Trade in goods across the border is worth about £5.2bn; a majority of Northern Ireland’s voters backed Remain. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
Two very different storms barrelled into Gortmullan last week, one from the west, the other from the east.
Remnants of Hurricane Lorenzo unleashed wind and rain from the Atlantic across the area, a rural pocket of County Fermanagh that marks Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic. “Stay back, stay high, stay dry,” advised the authorities, and residents duly hunkered down. Lorenzo passed without major damage.
The other atmospheric disturbance billowed in from England, where Boris Johnson revealed the UK government’s Brexit plan for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, a potentially chilling prospect for peace and prosperity on the island. The prime minister’s long-awaited proposal sent officials and politicians in Dublin, Belfast and Brussels scrambling for position in the next phase of the UK’s tortuous effort to leave the European Union.
Around Gortmullan, businesses and ordinary people were left wondering if – and where – to seek cover, a dilemma dating from the 2016 referendum result that now thrummed with urgency.
“We’re setting up new companies on both sides of the border,” said Liam McCaffrey, CEO of Quinn Industrial Holdings, which supplies building materials.
Customs checks would be bad enough, but Johnson’s apparent plan to give the Stormont assembly a veto over trading arrangements verged on surreal, said McCaffrey. Power sharing in Northern Ireland collapsed in January 2017 and shows little sign of reviving. “The future of how we trade is to be decided every four years by an assembly that hasn’t sat in three years? Bizarre.”
Such was the challenge of Storm Boris. Perhaps it was hot air, a plan destined for oblivion to be superseded by who knows what. Or perhaps it was a blast of what is to come in a no-deal crash-out, or a deal negotiated in the next few weeks or after a general election. The uncertainty was head spinning.
Jonathan Powell, Britain’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, struck an ominous tone. “Be under no misapprehension, there will have to be checks and there will be a hard border which will undermine the basis on which the Good Friday agreement was built in trying to find a way of dealing peacefully with the different identities of the different communities in Northern Ireland,” he wrote in the Belfast Telegraph.
“But the danger I fear for Northern Ireland is that it becomes the mouse as the two elephants – the EU and the British government – mate, and it is Northern Ireland that will lose out in any agreement they reach with very dangerous long-term consequences.”