Joy Reid: Irish border conundrum 'seems an unsolvable problem right now'

Crossing the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a total non-event.  

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At stake are hundreds of cross-border businesses and even the fragile peace process itself. Source: 1 NEWS

If you look closely, the tarseal changes and the speed signs might change from kilometres to miles (or vice versa) but there’s no way of really knowing you’ve crossed an international divide unless you study Google maps.

In Kiwi terms, it’s like driving between districts, say from Christchurch into the Hurunui District. There’s a sign that says “Welcome” but at what physical point are you in the Hurunui exactly and does it matter?

And that’s the way people like it.  People and goods move freely, there’s no customs checks or tariffs as both countries are currently in the European Union.  

Some people in the Irish border area live in one country and work in the other. Petrol’s cheaper in the Republic of Ireland so many just pop up the road and get cheaper gas - coal is cheaper in the UK, so they cross back again to buy coal.   

But that ease is all threatened by Brexit.  Northern Ireland is in the UK and the Republic of Ireland is in the European Union and on the 29th March the UK is set to leave the EU so the two countries will split.  

That means the Irish border will become the frontier between the UK and Europe - the only physical point where the two will meet.  The problem is how to keep the border as invisible as it is now but also police the goods and people crossing the Irish divide.  

That conundrum is stalling the Brexit deal and it seems an unsolvable problem right now.

I headed to the region and discovered it’s a lot more complicated than you might think.

What’s wrong with a border you ask? Well here in Northern Ireland - EVERYTHING!  It’s a word which conjures up huge emotion.  

Many people here grew up or lived through the “troubles” - a 30 year period (which I was often corrected to call the “war years”) where 3,600 people died and more than 10,000 bombs were set off.  

People were subjected to daily identity checks, customs checkpoints and delays, not to mention the bullets and bombs.  Then there was the smuggling of everything from butter to carpet, alcohol to electronics.  

If it were cheaper in the other country, you’d buy it during the day, hide it in a shed and smuggle it home across the border under the veil of darkness or simply stuff it under a thick jacket.  

Towns were divided - split in two, and army barracks, police and guns were a normal addition to village life.  

One man told me his border business (a garage) was blown up eight times! Yes EIGHT because he was a Protestant on the border!

Each time he rebuilt it.  His apprentice even took a bullet in the arm meant for him.  Violence was part of life.

Then came the Good Friday agreement in 1998 and the subsequent peace.  

One Northern Irish man in his thirties, who remembers gunfire fights out his school window told me: “When the peace process came in - it changed our lives, it changed how people interact with each other, it gave people the opportunity to interact with each other."  

Now Catholics and Protestants go to the same preschools (unheard of 20 years ago), and over the past two decades relationships between nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants have formed.  

The economy and economic relations have never been stronger.  Things have come a long way, but what struck me when talking to people is that there’s still a degree of fragility as the wounds slowly heal.  

There’s also no functioning Northern Irish parliament as the elected politicians can’t agree to work together as opinions here are still very divided on various issues.  And some are still wary of the “other side”.

The former head of murders and organised crime for the Northern Ireland police force, Peter Sheridan, tells me Brexit and the subsequent debate has reopened healing divisions in the community.  

One Irish man who grew up in a town with three army barracks says Brexit and the subsequent border discussions is stirring up a lot of emotion, and in some cases hatred, and people do not want to go back to the old days.  

There are genuine fears among many people I spoke to, that any type of border (even camera technology) could reignite violence.

They say it starts with a simple camera on the border, which becomes a target for certain groups/causes so then the camera needs security fences to protect it, which then needs police to protect those, who then need the Amy to protect them.  

What begins with a harmless camera could potentially escalate into something much bigger purely for what it represents - division.

I’m told controlling a border by technology or cameras, “won’t work, because the reality of Northern Ireland is very different to anywhere else”.

Just last month a car bomb went off in Londonderry.  Police say it wasn’t Brexit related but believe a group known as the New IRA may have been responsible.  

At least 10 people separately told me about it, each one following it up with fears that this might be the beginning of something no one wants to see return.  

Will Brexit be the catalyst to reignite simmering issues? I get the feeling the community won’t let those times return but they still worry.

Politicians keep reassuring the Irish that there will be no hard border.  Not only does it contravene the Good Friday agreement, but they don’t want it either.  But for those in Northern Ireland, talk is cheap.

Until there’s a signed Brexit deal people here will be worried.

The news coverage about the Irish border has mostly been about issues of trade and tariffs.  

Those are very real concerns - some farms straddle the border - which rules will they follow? Many businesses cross the border several times a day and trade goods in both countries daily relying on contractors from across the border - can they still do that post Brexit?  

A large amount of Northern Irish milk is sent to the Republic for processing, then comes back to Northern Ireland for selling - will that still be possible?  

A border, and differing customs arrangements, will be complicated but what surprised me when talking to locals is that it’s much deeper than that.  

The former police officer, and now CEO of a peace co-operative, Peter Sheridan says: “Trade and tariffs are concerns in Brussels and Westminster - in Northern Ireland it’s about identity.”  And you certainly feel that.

In Northern Ireland people have the right to choose their birth right, you can have a British passport and an Irish one.  You can be British and Irish at the same time - that’s what the Good Friday agreement gave people.  Will Brexit force people to choose?

One woman explained that for most countries, history is in the past but for the Irish, history is living.  And their border history is still a very real memory.

You can still see many of the old customs posts or run down customs huts - unused reminders of the darker times gone by.

This is why politicians need to get Brexit right.  The majority of people in Northern Ireland ironically voted in the Brexit referendum to remain in the EU (56 per cent), but it was their English and Welsh neighbours who voted the opposite way and saw the United Kingdom as a whole vote to Leave.  

But it’s on the island of Ireland where the consequences of Brexit will be felt most strongly.

Those in the border towns want Theresa May to stall Brexit if she needs to in order to get the border issue right.  For them their livelihoods and futures are at stake.