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Voices Of: Aidan Donaghey on Ireland and Brexit

Aidan Donaghey is a first-year student in Jonathan Edwards College from Donegal, Ireland, a town located on the border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. This border region retains the scars of violence that spanned the second half of the twentieth century. With the date for Brexit approaching next month, the UK’s only land border with the European Union has once again become a source of tension.

The Politic: Alright, thank you so much for talking with me Aidan. Let’s start off by just setting the scene. So if you could just tell me a bit about where you’re from…

Aidan Donaghey: I’m from a place called Derry, or Londonderry. It’s a town that goes by both names. It’s in Ireland, actually in Northern Ireland, but it’s right next to the border of the Republic of Ireland. It’s a pretty historic city. It has a lot of history, a lot of involvement in The Troubles [The Troubles were a time of political conflict in Northern Ireland that began in the 1960’s and lasted until 1998. Disagreements over whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or unify with the Republic of Ireland lead to violence and paramilitary warfare throughout this period.] and in general in Ireland’s past, but it’s quite a nice city nowadays and [Derry] was quite a nice place to grow up.

As you mentioned, the UK-Ireland border was a source of tremendous conflict in a period known as The Troubles for a couple of decades at the end of the 20th century. Most of this conflict centered around disagreements between pro-Ireland nationalists and pro-UK unionists, and the division resulted in really horrific violence. Would you mind explaining the legacy of the troubles, and any ways that this conflict is still visible today?

It’s visible no matter where you go in Ireland—Northern Ireland in particular, but even more so in Derry. As you walk through, you’ll see streets that would be predominantly Unionist [referring to those in Northern Ireland who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom], Protestant areas, and you’ll see Union Jacks being flown on all the pavements along the street, painted red, white, and blue for the Union Jack. And then, in contrast, just across the river, there’ll be streets that are the complete opposite, with Irish tri-colors flying, murals of IRA and pro-military war heroes, and their pavements will be painted green and orange.

Beyond that, we grew up in a place where our parents grew up scared to live. There was violence throughout all my parents’ generations, and my grandparents’ generation as well. And it does have a lasting effect—there is a lot of work to try and move forward and past it, but so many things happened and there was so much spilt milk that it really has [brought] quite a stain on the city.

In an amazing act of compromise, The Troubles were ended by the Good Friday agreement in 1998. One of the compromises as part of this peace agreement was the establishment of a free and open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. What does that border looks like today, and what role has it played in your community?

So I grew up in Derry, as I said, and my whole life was in Derry: I went to school in Derry, and all my family lived there, but my [immediate] family lived a place called Donegal, which is maybe five to ten minutes away. But it just so happens that Donegal is in the Republic of Ireland, whereas Derry remains in Northern Ireland.  I had to cross the border to go to school and to work to the point where I was crossing maybe five or six times a day. You really can’t tell they’re two different countries, the only difference being once you cross you start spending Euros instead of Great British pounds.You’ll see the traffic signs change from kilometers an hour to miles an hour. But apart from that there’s no real distinct way to tell. As you say, it was an amazing act of compromise, and it’s created somewhere where you can no longer see the ideological differences that divide the country. You really wouldn’t be able to tell that they’re two separate countries just on first inspection.

This border has once again become a source of conflict after the UK voted to leave the European Union, back in 2016. With Ireland being part of the EU, this is the only land border between the UK and the European Union. The official date for Brexit is rapidly approaching, and British EU leaders have been really struggling about where to enforce customs and immigration laws to achieve the goal of securing the UK borders. One option that’s been put forth is closing the border between Northern Ireland and the nation of Ireland itself. If customs and immigration would be enforced on this border, how would this affect life in your community?

Everyone would be affected. It would decimate so many people’s lives. As I said, all of my family works in Northern Ireland, and we travel across the border every day. If they were to put a new border again, a hard border, we would be stopped five or six times a day, and we would probably have to move houses to a new country. We’d have to move back either into Northern Ireland or my mum and dad would have to find work in the Republic of Ireland. It’s going to destroy the housing market around there.

There’s a thriving economy around the border, for people crossing back and forth, because there’s some benefits from buying certain things depending on the country. Even beyond that, as I said, there’s a group of Unionists and a group of Nationalists which really make up Northern Ireland, and whether the Unionists feel entirely connected to Britain, Irish nationalists really have an Irish identity—it’s what they fought for all throughout The Troubles, and if they were to rebuild a border, like there was during The Troubles, I think a lot of violence could reemerge.

What you would be doing would be cutting people off from somewhere they believe they come from—somewhere where they feel like they should be able to travel freely. As a Northern Irish citizen, you have the right from the Good Friday Agreement to either be an Irish citizen or a whole British citizen. You can declare whichever one you want depending on the circumstances, so it allows you to travel freely to the UK and also freely around Europe. If the border was to go back up, so many people’s rights would be infringed on, to the point where they can’t travel into the country that they genuinely believe is their country. For a lot of people, this border shouldn’t be there at all, and, by building it, all you’re going to do is rewind the clock to a time where there was a lot of turmoil in the area and it led to The Troubles throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

Prime minister Theresa May of the UK has put forth a backstop agreement—which means that when March 28th comes, and the UK is set to leave the EU, the border would remain open. However, this agreement was resoundingly rejected by UK’s parliament, and although May is drafting alternate proposals, it’s unclear what exactly is going to happen in March. As these negotiations continue, what do you think would be the best outcome in terms of the border?

Well I’m not a fan of Brexit in general. It’s not something I would have voted for if I had been of age during the vote. I respect the fact that it’s a democracy and that’s what’s passed. There was a lot of issues around the referendum…and it has now come to light that some sides may have lied, especially about the benefits of leaving. But besides that, there was a vote and they decided that Brexit should go ahead.

In Northern Ireland, there are the Irish Nationalists, who are terrified of a border that goes up, [and] what it’s going to do for them personally- what it’s going to do to their national identity and also economically. We’re very scared about leaving Europe in general, as there’s a lot of security there. But on the other side, there are Unionists…this view is shared by the majority of the population in Northern Ireland, but only by a small amount. Because [the Unionists] really identify as British, if there was to be sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, they would be extremely angry. In the same way, if you put the border on the island of Ireland, you’re going to be upsetting the Nationalists who really believe they are Irish.

By putting up a sea border, you’re separating [the Unionists] and isolating them from the rest of their country. I’m not a fan of Brexit, but I don’t envy Theresa May in any way. I think that the decisions she has to make are going to be difficult, and there’s nothing I’ve thought of that really makes everyone happy. Some side is going to get hurt. While I stand on a Nationalist side and I think it’s really important that we don’t rebuild a border, if she’s going to do a sea border, she needs to also include something that’s really going to make the Unionists feel that they still belong in their country.