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The Irish Border: 310 miles, one unanswered question

A British soldier patrols the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in 1988. Photo: Getty Images. - Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The Irish border represents Brexit’s most intractable problem. But, as PADDY HOEY explains, the real issue is not about the technicalities of trade, but the more profound issue of identity it raises.

The spectre of a militarised border in Ireland has provoked a reaction like little else in the ongoing debates around Brexit. Issues like the backstop and sea versus land borders have thrown into deep relief the ongoing means by which Ireland is viewed and treated by British governments.

The border continues to matter because it is where, in the frontier between states, the movement of people, goods and services is subject to customs tariffs and potentially World Trade Organisation rules, if Britain falls out of the EU without a deal.

But, emotionally, the border remains uppermost in the psyche of Irish nationalists because the memories of crossing it during the Troubles are among the most visceral experiences of militarisation. Machine gun-carrying soldiers, look-out towers and security apparatus in the middle of often bleak and wild countryside was an experience that many people felt that they would never have to go back to.

For the majority of people, it was one of the rituals of life during the Troubles we stoically endured. For others it was a small humiliation which they silently seethed about. For a smaller number still, it was the root cause of their identification with armed republicanism. For an even smaller number of people it was enough to drive them into those groups.

The border signalled otherness, a separation of north from south, arbitrarily separating families and communities: an invisible line in the ground, eccentrically drawn over two centuries by Whitehall civil servants, came to encapsulate deeply militarised encounters with authority and fear.

The border in Ireland is neither a result of geographical faults nor of deep ideological differences on either side of it. Rather, the meandering division is entirely born of the pragmatic requirements of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 and the Boundary Commission of 1925.

Running from Carlingford Lough at the south eastern edge of Ulster to Lough Foyle in the north west, it takes an eccentrically irregular course around local townland and county boundaries that were initially drawn up by the British in the 17th century.

In 1920, in the vacuum after the turmoil of the Home Rule crisis, the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence and the establishment of parliaments in Belfast and Dublin, it was a pragmatic solution to the need to create a unionist majority in the north east of the country.

The historic nine counties of the province of Ulster was reduced to the six of modern Northern Ireland, the other three: Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal, with majority Catholic nationalist populations, became part of the 26-county Irish Free State, later to become the Republic of Ireland.

The border’s sometimes illogical zig-zagging through fields and down the middle of small rivers like the Blackwater, is in reverse image to the disastrously straight lines drawn by British civil servants in the Middle East at roughly the same period of history. Both have left a legacy of conflict felt to this day.

Damian McGenity is one of the founder members of the Border Communities Against Brexit group, which has been lobbying governments about the dangers of a return to a hard, securitised border. The group’s pieces of street theatre, with mock police border patrols, have captured the public imagination and seen them get headlines in newspapers and covered on television in Britain, Ireland and in all of the EU member nation states.

‘No-one under the age of 35 has any experience of the realities of the border as it was before the Good Friday Agreement,’ he says. ‘But since Brexit there has been a tsunami of interest from people, because at the end of the day we live on the island of Ireland, we have the right to live and work and go where we want under the agreement and that is threatened.’

The borderlands have never experienced the same degree of economic prosperity as the main cities in Ireland and suffered disproportionately over centuries from the effects of famine and emigration.

When the railways stopped travelling to border towns in the 1960s, their economic decline was swift and brutal. A deeper partition with the militarisation of the border after 1969 only exacerbated and sped up the decline.

The opening of the border and the free movement of people and goods in the last 20 years has been the direct catalyst for the economic revival in towns like Newry, Dundalk and Enniskillen.

Industrially, there has also been a revolution in industries associated with farming, food and drink production and pharmaceuticals thanks to free movement.

‘Since the Good Friday Agreement businesses have grown and become cross-border businesses,’ says McGenity. ‘The agribusiness sector has seen major companies that are competitive not just on a national or European basis, but internationally.

‘So, our campaign has never been about religion or tribal politics, it’s about economics and the right to trade. It has never been a constitutional issue for us, we won’t talk about a vote around unity. It’s simply about the backstop, a trading alliance and the customs union and single market.’

Border Communities Against Brexit point to the multi-nationals that repeatedly cross the border now as part of their production processes – Coca-Cola sends syrup manufactured in Co Mayo to Belfast to bottle, Guinness sends beers brewed in Dublin to the north in trains to be put in bottles, cans and kegs.

‘Goods in some industries can cross the border on two or three occasions, for instance in the beef industry,’ says McGenity. ‘The regulatory frameworks from the EU allow them to cross the border. But with a hard border and a different regulatory environment, these will be subject to perhaps three tariffs – many of our businesses cannot sustain more than one charge and so Brexit threatens them.’

The free movement of people has also been at the heart of the successes of many businesses along the border. Justin McNulty, an MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, for Newry and Armagh, is acutely aware of the practical issues that face business in the years after Brexit.

‘There is a definite sense of Brexit fatigue,’ he says. ‘It’s in your face 24/7 and people are sick of hearing it, but business people are still coming to ask us what is happening, especially with regards to the labour market.

‘We have people who have built hugely successful businesses using labour from overseas, Poland, Romania, etc. Polish people have contributed so much to many businesses, but they are going home now because they don’t feel welcome. They don’t want to bring up a family in a country that appears to be saying that we don’t want new citizens coming here.

‘Irish people have travelled across the globe for generations, the diaspora is many, many millions strong, and now, because of the reckless British government, what is being said is that immigrants are not welcome here.’

Border Communities Against Brexit also points to the fact that people cross it more regularly now than they did when it was a hard frontier: 40,000 people travel across it every day to go to work. Nearly two million car journeys cross it annually. On top of this a dual economic system has sprung up reflecting the fluid nature of life in the borderlands.

‘We are crossing the border all the time, many times a day in some cases,’ says McGenity. ‘I work in a post office, and our business has two tills, one for pounds and euros, we have a sterling card machine and a euro card machine. This is a reality right along the border.’

Novelist Brian McGilloway, who lives in the Co Tyrone town of Strabane, less than half a mile from the border with Donegal, says: ‘The majority of people who voted for Brexit have the least experience of living on a border. We can cross it two or three times every day. If we go to the cinema or the shops or to the chapel, we are crossing the border.

‘In this respect, Brexit is working against the aims of both the peace process and the EU, which are about bringing down barriers. Brexit is about putting them up again.’

There are many other practical issues that remain unresolved less than six months before Britain leaves the EU: there is still no regulatory framework for the manufacturers of drugs in Northern Ireland, many of which are based in the borderlands, to get their products tested and verified for sale in their primary market, Europe.

Hauliers based in Northern Ireland, who require a licence to carry goods in the EU, face having to open second offices in the Irish Republic to do so. Even then, there is still no solution for the problem of how car and vehicle insurance is going to work on either side of the border after March.

Emotionally, a hard border means that Northern Ireland returns to the status quo prior to the Good Friday Agreement – forcing people to choose between the binary identities of Irish versus British, nationalism versus unionism. The borderlands starkly bear the scars of the many battles fought over those identities going back centuries.

At the Swanlinbar border crossing in Co Cavan there is a memorial to the Provisional IRA, and in nearby Ballinamore in Co Leitrim there is a monument to John Joe McGirl, the leader of the IRA’s Border Campaign of 1957-1963, which reads: ‘An unbroken and unbreakable Fenian.’

The DUP leader Arlene Foster’s father was shot and severely injured by the Provisional IRA in 1979. When she spoke to Patrick Kielty for a BBC documentary about the Troubles, she showed the television presenter and comedian the Co Fermanagh churchyard in which many members of her community are buried having been murdered by Republicans. This is a landscape dotted with relics of conflict.

Professor Frank Shovlin, of the University of Liverpool, is from County Donegal, and is the world’s leading expert on John McGahern, perhaps Ireland’s most important novelist of the late 20th century. ‘If you go up into the mountains near the border, there is a little church called Corraleehan where McGahern’s mother came from,’ Shovlin says.

‘There is a memorial in the graveyard to a family that starts with one member of going out in the 1798 United Irishman’s rebellion, then another who went out in the Land War in the 1830s, then another went out with the Fenians in the 1860s and then the last was killed in an ambush by British forces in the 1970s.

‘You can find this sense of absolute living history that won’t go away right across the border. That south west corner of the six counties is haunting.’

The sense of history haunting Northern Ireland has inspired some of the best literature of the last 20 years, especially in detective fiction where a generation of authors have addressed the sins of the Troubles from the moral perspective of the crime novel.

Brian McGilloway’s best-selling Inspector Devlin novels are profoundly influenced by the border which is a supernatural presence in his books. The Derry-born author’s first, Borderlands, is about a woman found murdered on the border, and when the snows come down no-one knows where the line is anymore.

For McGilloway, the border is not simply a jurisdictional limit, but one of moral boundaries. It is also a place where one is forced to choose your side.

‘The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t perfect, but it achieved a remarkable balance. The border was there and it wasn’t there. People could be Irish, British, or British Irish. It struck a balance between the identities that Brexit is throwing into crisis.’

Justin McNulty points to the deeply emotional effects of any return to a militarised border. ‘There were three observation posts built on hills within a mile of my house,’ he says. ‘Looking back at it I wonder how the hell did we survive? We took it for granted that it was normal.

‘But it was crazy and abnormal. It’s only now that we can wonder how we could have accepted that division.

‘The division in people’s hearts and minds cannot be allowed to return. The impact of a hard border would be phenomenal and I don’t think people will accept it.’

McGilloway points to the almost universally held belief by people on the border that there should be no return to a heavily securitised frontier: ‘The physical traces of the border disappeared quite quickly, but the psychological effects lasted much longer. It took me 15 years to get them out of my system through my writing.

‘There was a humiliation and fear driving through the border when it was there. It was an alien experience. I do not want my own children to experience that.’

McNulty ultimately encapsulates the experience of Brexit to his predominantly nationalist constituency: ‘Our Irishness has been stripped by Brexit, our European citizenship is being stripped from us. That’s very unfair.

‘There’s been a complete lack of appreciation of the Irish question by the British government during Brexit, but then, the same can be said of the last few hundred years.’

Paddy Hoey is a lecturer in media and politics at Edge Hill University, Lancashire

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