Paul Vallely is worried about being stranded if Britain leaves the EU.
As the joint owner of a rug distribution business in the Northern Ireland town of Newry, he ships to customers in Europe and faces logistical hurdles if the UK votes to leave the bloc. But his real concern is the border, just a few miles to the south, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Mr Vallely can barely imagine negotiating a newly reinforced Irish border — with customs posts, queues and traffic delays on the motorway to Dublin. “I find it hard to envisage the M1 with a border checkpoint,” he says of the road he often travels down as he follows the matches of his beloved Gaelic football team. “My fear is that Newry once again becomes a town close to a semi-closed border, a dead-end town.”
Such worries about the border are widespread in both Northern Ireland and the Republic as debate intensifies about a possible Brexit — an issue that Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s foreign minister, said last year “matters more for Ireland than any other member state”.
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Brexit would not only potentially disrupt trade ties between Ireland and the UK, which accounts for almost a quarter of all Irish exports to the EU, it could also put in doubt the closer ties with Northern Ireland that played a big role in ending 30 years of violence.
Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, has described Brexit as “a major strategic risk” — “a vital issue for Britain and Europe and a critical issue for Ireland”, urging EU leaders at a summit last month to do their utmost to “battle for Britain” and keep the UK within the bloc.
Mr Kenny has urged Irish citizens who have a right to do so to vote against Brexit in the UK’s June 23 referendum. The UK is home to an estimated 6m people who can claim an Irish passport, but ties go much further.
UK-Irish trade is estimated at €1bn a week by the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce. Dublin-London is the world’s second busiest international air route. Hundreds of Irish people travel to Liverpool, Manchester and London every weekend to attend Premier League football matches. Tens of thousands of Britons live in the Republic.
And yet still greater impact could be felt within the island of Ireland itself, particularly in places such as Newry, where cross-border shopping trips are a daily fact of life.
The Irish border was a contested frontier for nearly a century until the ending of the “Troubles”, the decades of violence that scarred Northern Ireland until the 1990s, in which more than 3,600 people died. While the border remains a legal and political fact, it has been disappearing for all practical purposes in the past two decades.
That change is transforming the way people in both parts of Ireland see themselves and their future. The Republic has a growing role in the governance of Northern Ireland. There are tentative steps towards the creation of an all-island economy. There has been a revival of north-south business, cultural and political links not seen since before the 1921 Partition between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — about €3bn of goods cross the border between the two each year, according to Intertrade Ireland, a cross-border organisation.
“It’s as if there is a single market on the island again,” says Daithi O’Ceallaigh, a former Irish ambassador to the UK.
Kieran Grant, financial director of Warrenpoint port near Newry, says re-establishing border controls would turn the clock back a quarter of a century. “Our older customers just shake their heads at the idea that things could go back to that,” he says.
Irish officials complain that British campaigners who want the UK to leave the EU have failed to appreciate how such ties could be put at risk if the UK leaves an organisation the two countries joined together on the same day in 1973.
Brexit campaigners respond that British-Irish relations would not be altered fundamentally and that the UK would be able to strike a trade agreement with the EU that would allow trade to continue unhindered across the border with Ireland.
Boris Johnson, the London mayor who has became a leading face of the campaign to leaving the EU, said on a trip to Northern Ireland this week that the region had “absolutely nothing to be concerned about” in the event of Brexit. Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, says her Democratic Unionist party, which had historic misgivings about integration with the Republic, will campaign to leave the EU.
In Newry, the main concern is the border, once patrolled by the British army but shorn of relevance in recent decades. Conor Patterson, chief executive of Newry and Mourne Enterprise Agency, sees Brexit as “a real and present danger”. He adds that his sons have no concept of what a border is. But a British decision to leave the UK could yet make the old dividing line with Ireland the new external frontier of the EU.