Brexit: How might hard border affect the boating industry?

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The Shannon-Erne waterway is popular with visitors from Germany and central Europe

Boating in border country feels like the essence of tranquillity.

The sense of relaxation draws visitors – particularly from Germany and central Europe – to return year after year to the Shannon-Erne waterway.

Amid the simplicity of life on the water – you can also see the complexity of the issue which has stalled Brexit.

It’s possible to cruise on the border itself – where one river bank is in Northern Ireland and the other side is the Republic of Ireland.

“How can you have a hard border here?” asks JP McCaldin – as he steers one of his motor cruisers along the stretch of water which marks the frontier.

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JP McCaldin owns ABC Boats

His company – ABC Boats- has a base at Belturbet, just south of the border, and another at Aghinver in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.

“The politicians don’t understand what they’re trying to negotiate,” he says.

‘Political football’

“The border is un-policeable.

“It’s being used as a political football – and it’s doing no-one on the island of Ireland any good.”

The journey from Belturbet to the first lock on the Shannon-Erne waterway passes underneath the Senator George Mitchell Peace Bridge – which was opened in 1999, as a replacement for another river crossing which was blown up during the Troubles.

The TV footage from the opening of the cross-border canal from 1994 shows the transformation the Northern Ireland peace process has brought to border areas.

Camouflaged commandos patrolled the water as VIPs landed in helicopters to carry out the ceremony.

The canal – which is managed by an all-island agency, Waterways Ireland – has become a potent symbol of co-operation between Belfast and Dublin.

Those north-south links and strategies have been important for the tourist industry.

Mr McCaldin says Brexit uncertainty is creating problems.

“The potential for a hard border in the event of a no-deal Brexit is putting off people from coming,” he says.

‘Understandably reluctant’

“New clients from continental Europe who haven’t been before are understandably reluctant to come until the situation’s resolved one way or the other.”

About twelve hours cruising time southwards is the one of the centres of Irish leisure boating.

Dozens of vessels are moored at Carrick-on-Shannon.

One of the firms you’ll find at the marine is Carrickcraft – which also has bases on both sides of the border.

Andrew McBride from the company says that while there has been a slight decrease in business in Northern Ireland – they haven’t experienced a downturn in the Republic.

But he would like Brexit to be resolved as soon as possible.

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Andrew McBride says a no-deal Brexit is ‘a worry for 2020’

“A deal by the 31st of October would be the best outcome for Irish tourism,” he says.

“Uncertainty doesn’t help people to book holidays.

“A no-deal Brexit, where people are out of jobs and there’s less money – that would be a worry for 2020.”

But Mr McBride says the firm is prepared, come what may: “Whatever happens, we will work with it and we will deal with it.”

About halfway between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border lies the town of Ballinamore.

After tying up at a jetty, boaters can walk across a steel bridge above a picturesque weir to the main street.

A key part of the economy in places like this are family-run small businesses – like The Four Seasons, a garden centre run by Gail Quinn and her husband.

Gail gets some supplies – such as bulbs – from Northern Ireland.

So any change in north-south trading arrangements might affect her.

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Gail Quinn says the Irish government has ‘stepped up to the mark’

“We can’t really afford to be taking on an extra administrative layer within the business,” she explains.

“If things become difficult in trading with Northern Ireland we have other options – but I have to say that’s not something we particularly want to do.”

She has been impressed at the support which the Irish government has provided to firms like hers.

“Officials rang us to let us know about online information for businesses,” she says.

“Considering no-one’s quite sure what’s happening, I think the government’s stepped up to the mark.”

Travelling north again – the canal passes through villages where the prices in shops are in both sterling and euros.

For so long – so many have thought so little about crossing the border.

Dylan Quinn had that mindset.

He lives in County Fermanagh – and recently became well known for trekking from there to Stormont, to protest about the political deadlock which has left Northern Ireland without a devolved government for more than two and a half years.

In relation to Brexit – he thinks Dublin has done a better job of representing his interests than London.

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Dylan Quinn trekked from County Fermanagh to Stormont to protest the political deadlock in Northern Ireland

“I don’t think the British government have understood the context of the border,” he says.

“There was a very, very long battle to secure the Good Friday Agreement.

“The Irish government and the European Union have acted to protect the desires of the people of Northern Ireland – most of whom voted to remain in the EU.”

Brexit has sent ripples through business, politics and identity in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

What people seem to be yearning for most is an end to the unpredictability.