry.

He lives in Buncrana in Co Donegal and crosses the seamless border up to four times a day. For him any border checks will have a huge impact on his work and life.

"I live in Buncrana and I have travelled to work in Derry every day for the last 15 years," he says. "It has been a seamless journey compared to what I grew up with.

I cross the border at least twice a day. It depends, really. Some days it is four times or more because I leave my wife into work in Derry and pick her up again. Ciaran Brolly

"My concerns are really about the day-to-day things. We don't know what kind of infrastructure is going to be there. It's obvious under the rules that exist that something is going to have to be there."

Ciaran recalls well the memories of borders from his younger days. He says he "doesn't want that for his children".

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Ciaran Brolly Operations Manager on the Londonderry side of the border

"I worry about what it will bring," he adds. "The memories of what I grew up with, I don't want that for my children.

"We weren't too far from the bomb at Coshquin when it went off, we lived just up the road. We heard it and that was traumatic.

"Those obstacles were taken away and when you take them away you take away targets for people with radical ideas.

"You put them back and you're giving them things which are not there at the moment. A lot of innocent people got caught up in the Troubles.

"You put an installation on that road and that potentially becomes a target. There is the potential for a lot more innocent people to die. And there has been enough innocents killed."

Ciaran says he is genuinely concerned for what the future holds. "Barriers were removed and life became seamless," he explains. "And then, all of a sudden, we have people wanting to put obstacles back in. That is not good. This was not well thought through.

"It was based on a political stunt based on a promise that was made with no substance or background. The problem is that it is people in these regions who will suffer as a consequence."

Jim Guthrie is no stranger to the border. As a lorry driver, the Ballyclare-based man crosses the border alongside his colleagues several times a week.

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Jim Guthrie

He hopes that simple customs clearance checks will be all he has to contend with in the future.

"Myself and the lorry drivers I work with cross the border every day, sometimes twice a day," he says. "The only problem I can see is if they put a really hard border in and stop everything, but I think things will just carry on as normal."

Donegal's Bridgend is at the epicentre of the Brexit earthquake.

Here, as the cars and lorries continue to pass by, the fear among people is that, like many border areas, they could face total economic decimation should barriers to free movement, divisive walls and symbols of a past they would rather forget be built again.

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