I thank the joint committee for its kind invitation to address it. I apologise that one of our members, Mr. Damian McGinty, the author of our statement, could not make it. I am spokesperson for the group. I live, work and have my business approximately two miles from the Border. I have been there for about 40 years. I am accompanied by Mr. Bernard Boyle who runs an accountancy business in the village of Forkhill near the Border in south Armagh and Mr. John Sheridan who comes from a farming background. He is a farmer in south-west Fermanagh.
Border Communities Against Brexit came about because of the real concern that the voices of people living in the Border region were not being listened to when it came to the implications of Brexit. Ours is a broad, cross-community and a non-party political group. We invite everybody who shares our concerns to join us in building an effective campaign. We have come together to ensure the North's democratically expressed wish, expressed by 56% of its people, to remain within the European Union is respected. We wish to ensure the views of local communities will be heard when the big decisions affecting their future are taken in London, Dublin and Brussels. The prospect of a new European frontier stretching from Dundalk to Derry, some 300 miles, is not acceptable to those of us living and working in Border areas, North and South.
Our day of action in October was a huge success. There was a huge groundswell of public support, with thousands attending our co-ordinated rallies. It also demonstrated to everybody how unworkable a hard border would be. We met Ministers at the North-South Ministerial Council and attended the all-island civic dialogue in Kilmainham. We take the opportunity to thank all of the political parties we have met and the Office of the Taoiseach for their support so far. We are due to meet the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Dunlop.
We intend to travel to Europe to meet EU decision makers to make them fully aware of the implications of Brexit for the North, especially for the Border communities.
If Brexit proceeds under the current constitutional arrangements, the Border dividing Ireland will become an external border of the EU, possibly classified by the Union as a third country. There is no reassurance for us in hearing both the British and Irish Governments state publicly that they do not wish to see the reintroduction of Border controls and customs posts and the closure of hundreds of Border roads. This may not be up to them alone to determine. Like me, many committee members will probably recall what it was like when there were customs posts here. We remember the time of lengthy delays and traffic backlogs crossing the Border. Every other external border of the EU has physical and economic controls. Why should we believe that the Border dividing Ireland would be any different?
The current arrangements for Europe managing its external eastern border are the responsibility of Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency. Frontex supports, co-ordinates and develops European border management in line with EU treaties, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as other international obligations. Frontex seeks to ensure the co-ordination of the actions of the member states in the implementation of measures, thereby contributing to an efficient, high and uniform level of control on persons and of surveillance of the external borders of the member states. Frontex is responsible for the implementation of the hard border that exists on the EU's eastern front. All small roads are closed and people are forced through large designated checkpoints. In Ireland, there are approximately 270 roads that traverse the Border and in the past, approximately 17 of those were designated as official Border crossings. In Slovakia, there are three crossings at Ubla, Vyšné Nemecké and Záhony. These are large-scale crossings with six to eight lanes where passports, visas, vehicles and their contents are checked. Currently, if one lives more than 50 miles from the European border, one must apply a week in advance to gain entry. Anyone living within 50 miles can apply for a yearly pass.
Frontex states that migration is the main issue but it also deals with matters such as the smuggling of excise goods, stolen vehicles and human trafficking. Unfortunately, we know too well the damaging effect of smuggling and the rise of criminality in our Border areas. Add to that the fact that Britain could have different tariffs on excise goods such as cigarettes and fuel, as well as the forced closure of hundreds of Border roads, and one can foresee a huge rise in resentment caused by a new physical frontier. Apart from the very damaging economic effects on business, a hard Border would also be a disaster for the 30,000 workers who cross the Border daily, the tens of thousands who visit family and friends as well as the tens of thousands who travel for sporting fixtures and holidays, both North and South, on a regular basis.
At a broader political level, a hard Border is potentially much more disastrous. The EU's financial assistance to thousands of community groups involved in peace building and its fantastic support in developing the economy through infrastructural developments such as motorways, train links and telecommunications and supporting businesses to set up and create jobs, has utterly transformed the North of this island in the past 25 years. No one has been left out or excluded. The total financial assistance from the EU co-funded programmes in the North from 2014 to 2020 is €3.5 billion, while in the period from 2007 to 2013 the total was €3.4 billion. The £2.3 billion of EU financial support to the rural community and farmers in the North of Ireland from 2014 to 2020 is another example of the enormity of the EU's assistance to the North.
The UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner with more than €1.2 billion of goods and services, directly supporting 400,000 jobs on both islands and even more among suppliers and surrounding communities, traded between us every week. The Good Friday Agreement has given all an equal identity whether one wishes to belong to the Unionist tradition or the Irish one. The safeguards in the EU Charter of Human Rights are enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement. We are greatly concerned about the effect of a hard Border on the impression of Irish identity in the North and particularly in the Border areas. Currently, it is very difficult to find the actual Border, with free travel and free movement of goods and services. People can just freely go where they want, whenever they want but that could be taken away.
It is also very important that no border exists for those who see themselves as living in Ireland. When we consider that 56% of voters in the North voted to remain in the European Union, the North’s population is being dragged out of the EU against our will and the opinion of 441,000 people who voted to remain is not being respected. We are being totally disenfranchised.
It could be argued that many will view Brexit as a re-partition of Ireland, with hard physical infrastructure. There is at least one generation of people who do not remember the Troubles and at least two generations who do not remember a physical Border. The potential exists for creating a divided Ireland, which will give way to alienation among Border communities and the growth of resentment and frustration as they perceive that their Irishness has been greatly diminished or taken away. The committee will no doubt need to examine the effects we have outlined, as well as the many EU safeguards built into legalisation and the removal of the safeguards enshrined in the EU charter of human rights within the Good Friday Agreement.
We ask the committee to examine in detail the framework within which Frontex operates and the current arrangements on the European Union's eastern border. It should also consider sending a fact-finding delegation to visit that border. Will the committee undertake to find out how the Irish Government will get involved in the Brexit negotiations to ensure Ireland is allowed to trade and operate as it does currently? Does it believe the Irish Government has sufficient resources and infrastructure in Europe to deal with Brexit? Does it know if the Government has talked to its European colleagues to inform them of our unique position and gain support for it?
We need European prime ministers, governments and Commissioners to hear a very clear and strong message on the necessity for the North to stay within the European Union. Does the committee know if the Irish Government has dawn up a framework in order that this can occur? The Government is pivotal in articulating the rights and needs of Border communities and the North's population.
However, possibly the biggest question for this committee is what will be the effects of restricting the movement of people, damaging an entire community economically and disenfranchising it politically. People will feel resentment and alienation as their hard won rights and safeguards are stripped away. This will create an incentive to smuggle and enter criminality when we already have, on the fringes, groups which are ready and willing to use people’s emotions and difficult economic conditions to create division and seek a return to our past.