Brexit from Below

A Northern Ireland Catholic farming community’s perspectives on travel offer insight into resilience.

“Brexit” refers to the upcoming withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU). Currently, it is scheduled for October 31, 2019, although it may be further delayed if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is forced to request an extension to the Brexit deadline if there is no deal agreed by October 19; or cancelled, if a second referendum is held. Anthropologists have predominantly focused on the potential negative effects of Brexit, and particularly so for areas of the UK which voted to “Remain” in the EU. While the majority of voters in Northern Ireland chose “Remain,” electoral maps indicate that the vote was split between primarily Protestant and Catholic regions. Most of the former voted “Leave” while the latter chose “Remain.” Protestants often shared concerns regarding EU membership (such as excessive bureaucracy and immigration) with English voters. In contrast, many Catholic voters believed that EU membership was beneficial to them because it creates closer ties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. These ties enable the Republic of Ireland to advocate for Catholic interests in Northern Ireland. 

I was fortunate to have an opportunity for diachronic fieldwork in local communities during a brief visit to Northern Ireland in June 2019. At that time, I was invited to a family wedding by the key interlocutors who facilitated my dissertation research, which examined how moral values are utilized, negotiated, and contested during encounters between farmers in Northern Ireland and EU bureaucracy. My dissertation fieldwork spanned a total of nine months between 2012 and 2014, with frequent social media contact during my absences and from 2014 to 2019.

There is widespread public fear…that the UK’s departure from the EU will require a “hard” border with infrastructure for checking the documentation of people, goods, and livestock.
Much of the public anxiety surrounding Brexit has focused on border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Currently, the dividing line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is nearly invisible, with many crossings marked only by signs labeling speed limits in miles (Northern Ireland) or kilometers (the Republic of Ireland). This invisibility is enabled by both jurisdictions belonging to the EU and thus rendering passport or customs inspections unnecessary. There is widespread public fear (as shown in journalism, politics, and academia) that the UK’s departure from the EU will require a “hard” border with infrastructure for checking the documentation of people, goods, and livestock moving between the Republic of Ireland as an EU member state and Northern Ireland as a part of the UK. Such infrastructure would likely again attract violence from Republican groups supporting a United Ireland, as it did during “the Troubles” (approximately 1969–1998).

In the week leading up to the wedding, a steady stream of friends, family, and neighbors visited our house in rural Derry. No one mentioned Brexit. All conversation focused on family news, such as births, deaths, weddings, graduations, illness, and work abroad. There was surprisingly little farming talk; no discussion of weather or cattle prices, for example. In response to my questions about Brexit, most visitors replied with a variation of, “It’s hard to say. I don’t know which way it will go.” This refers to uncertainty over what type of agricultural subsidies, inspections, and border crossings will replace the EU regime after Brexit.

Initially, I thought that the wedding might present opportunities to discuss the Irish border. The ceremony was held in a Catholic church in Northern Ireland, with the reception (dinner and dancing) at a hotel in the Republic of Ireland. The 200 wedding guests would perhaps be thinking of Brexit, immediately after traveling between the two jurisdictions. I crossed the border twice with Kate’s family. A politically active farmer, she was one of my key interlocutors during dissertation fieldwork. The first crossing (into the Republic) was focused on not being late to the reception. Once there, I was assigned to a table with several staff members of the Farmers’ Advice Centre (FAC), a historically Catholic agricultural organization. I knew my dinner companions well from dissertation fieldwork, including extensive interviews regarding their perspectives on EU farm subsidy programs and inspections. I joked, “Ah, the politics table!” when greeting these friends. John tartly corrected me with, “No, this is the alcohol-free table.” His comment conveyed discomfort with discussing Brexit or any other political topic over the next several hours, despite the likelihood that they would be of interest to everyone present. This type of clear refusal to engage with Brexit may demonstrate frustration at the prospect of a political event that is likely to bring changes ranging from mild inconvenience to armed violence. Guests seemed reluctant to dampen the festive atmosphere. In contrast, during drives near the Border in 2014, John had deliberately shown me locations where violence occurred during the 1980s and had explicitly compared these sad events to the new, peaceful, invisible border.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is not the only travel challenge local people face.
The morning after the wedding, we crossed back into Northern Ireland. This time, I asked Kate and her niece what they thought about the possibility of a hard border. Kate stated that it would be impossible because “the border was bombed before, and a new one would be bombed too.” Éilis added that “it would cost too much to keep rebuilding it.” Both women agreed that a hard border was not practical. Kate, in her fifties, remembers the time when the border was a daily reality, while Éilis was a small child when the last British watchtower was dismantled in 2006. Like many young people in her village, she has recently worked in Australia, and intends to return there to save money before settling down in Northern Ireland. This experience of working in Australia, New Zealand, or Canada (rather than the Republic of Ireland) was very common among young people I spoke with. The bride and groom likewise were returning to their jobs in New Zealand immediately after the wedding.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is not the only travel challenge local people face. For example, it can be difficult for Catholics to drive through Protestant areas in early summer, when tensions are heightened between the two ethnoreligious communities preceding the Orange Order’s July 12 parades celebrating the victory of Protestant King William over Catholic King James II in 1690. Several days after the wedding, Kate planned an excursion for the two of us to Portstewart. This is a popular seaside resort, with picturesque cafés, interesting antique shops, and scenic beaches. However, traveling from her home to Portstewart presented difficulties. Residents and businesses in a Protestant village en route prominently displayed British Union Jack flags, Orange Order banners, and this year, flags stating “I support Soldier F.” The latter is a pseudonym used in the news media for a British soldier, recently charged with murder in the deaths of several Catholic civilians on Bloody Sunday, a massacre of 14 peaceful political protesters in 1972.

A rocky beach in the foreground on a cloudy day, with buildings in the background on an outcrop.
Portstewart, UK. Irene Ketonen

The prospect of Brexit (and especially of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic) has raised widespread concern. My research in Northern Ireland suggests that the border might be of limited interest to local people who are not actively engaged in sectarian politics. Interlocutors who do not have work- or family-related ties to the Republic, and who are not geographically close to the border, may have the option of choosing to ignore it. For example, travel difficulties within Northern Ireland and job opportunities outside of Europe may present people with a different set of choices than those associated with crossing the border. The presence or absence of the EU is largely irrelevant in many everyday situations. However, Brexit itself may increase tensions between Catholic and Protestant communities—a change that many people in both communities perceive as beneficial to Protestants and harmful to Catholics is unlikely to promote continued peace.

Irene Ketonen is visiting assistant professor of anthropology at the College at Brockport, the State University of New York. She earned her PhD at the University at Buffalo in 2017. Her dissertation research examined how moral values were utilized, negotiated, and contested during encounters between Northern Ireland farmers and European Union (EU) bureaucracy before Brexit.

Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega and Chandra Middleton are contributing editors for the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology section news column.

Cite as: Ketonen, Irene. 2019. “Brexit from Below.” Anthropology News website, October 1, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1270

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