Survey reveals devastating emotional impact as people in area fear return of hard border

The re-emergence of Irish border checks risks turning the region into a depressing and jobless area with a devastating emotional impact on people, a survey has found.

The research into emotional attitudes exposes the high level of anxiety experienced by the 1 million people living north and south of the border.

One person described the feeling as like being hunkered down waiting for a storm. Others fear the calm of the past 20 years will be wrecked, with one respondent describing the potential of a border as the end of a truce.

[A hard border would mean] the loss of everything I thought wed achieved in the Good Friday agreement: shared space, goodwill and cooperation, mutual acceptability of identity and aspirations and a chance finally to put the past behind us.

We are at grave risk of being dragged back 20 years or more and I find that both appalling and heartbreaking, said one.

Quick guide

Why is the Irish border a stumbling block for Brexit?

Counties and customs

Inside the EU, both Ireland and Northern Ireland are part of the single market and customs union so share the same regulations and standards, allowing a soft or invisible border between the two.

Britains exit from the EU taking Northern Ireland with it risks a return to a hard or policed border. The only way to avoid this post-Brexit is for regulations on both sides to remain more or less the same in key areas including food, animal welfare, medicines and product safety.

The ‘backstop’ in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was intended to address this – stating that if no future trade agreement could be reached between the EU and the UK, then rules and regulations would stay as they are. This has been rejected by Brexit supporters as a ‘trap’ to keep the UK in the EU’s customs union, which would prevent the UK striking its own independent trade deals.

There are an estimated 72m road vehicle crossings a year between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and about 14% of those crossings are consignments of goods, some of which may cross the border several times before they reach a consumer. Brexit supporters say this can be managed by doing checks on goods away from the border, but critics say it will be difficult to police this without any physical infrastructure like border posts or cameras, which could raise tensions in the divided communities of Ireland.

Interactive: A typical hour in the life of the Irish border

Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Design Pics RF

More than four in five respondents believe a hard border is now more likely than it was in 2018, the study by Katy Hayward, a political sociologist, and Milena Komarova, a research fellow, from Queens University in Belfast found.

In an online survey involving 475 people over a five-week period in the third of a series of research works since 2017.

The word devastating came up frequently, often combined with a sense of powerlessness and anger over the lack of political interest in their lives.

I feel very angry that there is no one to represent my voice in the UK parliament, and also our local assembly. This is the area that will be most affected [by Brexit] and where are the leaders representing us? said one respondent.

Asked what a hard border meant to them, the responses were overwhelmingly negative. Even those who thought the probability was exaggerated said some disruption was inevitable.

[A hard border would mean] the end of my world. It will have a severe impact on my mental health. My anxiety is already very high as a result of Brexit, said one.

Its like a knife through the heart, said another. We dont want a border and we will not stand for one.

Another said: It would be emotionally devastating. A sense that my country did not care about us at all and was willing to sacrifice the peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland for some nebulous making Britain great again. It will cost us our peace.

A different respondent said: Things have been relatively positive hearts and minds were calmer and amenable. A hard border will wreck that.

Another said it would mean disaster, pain, the past, broken.

Others warned of the business consequences. I will be out of business overnight, said one, while others said the political consequence would be a united Ireland.

A handful of respondents, all of whom were leave voters, said that although no deal would not bring any benefits, it would be better than having a good deal given the intransigence of the EU.

Respondents on the south of the border said that if checks returned they would avoid going into Northern Ireland, just as they did during the Troubles. We wont be travelling into the north, its as simple as that, said one.

The fear of a return to violence is ever present, according to the responses. A no-deal Brexit means all bets are off, anything could happen, said a respondent.

The survey showed how the border issue is central to peoples lives, whether they live in the north or south. Because the border cuts through our parishes, neighbourhoods, farms and homes, it will affect us in every single thing we do, said one respondent.



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