The Irish Border, Before and After Brexit • Donovan Wylie • Magnum Photos

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Politics

The Irish Border, Before and After Brexit

Donovan Wylie revisits the border county he photographed in his Watch Tower series

Donovan Wylie

Donovan Wylie The former military observation post Golf 40 overlooking the village of Forkhill. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2005. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

This feature is part of Magnum’s ‘Modern States of Britain’, which takes the current political temperature in the United Kingdom following the referendum vote to leave the EU.

In 2005, Donovan Wylie documented the crumbling military watchtowers and checkpoints of South Armagh that once actively monitored passages in and out of a divided Ireland during the Troubles. Once known as “Bandit Country”—a label which the local community has long rejected—the southern part of Armagh County has a particularly storied past, known as a stronghold of support for the IRA.

Donovan Wylie Concession Road. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2017. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos
Donovan Wylie Concession Road. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2017. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

This series of large format landscapes evoked an open country whose borders had become mere formalities, despite the different currencies in operation on either side of the border. The rules governing the free movement of people and goods between Ireland and Great Britain are as much in effect here as they are between any other countries within the European Union.

Donovan Wylie A former British military base. Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2017. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

In the EU referendum of June 2016, Northern Ireland voted 56% to 44% in favor of remaining in the Union, yet the outcome of the referendum has yielded a decision that will surely reinstate at least some of the border rules that were once in place. Specific parties, including Sinn Fein, called for special arrangements for Northern Ireland, much in the same way that Scotland favored Remain and is seeking another referendum on independence.

Donovan Wylie ‘Respect The Remain Vote’ signage on Shean Road. Forkhill, South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2017. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

When Donovan Wylie returned to the hilly county he found new, unofficial signs on the road demarcating the borderline, stating “Warning! If there is a hard border this road may be closed from March 2019.” In Northern Ireland, Brexit is a particularly complex political issue. A return to a “hard border,” merely years after this sorely divided region was somewhat appeased by the Good Friday agreements of 1998, and the free flowing border rules of the EU, is seen by many as a tragedy in waiting, to be avoided at all costs.

Donovan Wylie A view of the village of Forkhill, from the former military watchtower site Romeo 23, with the military watchtower Golf 40 on the horizon. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2005. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

The British and Irish governments have promised working towards finding border arrangements that are “frictionless and seamless” but the task ahead is huge, as a March 2017 Guardian article noted: “Northern Ireland is about to become the frontline in the Brexit battle, as the only part of the UK to share a land border with another EU country, the Republic of Ireland.” The possibility of reuniting with its neighbor as the only way to re-enter the EU, was discussed by David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, in the event of a border poll in favor of reunification.

 

Donovan Wylie McCreesh General Merchant and Funeral Directors Forkhill. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2017. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos
Donovan Wylie Majella Winters and Rita Flynn outside McCreesh’s General Store. Forkhill, South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2017. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos
Donovan Wylie Sean Kealey, McCreesh’s General Store. Forkhill, South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2017. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos

McCreesh, a grocery shop, funeral director and post office rolled in one, lies at the bottom of one of the hills Wylie once scaled to photograph army observation post 40, in the small village of Forkhill. It welcomes most of the village’s residents on a daily basis. In the main, it seemed that few understood what would happen once the Brexit process was seriously underway, or how it would impact them.

Post-referendum, there seem to be no hard facts as to how the region will be affected, but it is clear that the border will loom larger in the lives of South Armagh’s inhabitants. It remains to be seen how Northern Ireland will fare during the Brexit process, and which credo its inhabitants choose to hear.

This project was created in partnership with The Guardian. See more images and read their piece online here.

Donovan Wylie The former site of the British Watchtower Romeo 12. South Armagh, Northern Ireland. 2005. © Donovan Wylie | Magnum Photos