The European Union’s starry logo glistens in the sun on a plaque by a roundabout just outside Longford, a market town about 80 miles from Dublin in the Irish Midlands.
Before the part-EU-funded bypass, Longford was choked in traffic. Now signs warn visitors to drive on the left in four languages – English, Gaelic, German and French.
Growing up in Longford in the 1980s, I met few foreign visitors. Indeed, my family, like everyone else, was more likely to partake in international travel ourselves – over the border into Northern Ireland, some 40 miles away. Often we would be delayed at the customs posts and routine security stops.
Nowadays, the border is all but invisible. The road signs change from kilometres into miles. The mobile carrier moves from Irish to British. But otherwise there is no sign that you have slipped from one jurisdiction into another.
In the two decades since peace, Ireland’s economy has become increasingly interconnected. Longford – a county of 30,000 people – is not on the border, but the livelihoods of many here are deeply connected with the north. Brexit could affect more than one in five jobs in Longford, according to a recent study.
Theresa May has said that there will be ‘no return to the borders’ of the past. In a position paper published earlier this month, the UK government proposed ‘frictionless’ trade, including a customs exemption for small businesses. But few in Longford believe such a rosy scenario will come to pass.
Even if there are no border checks – a big ‘if’ given the differing positions of London on the one side and Brussels and Dublin on the other – businesses on the southern side of the Irish border worry about being undercut by the falling value of sterling and increased smuggling. Farmers could struggle to sell into British markets if the UK signs free trade deals with countries such as the US.
‘We export a lot of our beef and dairy to England. If they put on tariffs it could effect us in a big way. They could bring beef from outside Europe, with hormones in it and everything else,’ says Longford farmer Packie Kenny.
The collapse of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy badly hit small towns like Longford. The main street is still pockmarked by empty units. The town is ringed by semi-abandoned ghost estates. So might Ireland follow Britain out of the EU? I ask Kenny: ‘No way. They’re daft to leave.’
While there is little enthusiasm for that Daily Telegraph favourite ‘Irexit’ there are concerns about what Brexit could mean for Longford and counties like it. ‘While we are not at the border we are close enough that day-to-day business could be affected,’ says Johnny Fallon, a well-known Irish political commentator who lives in Longford.
Much of Longford’s economy depends on agriculture and small enterprises, two areas that could be particularly hit by Brexit. ‘All the UK government’s solutions (to the border) are high level – ‘how do we stop major importers and exporters?’ But you couldn’t stop people going over and filling the boots of their cars rather than buying things locally,’ says Fallon.
Brexiteers often compare the Irish border to that between France and Switzerland, another country which is outside the European Union. But with more than 300 crossings in Ireland – and a past that can politely be described as ‘difficult’ – the Irish border is quite unlike any other EU frontier.
‘Anybody who has lived in a border area has known for years – (Brexit) is a licence for criminal gangs, for smuggling,’ says Fallon. Since 1998 many of the back roads across the border – blockaded during the Troubles – have reopened. Brexiteer Edwina Currie recently suggested that Ireland could tolerate an ‘acceptable’ level of smuggling. But, even if London wants an open border, Dublin could be forced to introduce checks to prevent trafficking.
‘When Ireland sees there is a threat to business down here from what’s happening at the border there will be pressure from Irish industry for Ireland to act in the interests of its own economy,’ says Fallon.
Brexit could have unexpected consequences in Longford. Presently much of the traffic from Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly county, passes through Northern Ireland on its way to Dublin. This could change after Brexit, placing even more pressure on already busy local roads.
‘Around two-thirds of Donegal commercial traffic crosses the border. That will come our way after Brexit,’ says Seamus Butler, chair of Longford County Council. A decision on upgrading the road from Longford to Dublin is due in the autumn. ‘This is our number one priority,’ he says.
Butler sees possibilities as well as challenges in Brexit. ‘The British are only capable of producing around 55-60% of their own food needs. We are on their doorstep. There could be opportunities for us.’
Back on Main Street, Longford, traders are just hoping Brexit does not disrupt the economic recovery that is slowly starting to be felt. ‘The main worry is uncertainty. How can we plan if the politicians don’t know what is going to happen?’ says John O’Brien, from O’Brien menswear.
O’Brien’s shop is lined with racks of smart shirts and suits. One of his main suppliers is in Carrickfergus, north of Belfast. ‘We go up north twice a year on buying trips. It’s about three hours taking the motorway from Dublin. If you had to add a couple of hours for border checks we would stop that,’ says John O’Brien.
Customs checks are not the only worry. With Sterling set for a protracted period of weakness against the Euro, many businesses on the southern side of the border could suffer with customers heading north in search of cheaper prices.
Irish political leaders have become increasingly vocal against Brexit in recent weeks. New Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said explicitly that Ireland will ‘not design a border for the Brexiteers’. Such comments are popular in Ireland – where more than 80% think Brexit is ‘a bad idea’ – but some complain that local leaders have failed to appreciate the scale of the challenges ahead.
‘Local government is not able to deal with it. They tell the farmers to diversify but how can they do that? They have been reliant on exports to the UK for decades. They can’t just replace beef with jam,’ says Catherine Patterson, who works in Durkin’s Jewellers in Longford.
Originally from Birmingham, Patterson moved to Ireland with her family a decade ago. She is not directly concerned about Brexit but fears it could affect her husband, a service engineer. ‘He works across Ireland. Some days he would go over and back across the border a few times. What will happen to that?’
Trade is not the only Brexit concern. There is an all-Ireland energy market. Much of the power produced by the wind turbines on the low hills across county Longford is destined for Northern Ireland. Could this be affected? Meanwhile any dilution of UK environmental regulations could have an impact south of the border.
In many ways Longford resembles neglected northern English towns that pushed Brexit over the line. Jobs are still scarce and public services have been brutally cut over the past decade. Immigration has, for some, added to a sense of cultural uncertainty. But there is still an awareness that places like Longford cannot cut themselves off from the rest of the world, and the rest of Europe.
‘We are not able to survive on our own. We do need someone to invest in here. People in Longford are very aware of the importance of being in Europe to attract industry and investment,’ says Johnny Fallon.
‘We can be a satellite of the EU or a satellite of the UK. In the final analysis most people say better to be a satellite of the EU. It is no great shock to us not to have full economic and political control – because we never had.’
Peter Geoghegan is an Irish journalist based in Glasgow and author of The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be The Same Again