There is a lot of noise regarding Brexit and Northern Ireland right now. No need to add to that – but it is worth pausing to listen to what those in the region most affected are saying.

First published in October 2019.

The interim findings of a project on the impact and consequences of Brexit for citizens in the Central Border Region of Ireland/Northern Ireland were published on Monday, The Border Into Brexit.

These are the results of an online survey with 475 respondents from both sides of the border. The research is conducted by Dr Milena Komarova and me, Queen’s University Belfast, in collaboration with the Irish Central Border Area Network – a cross-border partnership of 8 local authorities from the region.

It shows rising anxieties about a hard border and a No-Deal Brexit is having tangible effects in the decisions and actions of people living in the border region.

The survey confirms Brexit is already having an impact on life on both sides of the border. Respondents report economic changes (e.g. job losses, business disinvestment, problems in labour recruitment) plus rising concerns about the peace process and future stability.

The Border into Brexit

The vast majority of respondents (over 80%) report that they consider a hard border to have become more likely in the past year. The primary reason given for this is the stance and language of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government towards a hard Brexit with the threat of No Deal as a credible outcome. Respondents are also strongly critical of the lack of political leadership from Stormont during this period.

The majority of respondents fear that the reality of Brexit across all aspects of life in the border region – from peace to prosperity – are still not properly appreciated by those making decisions about the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

“If the border goes through your farm or your town, then it’s part of your everyday reality.” (Respondent #9)

Those respondents who are less concerned about the risk of a hard border tend to emphasise the fact that no party wishes to see such a hard border and are confident that it is inconceivable given how much the openness of the border is valued by the UK and Ireland.

Dr Komarova, who also conducted the study, commented: “We see in the responses to this survey – from people of all ages on both sides of the border – the normality of a cross-border dimension to people’s everyday lives in the border region. This means that the potential impact of Brexit is seen to stretch across people’s daily experience and into their future plans.

The responses also demonstrate the personal and emotional reactions that so many have to the prospect of a hard border:

“The end of my world.” (R388)

“It’s like a knife through the heart.” (R125)

“The end of a truce.” (R399)

“Disaster. Pain. The past. Broken.” (R255)

The Border into Brexit

What is most striking from this study – which is the third round of such a survey in this region – is that fears of a return to violence are more prominent than ever. So we can see in real-time the potential unravelling of the trust and normalisation that has been so crucial to the building and embedding of peace in this region, which was so negatively affected by the impact of conflict for so long.

This new report is a follow-up to the Bordering on Brexit report which was published in November 2017, and which found that people in the Central Border Region felt uninformed about Brexit, unrepresented in the process, and had deep fears about the consequences of it.

The second report, Brexit at the Border, published in June 2018, showed the extent of integration in the region. It also showed that Leave and Remain voters in the region share a common priority for the border to remain as ‘seamless’ and ‘frictionless’ as it is today.

A Twitter account, @BorderBrexit, has been created to disseminate the findings of this project, including answers to survey questions on what message respondents wish to give the UK and EU27 as they approach the European Council summit this week. This twitter account will be used to share all responses to this question in the lead-up to this summit.

Last but not least, THANK YOU to all 475 respondents!🔷

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[This piece is based on a Twitter thread posted online by the author, combined with the Press Release for the study, and turned into the above article on 16 October 2019, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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