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On the Irish border, Britain's new Brexit plan fails to lift mood

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Middletown (United Kingdom) (AFP)

In Middletown, Northern Ireland, opinions on Brexit vary, but most people can agree on one thing: London's latest Brexit plans do nothing to quell fears of a return to a hard border.

"It's a joke," said Lena Carville, 52, as she strolled to the village post office on Thursday morning. "It's going to be hard on everybody who lives along the border.

"It's going to be a disaster as far as I can see," she told AFP.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson published his government's long-awaited proposals for a deal to leave the European Union on Wednesday before an October 31 deadline.

Notably, he pledged no customs checks "at or near the border in Northern Ireland", and instead proposed they are performed at traders' premises or "other points on the supply chain".

But among the 250 residents of Middletown, which butts up against the boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Johnson's plan has not put minds to rest.

"The general Brexit situation is that everybody's in limbo -- nobody knows exactly what's going to happen," said farmer Peter Mackle with exasperation.

Mackle, 60, lives just outside Middletown across the border in the Irish republic. He is a self-avowed Johnson and Brexit supporter.

Sitting in his Range Rover surveying Middletown's high street, he said there could be no return to the past.

"There'll be no customs on the border north and south simply because they'll not be allowed", he said.

"There'll be people power and it'll be stopped regardless of laws and who's going to make them. It certainly will not be tolerated again."

- A frontier village -

The border between the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland was once a frontier of violence in the 30 years of sectarian strife known as "the Troubles".

The bloodshed ended after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which dissolved infrastructure along the 500-kilometre (300-mile) line and rendered it largely invisible.

Since Britain's seismic 2016 vote to leave the EU, there has been a sense a new frontier could emerge between Northern Ireland and trading bloc member Ireland.

Despite Johnson's latest assurances, there were still questions about whether he risked unravelling the fragile peace process -- and even provoking fresh violence.

"I'm pretty worried about it at the minute because at my age I've been through all the troubles and I don't want it for my kids," Carville said, looking concerned.

"We can't go back on the Good Friday Agreement" added villager Gerald Williamson, 54, with a sense of agitation.

"It's written in stone, it's very important to the people here," he added before heading up Middletown's main street and its smattering of shops.

- Business concerns -

Visitors to Middletown are left in no doubt about local views on the border. Signs dot the side of the road beside the lush green hillsides, stocked with cattle.

"No border, no barriers, protest," one placard reads. Another says "EU customs area", denoting the spot where checks could soon take place.

Local people aren't the only ones unconvinced by Johnson's proposals. Northern Irish business leaders also slate them as costly and unworkable.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium industry body, said they would require "intrusive surveillance which will put a burden on business and be disruptive for border communities".

But stacking chairs and tables outside her takeaway cafe as she prepared to open, Noeleen Simpson gave some backing to the prime minister.

"It's all he can do," she said with a sense of resignation.

For her the threat of a no-deal Brexit -- meaning checks choking the border roads which carry her passing trade -- is a greater concern.

"I don't want any interruptions. I just want the best for the north," the 45-year-old explained.

Parked on Middletown's main thoroughfare, though, one man saw a upside to any strict customs checks -- the re-emergence of lucrative black market smuggling, once common in the area during the Troubles.

"If they do this we could be earning a lot of money out of it," he said.

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