#myEUstory : County Antrim, Paris, Gibraltar, and Dublin

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I was always aware of one border: that between the UK and Ireland. Further borders between the UK and France, France and Germany, and so on, they were ideas I read about, nothing I thought I would experience myself.

Most of my school friends had been on foreign holidays to Spain or France. But, as a family, we had not been further than Cornwall, or more foreign than Cork. Neither was foreign at all.


“Croisements” Vitry sur Seine. Photo: ManuB. From Flickr

My first foreign trip was by coach and ferry from Cornwall to Paris. My grandmother’s pen pal was hosting us for a week in the town of Vitry sur Seine. This meant that I could actually use the French I had been learning in school.


At home, Mum and Dad spoke French when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. My father’s linguistic skills did not match my mother’s and this quickly stopped.

On more than one occasion, Mum told my brothers and me off in public in French. Nearby French families all jumped and wondered what they had done…

That first trip to Paris was quickly followed by school trips to France and Austria. Austria was outside the EU, but we had to travel through many EU countries to get there.


Euros. Photo: JWPhotography2012 via Flickr

Of course, we needed all the different currencies as we went: French Franc, Belgian Franc, Dutch Gulden, Deutsche Mark, Austrian Schilling. It would be so much easier now with the Euro.

Visiting other countries in the EU was all that I thought I would ever do. I never saw myself living outside the United Kingdom.

At least that was my view until the year 2014. That was the year that my husband and I moved to Gibraltar to allow him to take up a new job in the city.

Gibraltar is a very small city on a peninsula to the south of Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar stands is one of the Pillars of Hercules guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean. It is a place of great antiquity.

It is also a place which has greatly benefited from being within the European Union. It shares a land border with Spain. This border shut in 1969 by the Spanish and only re-opened in 1985 as part of Spain’s accession to the European Union.

There’s no illusion here. The Spanish border with Gibraltar is only open because it has to be. There is no way for a border between two EU territories to be permanently closed.

Enjoying the weather in Gibraltar.

Our Mediterranean dream did not last, and we moved to Dublin in 2015. It was relatively simple to move from Gibraltar to Dublin. We flew via Málaga as there were no direct flights.

Our three cats travelled by land through Spain, France, across in the Channel Tunnel and up through England to Wales. This would not have been possible without their own Pet Passports. They are very proud Gibraltarian cats with their EU Passports. They, like us, were able to cross freely across internal EU borders.

For how long will this continue?

This is the big question. This is the question the answer to which no one knows.

We do not know what will happen should the UK vote to leave the EU. No one does really. It is unprecedented. Yes, there is a legal mechanism within the EU Treaties for a country to ask to leave, but it has never been done. Well not yet.

Do the people of the UK really want to see a return to customs posts between the rest of the EU and them?

Many people in Great Britain will only see such things at ports and airports, but for the communities that live near actual land borders, they will be an all too present reality. The border between Gibraltar and Spain illustrates what it is like to have a border between countries that need customs posts. Gibraltar is in the EU but is not in the customs union. Duty is payable on goods moving between the two countries. Smuggling of cigarettes is a problem in both directions.

The Gibraltar-Spanish border is relatively well defined and clear. It is mostly a straight line.

The Irish-UK land border is anything but. How will it be policed? Will we back to the days of approved frontier posts and unapproved frontier posts along the border? What will this do for cross-border co-operation as part of the Northern Irish peace process? 

And if the UK is outside the EU, there will be no requirement for Spain to keep its border open. Gibraltar will suffocate.

Let’s be clear, it is not just the physical borders that matter, it is the borders in our heads. It is the borders to trade. It is the borders to free movement of people.  Being part of the European Union has swept these borders aside.

Companies attracted to both Northern Ireland and Gibraltar because of the access to the EU market will lose this. Will they stay? Or will they up and leave? I’d be very surprised if they stay. This may help the Irish economy, but what about the UK and Gibraltar?

Whatever happens on Thursday 23 June 2016, we will be OK.

Being from Northern Ireland we are both British citizens and Irish citizens. We love living in the city centre of a vibrant, cosmopolitan European capital. Around us, we hear a multitude of languages. Around us, there are no borders.

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