I have been thinking a lot about borders. This is the first post in a series of four that threatens to be quite boring, but which is at least topical. Brace yourself and persevere if you can.
Borders are like boiled eggs. Some are hard, some are soft, some are easy to crack, and soldiers are often involved. Borders also resemble pancakes, having two sides. They may also be compared to other people’s mothers in that you may occasionally cross them, but you really only care about your own. This last is not true in my case. As a penance for my peripatetic life I find I have four borders to worry about just now. The one that divides Ireland North and South. The one that runs between the United States and Mexico. And the two jagged seams crudely stitched between Armenia and Turkey, and Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of these borders make news at the moment and, as sure as eggs are breakfast fare, you will hear more of them all.
This post is about the Northern Ireland border, created in 1922, meaning that the island previously known as Ireland split into two, with the northern portion continuing to be governed by the United Kingdom, as it had been since 1801. 26 counties on the island of Ireland became a free state, an autonomous country we now know as the Republic of Ireland.
The border that separates the North from the South of Ireland runs East/West from Newry to Enniskillen and then South/North up through Fermanagh and Tyrone to Derry, an arbitrary line in slurry.
From its earliest times, the new border was supervised in a slightly lackluster way by British and Irish customs officials. Many perfectly ordinary people went backwards and forward everyday, going from home to work and back, or visiting their fields, family and friends. No one was much exercised about excise. Id may be requested, but there is no passport control.
In the 1970s the area bordering the border was always referred to as Indian country by my dad. (Forgive my father’s non-PC turn of phrase. We knew no better then.) From Belfast on our way south to Dublin or west to Donegal we were told to roll up our windows and lock car doors. It was the same on the way back. My dad’s concern was that gun wielding guerilla fighters camped out in scrubby fields surrounding border towns would hijack our sedate Ford sedan and stack the back seat high with kalashnikovs, gelignite and unsold copies of Republican News to use as firelighters. This never happened. But the IRA weren’t the only ones hiding out on damp lanes and thorny hedges. A friend of mine, a Newry boy, took his girlfriend for a walk along a quiet border lane one summer evening in the mid ’70s, and persuaded her into a field for a little lie down. Just as he rolled towards his lovely, he found himself almost eyeball to eyeball with a British soldier in camo gear in Action-Man pose in the long grass, gun pointing.
“I can’t move” the soldier said “so you’re gonna have to.”
Undercover stopped ardent lover. In addition to their men on the ground (literally) the British army also had heavily armoured towers at intervals along the border, ugly look-out posts from which to scan the landscape for men with bombs and guns.
In recent, happier years, with dips and dives between British sterling and Irish punts or Euros, people have taken advantage of a very soft border to smuggle siphoned petrol and herds of cattle, where once (at least according to my father, based on his memory of the ’30s and ’40s) they used to trade in watches and pounds of butter. Everyone buys drink and stocks up on Marks and Spencer’s mincepies at Christmas. There are new worries now though. The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, which means Northern Ireland goes too. The Republic of Ireland is a stalwart EU member. The UK has strict immigration laws and limits on refugees to whom it is prepared to offer asylum. The border between Ireland North and South could become the backdoor way into Britain. Will the Jungle move from Calais to Drogheda? Where will visitors to Britain clear British security? At Irish ports? Or British airports? Or on our own wee border? Will people in Northern Ireland (the clear majority of whom voted to stay in the EU in the recent British referendum) choose to exercise their right to Irish citizenship in order to remain part of Europe, rendering the idea of Irish partition a nonsense altogether? No one knows. Northern Ireland’s politicians are in a complete funk about a lot of things and offer no clear way forward. The Republic’s government certainly does not want its newish South North infrastructure (paid for by the EU) to become a corridor for pass through refugees headed to Belfast and thence to mainland Britain. Whatever they say, the Irish politicians wouldn’t want a gift of Northern Ireland either. Not for the first time, it is all a bit of a mess.
Here, at a safe remove, I am interested in the way that a political and territorial question hotly debated for nearly 100 years– whether there should be a border within the island of Ireland– is suddenly and dramatically changed by asking a different question: will the United Kingdom vote in or out of Europe? It voted out. Priorities are changing for the two islands that lie just to the west of mainland Europe. Get ready to redraw the maps. Again.