Frontline: ”It’s not so much the loss of revenue as the loss of hope”

Finbarr Dunwoody, Clones Chamber of Commerce

Finbarr Dunwoody believes the economy is cooling off due to Brexit uncertainty. He is a quantity surveyor based in Clones and whereas before he might have been juggling four jobs at a time, now he has just two. So he commutes to Letterkenny IT every day to teach. His other main interest is pulling Clones up by its bootstraps, but that task is getting tougher.

“Clones is a sort of peninsula sticking into the north and more or less surrounded on three sides. The border is literally at the edge of town. A hundred years ago the railway came through here from Dundalk and on into Enniskillen before connecting up with the Donegal lines. There we were at the heart of a network, equidistant from Dublin, Belfast and Galway. Without partition we would have been the big town and Enniskillen a large village.”

As they say in quite a few places along the border, Clones never got the Celtic Tiger but it certainly got the recession that came after it. There are a lot of empty commercial premises on Monaghan Street and the community has taken one battering after another. Finbarr and a few like-minded people want Clones to take charge of itself and its future.

“We have what can only be called a voluntary Chamber of Commerce, a community body, because the prospect of us being able to open an office or take on staff is close to zero for the foreseeable future. We’ve done Christmas events and the St Patrick’s Day festival and that sort of thing but it is time to become a bit more ambitious now. Clones is a fractured sort of place with too many bodies duplicating each other’s efforts. We’re pulling them together now – sporting  and heritage bodies, the Tidy Town  Committee and so on – in a body we call Clones Connect, with a fair bit of wordplay around clones as the plural of clone.

“The fundamental problem is that if you invite people to Clones, there’s nothing much for them when they get there. So we looked around at what we had and came up with a heritage concept. We have it all right down to a medieval abbey and a round tower, but best of all we actually found a castle. It wasn’t really lost but nobody really knew what this old structure was and now we have had it verified by historians.

“If we can’t make a go of heritage now with the heritage minister Heather Humphries living just down the road from here, we never will. But we don’t have a whole lot going for us so we just have to be inventive. Our last really big idea was the Embrace the Punt scheme and it worked a treat. We got people to fish down the back of the sofa and under the bed and look in their old socks for our late lamented currency. Punts could be exchanged for vouchers which could only be redeemed in local shops, while we took them to the Central Bank in Dublin for cashing. It worked a treat – as far as I remember it put seventy or eighty thousand Euro into the shops. “

Things were looking up at last and the last couple of years had put a bit of a spring in the town’s step, but the drop in sterling has been a major setback. “The north is literally just up the road and that’s where the shoppers are heading again. I suppose you could say it’s not so much the loss of revenue as the loss of hope that does the harm. And now we hear of hard borders and customs checks and for us here who know all about hard borders it is really depressing.”

I tell Finbarr of speculation around Sligo – or possibly just wishful thinking – that with a really hard border the main route to Donegal could be the N4. “Well, that would just about finish us. On the longer term the only real chance we would have would be with an open border and massively improved infrastructure so that we could exploit our position at the heart of a Galway-Dublin-Belfast triangle once again.”

The  Frontline Project was carried out by Brexit Border Blog on behalf of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and Chambers Ireland