“Right, I will now take you around and show you a different country,” says David Crockett as I jump in the backseat of his pickup for a tour of his farm in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. “It won’t take long.”
Less than 10 minutes later he parks the vehicle on the edge of a muddy field, points across, and says: “See that fence there? That’s the Republic of Ireland. All you have to do is walk through the gate.”
That’s how David has been running his 300-acre farm for the past 20 years — freely dipping in and out of Irish territory as he pleases. He has no choice, really. Two hundred acres of his land lies on the south. The other 100, which includes his family home, is on the north of the border.
Since the Good Friday Agreement came into effect in 1999, the sinuous 300-mile Irish border between north and south has virtually evaporated. People like David have made the most of the newfound peace, significantly prospering in the process.
“Europe has been very good in terms of grants and subsidies,” he says. “They brought the standards up, you are well paid for your stuff, and they won’t allow anything from even America to come in.”
But that could soon change. As Britain braces for a messy divorce with the Europe Union, residents of Derry — who overwhelmingly voted to remain— believe the split will have devastating consequences. “It will be disastrous for everyone,” one local told me.
For David and his farm, big changes loom large once Northern Ireland leaves the EU. For one, toiling the Irish Republic side of his land will become significantly more difficult, as different regulations and a bevy of tariffs apply.
“Before we were part of the EU we would have to go to Dublin to get an export license… and then for an import license we would have to go down to London,” he explains.
There is also the machinery. In a post-EU Northern Ireland, he expects he will no longer be able to drive his tractors from one side of the border to the other. The solution?
“I have been told I will have to move my entire business out there and buy new machinery. I will eventually have to split the farm and hand over the Irish side to my son.”
David (pictured below with his son) is a Protestant. The Troubles started when he was nine years old, and continued until he was in his 30s. For most of his childhood, division and conflict between the Catholic south and the Protestant north was all he knew. He still has vivid memories of a time when, as a young boy, he would have to lay low in the family’s kitchen while fierce gun battles between the British army and IRA militias were going on outside.
“We would go out to the fields the next morning, collect the empty bullet shells, and sell them at school,” he remembers.
Now, at 57, when he talks about the possible return of a hard border between the two Irelands, it is his business more than the historical divide between Catholics and Protestants that most worries him.
“People here don’t want a return to the violence,” he says. “They are crossing to shop. They are going down there for a pint of milk. As it is, I can go 100 yards down the road to get it. Otherwise [with a border] I would have to go a mile down the road, so convenience wise and everything else that’s a total disaster.”
But in this part of the world, politics seldom has only economic implications. Walk down to Derry’s Bogside district, historically the home of the Catholic population, and the colours and symbols serve as vivid reminders of this city’s violent past.
For the past two decades, those loyal to the Republic of Ireland have grown accustomed to living in the Northern Irish side without fear of a return to a majority British rule. But Brexit, especially among border communities, has come to once again stoke those long-dormant tensions.
Residents don’t want to go back to a time when they had to pass through army checkpoints whenever they wanted to cross to either side of the Irish isle. But with both the UK and the EU failing to offer any concrete alternatives, the border issue is preying on their minds.
“A hardening of the border completely solidifies the separation between the north and the south,” says John Kelly, educational officer at The Free Derry Museum, whose brother was killed in the Bloody Sunday Massacre. “Whereas prior to this [Brexit] happening we have free movement, we can travel without any difficulty whatsoever, in the future that will be much more difficult. It brings back bad memories to everyone around here.”
The museum, which opened a little over a week ago, is a comprehensive explanation of 50 years of the Irish Troubles and the Catholic population’s struggle for civil rights.
The project was partly funded by the EU Peace programme, which aims is to promote economic and social progress in Northern Ireland and the Border Region.
“The EU money played a major part in the founding of this place,” John tells me. “If the EU had not given us the money to help build it, I don’t think we would be sitting here today and that would have been all lost.”
Politicians at all levels of the British government are almost unanimous in their agreement that a return of a hard border on this island is not an option. Last week, however, Peter Hain, a former Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland who became a peer in 2015, told the House of Lords: “Frankly, I’m not convinced the government has begun to even grasp the political significance of it.”
The words of government officials seem to carry little weight around here. My visit coincides with the Northern Irish election, called after the Democratic Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster, became mired in a public spending scandal, and the deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, resigned.
“Not matter who’s in power it will just be more of the same,” a local told me on Thursday morning after casting his vote.
Amid the infighting between the sectarian factions of Northern Irish politics, the population of the borderlands remains in the dark in regards to the border issue. Will it be business as usual? And if a hard border is to go ahead who will manage it?
“Politicians have no clue,” David tells me. “They keep saying it’s not going to happen but then I ask ‘what’s the alternative?’ They have no answers.”