Reflecting the legacy of a violent past, a number of respondents connected the expectation of restrictions on cross-border movement with resonances of conflict. One resident of County Leitrim described the impact of Brexit on her personally as being a ‘sense of fear and intimidation’. For residents in the borderlands, the very concept of a ‘hard border’ is one that conjures up memories and fears of a militarised, securitised border. One respondent explained this vividly:
I grew up a stone’s throw from the border. I remember 22-mile detours to go four miles up the road. I remember the militarisation of border crossings and the closure of roads. I remember how few services we had and how difficult it was for people to survive. We were completely terrorised by the British military. I never ever want to see that again and we should never go back to that.
Resident of County Fermanagh
Any renewed physical or material manifestations of border controls are undesirable on several levels. First, they would disrupt the ‘normal’ activity of cross-border movement, trade and integration that has been so closely connected to the peace process. Second, such border controls could become targets for paramilitary activity (as they were at the start of the Troubles). Moreover, their very existence would serve as grist to the mill for mobilising resentment and distrust among local residents towards the UK government – something which only those opposed to the peace process would welcome. Finally, they would stand as a stark reminder of painful, traumatic experiences and as a symbol of regression in cross-border relations and, more broadly, in relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland. One resident of Monaghan, in the Republic of Ireland, described the effect of Brexit as follows:
It places barriers between our county and the rest of the six counties. It raises old wounds and attitudes that were prevalent during the Troubles. It is not good for the peace process.
Despite UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s reassurances that ‘no one wants to a see a return to the border of the past’, participant responses on both sides of the border repeatedly expressed the fear that a hard border would propel the borderlands back to a situation similar to that experienced during the Troubles:
Mentally, [the border conflict] has had a huge bearing on the identity of the people. Cavan, Louth, Donegal – 500 yards to your right could be danger, but to your left, you’re ok. That constant warfare mentality wears you down.
Resident of County Cavan
There was a fear when you got to the checkpoint – you didn’t know if you were going to get hauled out of the car. When people think of the border, that’s often where they go in their minds.
Resident of County Armagh
Such psychological aspects are understandable in a post-conflict context and they need to be handled with sensitivity.
It is for these reasons that Brexit may have ramifications for the peace process itself; the peaceful, unremarkable border crossing has been a hugely important part of conflict transformation. One focus group participant explains this well:
Particularly [after] 10 years working together, people [in the borderlands] have seen what life is like for normal people and they don’t want to lose that. People are annoyed, concerned, confused and getting angry.
Resident of County Monaghan
This quote reiterates the point that cross-border contact has a rare quality in the Irish border region – something quite different to contact across the English Channel. Contact is part of a process of ‘normalisation’ – one that has been facilitated by EU membership. This is not to say that this cannot be continued after Brexit, but the importance for the peace process of those social, personal contacts, the ones that don’t have an economic value or material presence, is clear.