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“We act like there is no border”: Mum and dad live 15 min apart, but in two different countries

“I live with my mum and my dad and they’re split across the border.”

Sitting across the table is a young blonde woman and her father. She lives in Northern Ireland and he lives in the Republic of Ireland. Two different countries with different currencies, different laws, and different speed limit measurements. And exactly those are the biggest differences between the two countries split by an invisible, unnoticeable, and even close to non-existent border.

Shannon and James McClenaghan on a cafe in Muff, in the Republic of Ireland, just north of Northern Ireland
Photo: Sandra Kaarsgaard

8/6-2021 by Simone Dreessen and Sandra Kaarsgaard

Having close family on both sides of the North Irish border or working on the other side of it is the reality for a lot of people in the border areas of Northern Ireland (NI) and the Republic of Ireland. James McClenaghan and his 19-year-old daughter Shannon are just some of the people that cross the border at least three or four times a day.

Because of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU a border has had to be drawn somewhere to make customs and other trade details possible for the two to keep trading, but within two different markets. Despite promises from UK Prime minister Boris Johnson that it would never happen, a customs border is currently in the Irish Sea, partially cutting NI off from the rest of the UK. This has caused outrage, but the direct alternative would be to harden the 499 km long border between Ireland as an EU country and NI as a UK country. This would make everyday tasks like dropping the kids off at school or going to work a lot more difficult and time-consuming for families like the McClenaghans.

“My house is less than a kilometer from the border. When my children reside with me during the week I would drive them to school and drive back again. And then I would pick them up from school and drive back,” says James McClenaghan. “My son plays football in Derry, I go to the gym in Derry, I work in Derry. We act like there is no border.”

Map showing the distance between Muff where James lives and Derry where Shannon's mother lives
Listen to Shannon McClenaghan talk about going between her parents’ houses during border checks

A taste of a hard border

During the current pandemic, the border has been made more apparent, as the different countries have had different restrictions, meaning sometimes James McClenaghan’s children and their mother have been under lockdown while he has been able to go out to eat and vice versa. However, restrictions like these have not changed the need to cross the border for school or work, which caused governments to set up temporary checkpoints along the border.

The invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with Shannon and James McClenaghan on either side
The invisible border runs just between where Shannon McClenaghan and her father James are standing. James is in the Republic of Ireland, while Shannon is in Northern IrelandPhoto: Sandra Kaarsgaard

“There wasn’t a hard border but there were many more checks at the border. It was harder to go see my mum,” says Shannon McClenaghan. “They were asking questions and I know they were just doing their jobs, but we were just questioning ‘why are you doing this?’”

These checkpoints, as well as having been inconvenient to commuters, have also been somewhat of a taste of what it would be like if a hard border were to be imposed:

“They weren’t present 24/7, but they were a majority of the time. The queue of traffic was so long just for someone to stand and ask what your journey was. It was quite time-consuming and to be honest we just avoided them,” says the father of 8, James McClenaghan. “We just went different paths to avoid the checkpoints, even when we were crossing the border for a permissible reason.”

This taste of a hard border due to Brexit has started talks about whether or not it would break the Good Friday Agreement and if the current state of calm in NI would be jeopardized because of decisions made far, far away from the North Irish border in Westminster’s UK government.

“I doubt that a hard border would mean any ID control because as part of the Good Friday Agreement we can identify as Irish or British as we like and therefore with the Irish we belong here,” says James McClenaghan. “Prior to this, we had a good system. We had peace in NI. We had a shared future. And these changes now don’t make too much sense for a normal person here.”

Listen to James McClenaghan talk about moving forward from here without hard borders