When it comes to building relationships in the city Brexit is a great example of how not to do it. Brexit means two of the worlds biggest institutions drawing  one of the world’s most significant borders across the lanes and motorways of this island.

Right now you can move north to south and back again and not notice. True you need to watch speed limits and have some “foreign money” in your pocket. No, you Belfast boys can’t drive 120 miles per hour all the way to Cork. And no they won’t take Sterling at the M1 toll booths. But try getting them to take a Belfast Banknote in a Turkish fruit shop in North London!

In the big picture these anomalies are hiccups. We’re flowing north and south with great ease now. But if institutions have their way we’ll be looking at signs for entering/leaving the EU/UK. And who knows what barriers, borders and checks will accompany the signs? They promise an invisible border but no one says “how.”

The “problem” of relationships 

The changes are against the wishes of most people on the island. A majority in the North voted against Brexit and a larger majority in the Republic would have voted against had they been asked. But bigger institutions decide and Ireland becomes an “anomaly,” a little problem on the edge of Europe. Our close relationships on the island have become an institutional difficulty, a problem needing solution.

Doing business in Dublin these days the side of the border your suppliers are on is irrelevant; “Can they do the job well for a good price?” is the question. In other spheres all-island relationships are normal. Sporting organisations, trade unions, church bodies, musicians, artists, community activists and tourism bodies downplay and even ignore political structures and borders and get on with the important activities of playing matches, organising, campaigning, praying, singing, telling stories, collaborating and journeying together – relationships. These webs of relationships are a powerful reminder that there are other realities than political ones. They don’t come out of politics or institutions but out of shared place, shared passion, shared stories, shared loves and shared lives.


During the troubles there were hundreds of boreens and lanes crossing the border that became officially known as “unapproved roads.” The fear was they would be used for illegal purposes, from shifting explosives to smuggling cigarettes. Most were blocked by barriers for the years of the troubles. When peace broke out these small ways came back into wider use. But in truth they were never completely out of use. At the height of the troubles people still crossed the border daily on these unapproved roads, not for subversive purposes but simply so they could get on with their lives – they visited cross-border neighbours, worked cross-border farms, transacted cross-border business, went to a cross-border pub or shop. They weren’t terrorising anyone or making any point, they were just getting on with their lives – approved or not.

I’m a fan of Jesus of Nazareth, not least because of his attitude to institutional power. Living under the enormous political and military reality of the Roman Empire he paid it little attention. Rome tried to be in everybody’s face but he appears to have largely ignored it. He had more important things to attend to.

This way of living is fiercely attractive to those who value relationships over institutions. Instead of fighting powers that appear stronger than you, you ignore them and focus on the greater realities. We have never needed political permission or parliamentary vote to grow deeper relationships, to trade and play and pray and sing together, to do all the other things that make sense for people sharing a small Atlantic island.

We need to build more “unapproved roads” while institutions are working out how to create borders. Perhaps the best way to prepare for Brexit is to build an “unapproved city” straddling the border. Building relationships, strong, deep, colourful, tuneful, wise collaborations is our best response to Brexit. Relationships trump barriers, even in Brexit-land.