Speaking to Irish Country Living before Theresa May’s revised deal went before Parliament ahead of press on Tuesday, Edel MacBride reckons that if she ever wrote an autobiography, it would be called 30 Minutes Away.
“Because so much of my life has been 30 minutes away,” says the knitwear designer and instructor who works from her studio at The Base next to the sheep mart in Stranorlar, Co Donegal, but sells from her retail shop at the heart of the Craft Village in Derry, managed by her daughter, Emma. Edel is also involved in hosting knitting tours with international groups who are attracted by the rich heritage and history of the region, and has had her designs worn by or sold to customers including Sarah Jessica Parker and Hillary Clinton.
As a Donegal woman, she explains that she and her family have always had a “fluid approach” to the border; for instance, her three eldest children all work and live in Derry. And she feels it’s this ease of movement that has contributed to stability in recent years.
“I always felt it was people like me and our family, and more like us that created the seamless border, if you know what I mean,” she says.
“Not the government structures around it – while they have to be in place – but by our daily actions.”
Which is why she feels that Brexit is a “disaster” on so many levels.
Starting with business, the first impact was felt the day of the referendum in 2016 when the upset to sterling had an immediate impact on the price of her stock in the Derry shop.
“It just dropped 20%,” she explains, “so that was a drop in everything we were selling because we couldn’t add that onto the price.”
For a very small enterprise, it’s hard enough to get your knitting done in the course of a day
While they “weathered” that hit, however, Edel says the lack of certainty for small businesses is incredibly “demotivating”. As we chat, for instance, she is trying to find out if she will need to apply for an exporter’s license in order to bring Donegal yarn or garments from the studio to the shop post-Brexit, and is frustrated by the little official guidance on the matter.
“For a very small enterprise, it’s hard enough to get your knitting done in the course of a day,” she says of the extra work involved.
Moreover, she fears that in the event of a hard Brexit she may feel forced into, essentially, picking sides – by focusing the business in Derry over Donegal, or vice versa.
“Are we going to be a Derry business with a focus that Scotland becomes closer?” she gives as an example. “Do we have to make that decision? It’s really, really horrible.”
But Brexit is about more than just business for Edel; it’s something that has affected her on an emotional level.
For instance as a mother, she sees how her children “now for the first time are confronting identity issues” – as well as feelings of abandonment by government.
While as a grandmother, she is concerned about the potential re-introduction of border checks and other structures she hoped had been consigned to the past.
“I mean, is my granddaughter going to be going through a checkpoint at five years of age again to come out to me or vice versa?” she asks. There is also the fear that opportunists will upset the peace and progress achieved in recent years – such as with the car bomb in Derry in January –though she hopes that this will be contained and that the strong growth and visitor numbers the area has enjoyed in recent years will continue. While much uncertainty remains, she feels that it’s imperative that the powers-that-be start providing practical support to small businesses on the border.
It takes 20 years to build real trust, you know?
“Just to say to people: ‘In the advent of Brexit happening, here are five, small, practical steps that will take you 30 minutes each to do.’ You’d have to take the fear factor out of it,” she says, adding that it’s important that cross-border organisations, such as women in business groups, are also supported.
“It takes 20 years to build real trust, you know?” she says. “It just can’t be thrown over the bridge.”
But she believes it will ultimately come down to families like their own to make the best of whatever comes their way. Borrowing a phrase from her daughter Emma: “We can weep or wallow; or make it happen.”
For details about Edel’s business and her designs, click here.