The border and Brexit: lessons from history

Paddy Mulroe, a native of Emyvale, teacher in Our Lady’s Secondary School, Castleblayney and author of the recently published Bombs, Bullets and the Border (an analysis of Irish Government Security Policy between 1969-1978) outlines what a ‘hard’ border entailed in the past and its subsequent impact on local communities.

Robert Millar and Samuel Donaldson were the first RUC officers killed by republicans in ‘the Troubles’. They were blown up when they went to examine a booby-trapped car near the border on the Crossmaglen-Dundalk Road on 11 August, 1970. After the explosion, former Nationalist MP for the area Eddie Richardson stated that he knew “for a fact that everyone in Crossmaglen is very depressed and annoyed about this whole incident”. Reporter and broadcaster Henry Kelly visited the town and found that unlike Derry, Belfast or even nearby Armagh, Crossmaglen was peaceful and “never a flashpoint”. The editorial in the local paper stated the RUC men’s deaths “were all the more unfortunate as the occurrence took place in an area where political and sectarian strife have been singularly absent.” At the inquest, the Police asked for it to be put on the record their appreciation for the support they received from people in Crossmaglen.

Perhaps, this account of these early RUC casualties will surprise some readers. Crossmaglen is more popularly cited as an epicentre of ‘Bandit Country’. Much of what has been written about ‘the Troubles’, by both academics and journalists, has focused to a large extent on the urban centres of Belfast and Derry. The border area has been left significantly under-researched and much of what has been written has tended towards the ‘Bandit Country’ cliché. Perhaps in the context of talk of a ‘hard border’, now is an opportune time to revisit the recent history of the border counties.

Summer 1971 was a watershed along the border. With internment in August, many nationalists fled south. There was a notable upsurge in violence. This led to pressure from the unionist community for border roads to be closed. The British Army moved in to ‘crater’ or ‘spike’ roads which locals would later attempt to reopen. Some roads were closed and then reopened dozens of times. Many factors contributed to the rise in border violence, but interference in cross border movement was as significant a factor as any. Irish Minister for Justice, Desmond O’Malley, a staunch critic of the IRA, cited the ‘cratering’ of border roads as a key element in radicalising border communities arguing: “The simple unchallengeable fact about trouble in border areas is that there was no trouble of any kind worth mentioning until the Unionist administration, for their own political purposes, persuaded a credulous British government to send out the British Army to implement a policy of ‘cratering’ roads.” Statistics gleaned from archival research support O’Malley’s argument. Before internment, there were on average four border incidents a month, after internment there were 16, after ‘cratering’ there were 33.

There is no suggestion of a return to ‘cratering’ in the event of a ‘hard border’. But we are looking at new border infrastructure. Customs posts are a visible manifestation of the state’s presence and power. Along a contested border, such installations become controversial.

A worst-case scenario sees customs posts becoming targets for violent dissident republicans. They were of course targeted before. An American photographer, P. Michael O’Sullivan, travelled the border in 1972 photographing IRA actions. Among the photographs in O’Sullivan’s photo-book, Patriot Graves, is an image of an unmasked, armed IRA activist wiring with explosives Moybridge Customs Post. The next image is of the IRA man hotfooting it back over the bridge across the border. The final image in the sequence is of the customs post exploding. The remains of the building are still visible at the roadside just as you cross the border. The IRA man told O’Sullivan: “It is a British Customs Post and when you’re trying to unite a country, one of the things that divides it is a customs post.” Moybridge is one of the most famous crossings in the country. It is on the main N2 road about a half a mile from Aughnacloy, County Tyrone. Many journalists have visited the bridge in recent months. Some have commented on the burned-out structure. None have linked its antecedents with a customs post. Things are very different now along the border than in 1972. Support for dissident republicans is negligible. Nonetheless, they still pose a threat and there will therefore be security implications for any border infrastructure.

“We are looking at new border infrastructure. Customs posts are a visible manifestation of the state’s presence and power. Along a contested border, such installations become controversial.”

Aside from this security infrastructure, there is also the disturbance a hard border may causes for local communities in their daily lives. In 1971, after ‘cratering’ began, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Patrick Hillery warned: “People living in the border areas on both sides will resent the serious inconvenience caused to them and this will increase the risk of incidents along the border.” Garda files from 1971 show that hundreds, and at times thousands, protested over the issue of border road closures and checkpoints. These were not political activists. According to one Garda Superintendent, those protesting were predominantly “ordinary decent country folk”. With secondary roads shut, checkpoints were put on the main arteries into Northern Ireland. The constant delays were a source of nuisance for commuters and locals. By the mid-1970s, the crossing at Aughnacloy was particularly problematic. In a barbed comment, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Garret FitzGerald complained to the British Ambassador: “The Aughnacloy crossing gave rise to disproportionate complaints, not only from the likes of [republican TD] Neil Blaney, but from ordinary decent folk.”

The longer the Brexit negotiations go on, the less likely a ‘frictionless’ border seems possible. Delays at the border again seem probable. When faced with what he called a “lunatic” British policy in 1971, Paddy Hillery concluded: “We can make representations; we can give them advice but only God can give them sense.” Brexit has been often been described as an act of ‘massive economic self-harm’. Many would readily equate it to a ‘lunatic’ policy’. Unfortunately, the Dublin government may be in only a marginally better position to influence this direction of this particular ‘lunatic’ policy. Perhaps, in Hillery’s words, “God can give them sense”.

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