Relief on Irish border as Brexit deal unleashes political turmoil

Joseph STENSON
Residents on both sides of the Irish border depend on a frontier without formal checks to make everyday life run smoothly

As Britain's political class agonises over the draft Brexit deal, residents of windswept Irish border areas said they were relieved at an agreement that could offer a stable future for the region after two years of uncertainty.

The proposals include legal guarantees to keep the Irish border free-flowing, meaning that residents on both sides who depend on easy crossings for business and everyday life could consider themselves the "winners" of the tentative deal.

"All politicians in Britain need to examine their consciences," local business spokesman Conor Patterson told AFP in Jonesborough, a border village in the British province of Northern Ireland just next to the Republic of Ireland.

"This has been a very difficult deal to get to, the European Union has made significant concessions to the UK."

For Patterson -- who oversees a business park in the border village -- the deal represents "the least worst option" for the future of the region under Brexit.

His thoughts reflected the sense of relief -- combined with a grim resignation that the divorce from the EU will be bad for business.

Northern Ireland voted 56 per cent in favour of staying in the EU.

Before the UK and EU struck the draft deal, revealed Tuesday night, the threat of a hard border loomed over this village on the main motorway link between Dublin and Belfast.

That would have seen Jonesborough cleaved in two.

A now disused local church is bisected by the invisible boundary, with the towering spire in the north and the cemetary in the south.

- 'Fed to the lions' -

Under the proposed withdrawal deal the UK would remain in the customs union, with special provisions for regulation in Northern Ireland, unless and until a new deal is struck.

But turmoil and cabinet resignations at Downing Street are already threatening to undermine the deal.

"There are people who have resigned who have taken this hardline dogmatic decision, who extraordinarily are acting against the interest of British business," Patterson added.

"Those that aren't accepting it, they will be responsible and the history books will be brutal I think in their assessment."

Overall, residents here also feel a sense of sympathy towards Britain’s embattled prime minister.

"I think she was fed to the lions a bit," businessman Patrick Hughes told AFP.

"If Theresa May has got any sort of a deal I think it's a miracle. She went to the table with very little to offer and asked for a lot."

Hughes runs Horse First, an animal feed business, in Jonesborough.

The prospect of harsh post-Brexit regulatory or customs checks has long plagued his firm, threatening to add vast sums to his shipments abroad.

"The biggest problem for the public was, nobody knows," he said. "We were guessing and guessing."

Now, he said, "We have something, and I’ll pat Theresa May on the back."

Eleven kilometres (7 miles) away sits the border city of Newry.

The road north is lined with signs pleading for no hard borders, and trucks parked on verges -- a reminder of the vitality of this trading route.

For some here, the deal has come too late.

The disillusion of Brexit, combined with further chaos over the first glimmer of a deal has completely undermined confidence in politics among some.

"I just think it's absolutely ridiculous," said 60-year-old local resident Caroline Feehan.

"My husband and myself never will vote in our lives again."