Will Brexit reopen old wounds with a new hard border in Northern Ireland?

The Observer, 23.04.2017
Sean O'Hagan
  • Our writer, who grew up in County Armagh, travels the the Irish borderland and talks to those who live there

The motorway from Dublin to Belfast crosses the Irish border just south of the town of Newry. The only clue that you have moved from one country and jurisdiction to another is provided by the speed limit signs, which change from kilometres to miles per hour. Since this stretch of the motorway was opened in July 2010, the journey from one capital to the other takes, on a good day, just 90 minutes.

A few hundred yards away from the motorway, and running almost parallel to it, is the old Dublin to Belfast road, which, throughout the Troubles, was the main conduit for traffic between Ireland and Northern Ireland. On a bad day then, it could take up to 90 minutes just to negotiate the heavily fortified British army checkpoint that stood on the outskirts of Newry, on this road.

It was said that the soldiers stationed in the tall watchtowers on the hills above the checkpoint could see for miles in every direction and hear what was said in every stalled vehicle in the often long queues that built up daily on each side of the border crossing. I grew up 20 miles north of Newry in Armagh, where, during my teenage years, random checkpoints on the country roads were a fact of life and army foot patrols a constant. As the IRA bombing campaign escalated in the early 70s, the anarchy and excitement of the early Troubles gave way to an atmosphere that is hard to describe: a kind of prolonged and anxious enervation that could be fractured at any moment – by bombs going off in the town centre or the sound of gunfire in the night, in the Catholic housing estates. One release was to head across the border to the dancehalls and bars of Monaghan or Dundalk.

I remember being stopped at the Newry checkpoint on many occasions and undergoing the familiar interrogation ritual: name, date of birth, address, where have you come from, where are you going and why? It was a routine intrusion that you never got used to and that never lost its power to unsettle. Coming back into the north could be even more of an ordeal: one of the last times I came through that checkpoint in the early 1990s, my friend and I were pulled over, ordered out of the car and made to stand between two twitchy young soldiers, as an RUC man searched the car meticulously. We were eventually sent on our way, as ever, without explanation.

In a poem called From the Frontier of Writing, Seamus Heaney, who grew up in rural County Derry, evoked the indignity of inspection and interrogation:

“a rifle motions and you move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration –
a little emptier, a little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient.”

The Newry checkpoint was perhaps the most dauntingly physical manifestation of the hard border that enclosed Northern Ireland during the 30 years of the Troubles. So solidly permanent did its presence seem back then that I never thought I would see it disappear in my lifetime. But, in the wake of the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, disappear it did, along with all the other checkpoints on the many roads that traversed the border.

The free flow of people on the new motorway is perhaps the most vivid symbol of the new Ireland of cross-border co-operation and painstaking bridge-building between the governments in the north and south of the island.

Because of the conflict, the border was necessary, but maiming,” says Fintan O’Toole, author and political columnist for the Irish Times. “It had the effect of enclosing both parts of the island. In the south, you had this enormous collective psychological withdrawal from the north because of the violence, but also because of the sheer presence of the border. If you approached it from the south, you were acutely aware that you were entering dangerous terrain. There was a sense of scrutiny and surveillance that created a definite anxiety the closer you got to it. Since the Troubles ended, that mental border has diminished dramatically, to the point where people are no longer, as it were, bordered by the border.”

Narrow Water Castle, between Co Down in Northern Ireland and Co Louth in the south. The border runs along the river. Nigel Swann for The Observer

A recent Irish government survey noted that there are now around 200 border crossing points and an estimated 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1.85m cars travel to and from Northern Ireland every month. In spite of this progress, the prevailing question now occupying people either side of the Irish border, particularly those that live in its hinterland, is: does Brexit mean that checkpoints of some kind could reappear, to prevent the movement of goods and people from European Ireland into British Northern Ireland?

In March, an Irish Times headline provided a stark answer to that question. It read “Brexit: There will be a hard border. The only question is where?” There has been a degree of concern bordering on panic in the Irish media and political arena about the very real harm a hard Brexit could do to Irish business and trade: the imposition of tariffs, the impact on farmers, the beef and milk industries, small businesses and the estimated 30,000 people who travel to work from one side of the border to the other to work daily in schools, offices and hospitals. Then there is the possible impact on the peace process.

“The notion that you would even consider implementing a hard border here again seems ludicrous,” says O’Toole.

It is not just that it was so porous even when it was heavily policed, but that it would be read here as the British government not giving a damn about the legacy of the Troubles and the terrific progress of the years since the Good Friday agreement.”

When I speak to Heather Humphreys, minister for arts and heritage in the Irish government, who grew up close to the border in the tiny village of Drum and now represents the Cavan-Monaghan constituency, she insists the Irish government “will do everything to see that a hard border is avoided”. She cites four key issues that every Irish government representative will be pushing for: minimising the impact on trade and the economy, influencing the future of the European Union, maintaining the common travel area and protecting the peace process.

In the EU referendum, Northern Ireland voted Remain by a majority of 56% to 44%. The Democratic Unionist party, which views the return of a hard border as reinforcement of Britain’s loyalty to Northern Ireland at a time of increasing uncertainty about the future of the United Kingdom, will place Brexit at the heart of its general election campaign. A re-energised Sinn Féin, buoyed by their success in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, when they slashed the DUP’s long-taken-for-granted majority to a solitary seat, will fly the flag for Northern Ireland to stay in Europe – and a possible all-Ireland vote on the border issue.

It is with all this in mind that I begin a four-day drive along the Irish borderlands in the company of photographer Nigel Swann, who, like me, grew up in County Armagh on the northern side. The border is 310 miles long, and, as we soon find out, can be difficult to follow even with the help of an Ordnance Survey map. It skirts five of the six counties of Northern Ireland – Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry – as well as five Irish border counties – Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal. Along the way, it bisects mountains, towns, townlands, fields, rivers, bridges, farms and even a few houses wherein the occupants sit down to supper in Ireland before going to sleep across the hall in Britain.

We start our journey on the Northern Irish side of the border by driving along the shoreline road from Rostrevor, our base, to nearby Warrenpoint. The border begins and ends not on land, but in water, disappearing into Carlingford Lough at the south-east end, and Lough Foyle in the north-west. In researching my road trip, I discover to my surprise that both inlets are still contested by the British and Irish governments nearly 100 years after the border was created. The British claim ownership of the entire stretch of water spread out before us as we gaze across Carlingford Lough at the Cooley Mountains in the south. During the Troubles, a British gunboat was often seen idling in the middle of Carlingford Lough, much to the annoyance of fishermen around the shores.

The partition of Ireland took place on 3 May 1921, when, following the Irish war of independence and the contentious signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland became an independent country save for the six counties of Northern Ireland, which, because of a Protestant majority, remained part of Great Britain. The border has been a contested issue ever since: its removal and the formation of a 32-county Irish Republic remains the mainstay of Irish republicanism. In the 1950s, the IRA conducted a short bombing campaign in and around the border, causing a brief state of emergency in the north, but it petered out mainly due to a lack of popular support on either side of the border. For most of its existence up until the Troubles, the border was a porous entity for the people who lived alongside it: smuggling was rife in the borderlands, and people travelled back and forth to buy goods, the direction of their shopping trips dictated by the fluctuating exchange rate of the English pound and Irish punt.

As a child, I often heard stories of how my mother and her sisters would outwit the constables at the British side of the border, by crossing into the free state at Middletown on their bicycles and bringing back Irish goods hidden under their dresses. When my parents were courting, they travelled to Dublin in 1950 to buy their wedding rings, taking them back across the border inside the hem of my mother’s dress. I now wear my late father’s wedding ring, which was bought at a shop on O’Connell Street.

As we pass though Warrenpoint, I suddenly recall a boat that ferried day trippers to and from Omeath on the opposite shore. As a child in the pre-Troubles 1960s, I queued with my parents to board the tiny boat and, as far as I can recall, that choppy crossing was the first time I crossed into southern Ireland, which my father always called the Free State. Like many Northern Ireland Catholics of his generation, he viewed the partition of Ireland as a betrayal. We were Irish Catholics consigned by the border to live in Unionist Northern Ireland, one of whose founders, James Craig, the province’s first prime minister, had proclaimed “a Protestant parliament and a Protestant State”.


The Irish historian and biographer Roy Foster has pointed out that many Protestants in the post-partition south had similar feelings of estrangement and emasculation, as President De Valera’s pious and parochial Catholic Ireland took shape. “The sort of home I grew up in thought that partition was a tragic mistake,” he told the Irish Times last year. “We’d have been a 25% minority in a country that wasn’t a fecking theocracy, if partition hadn’t happened. Partition was a tragedy for southern Protestants and that’s not often enough realised.”

My first trip to the south lasted less than an hour. There was not much to do in Omeath, but it felt oddly exotic. My parents queued for cockles and mussels, while my cousin and I bought bars of Irish chocolate and toffee, which tasted creamier than British chocolate. Over there, everything felt different somehow: the houses and clothes more old-fashioned; the shop that sold souvenirs, sweets, holy pictures, emerald green rosary beads and miniature Irish tricolours seemed to belong to an older age. I remember even then, as a child in the 1960s, feeling like I belonged there, but did not fit in somehow. People spoke differently and viewed us northerners with an undisguised curiosity which, as the Troubles escalated in the following decade, I sometimes suspected was a kind of pity.

Our road trip takes us up and down the Narrow Water, into Newry and back out again across the border, by road towards Omeath; then up into the Cooley Mountains, an elemental landscape that has remained remarkably unsullied save for the epidemic of fly-tipping that afflicts the southern side of the border. Nigel, it turns out, has been making a photo-series on abandoned computer equipment and stops suddenly when we spot a console on the roadside near Carlingford.

A short while later, we arrive, via a circuitous route through the winding mountain roads, on the aforementioned Dundalk-to-Newry road, near to a recently erected billboard. Its message is writ large: No EU Frontier In Ireland. No Hard Border. Respect the Remain Vote. It is the first of many similar signs we will see in the next few days, placed at various crossing points by an activist group, Border Communities Against Brexit, whose members also created a much-publicised mock border checkpoint on this road in the summer of 2016.

Up the road a few hundred yards, the border manifests itself as a faint line where two stretches of asphalt meet, but, even if you did not know of its existence, it is obvious you are in borderland. This is a liminal landscape of industrial-size sheds, laybys strewn with litter, roadside fuel stops selling “clean diesel” and garish hoardings that advertise “fireworks for sale”. (Fireworks are illegal in Ireland without a licence, and strictly controlled in the north, mainly due to the fact that rioters have often aimed them at the police.)

Along this now forlorn stretch of road are traces of another, more ominous hinterland that existed not that long ago. About a mile towards Dundalk, the gutted shell of a nightclub has been daubed in fading graffiti: Stop the Maghaberry Strip Searches; South Armagh and Tyrone Republicans Against Internment – runes and symbols of another kind of border conflict. Closer to the invisible border, the concrete remnants of a customs post peek up though tall grass behind a high wire fence. Until the IRA ceasefire of 31 August 1994, this spot marked the start of an eerie no-man’s-land that ended about a mile north at the military checkpoint at Newry, the zone of anxiety that O’Toole recalls so vividly.


We pull in by a bungalow bureau de change with a “Money Changed” sign on the roof. Inside, a lone man sits behind a metal grille, rows of euros and pound coins arranged in racks on the counter beside him and a cluster of collection boxes for various Catholic charities on a windowsill. He looks like a character from an undiscovered Samuel Beckett play and, as it turns out, most of his working day is now spent waiting. “Trade is down 60% since the motorway opened,” he tells me. “It’s bad, but we’re hanging on in there.” I ask him how he feels about the prospect of a hard border on his doorstep. He shakes his head.

Nah. I can’t see them putting up border posts again. Never mind that it would be terrible for business on both sides, people just wouldn’t stand for all the queuing and questioning.”

We will hear several variations of this refrain in the days that follow, yet there have been some reports in the Irish media that the government has already been identifying sites along the border where customs checkpoints could be placed if those plans go awry. Some commentators in Britain and Ireland have suggested that the border checkpoints should be at the seaports and airports that connect Britain and Ireland. The idea of an electronic border between the two states has also been suggested. It is hard, though, to see how either solution would prevent people – smugglers, as well as refugees and asylum seekers – crossing the long and porous line that snakes from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle and that will soon be the only land border between the European Union and Britain.

When I ask Roy Foster about Brexit, he says:

The great Hubert Butler remarked in the 1950s that one could only hope that, with more pluralist attitudes north and south, the border would eventually become redundant and float away like a sticking-plaster from a wound that has healed. The combined effects of joint EU membership and the recognitions imposed by the Good Friday agreement were leading to something like that happening – a dilution of the border, culturally, economically and socially. All this has been destroyed by Brexit.”

In the afternoon, we drive along the country roads of South Armagh, through Jonesborough, Forkhill and Crossmaglen. These days, those small Northern Irish border towns are quiet, although Crossmaglen still exudes what Nigel calls “an in-your-face republican vibe”. Driving into the town, we pass a billboard that celebrates the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 who were executed by the British. On the way out, another billboard stands incongruously in a field, in remembrance of two local volunteers killed in action during the Troubles.

During the Troubles, this was “Bandit Country”, the frontline of the IRA’s dogged and deadly war against the security forces, which made the hills and roads of South Armagh so dangerous the British army had to travel by helicopter, rather than risk the constant threat from sniper attacks and roadside bombs, which claimed the lives of 165 members of the security forces. Throughout the 30 years of the Troubles, I visited Crossmaglen only once, though I lived just over half an hour’s drive away. It was an area enclosed by its own fearsome reputation.

Today, the locals go about their daily business without the deafening roar of giant troop carriers flying low, in and out of the military base that once dominated the village. The watchtowers that sat atop the hills and mountains have gone and, with them, the giant sanger – fortified lookout post – that dominated the town square. In 1986, Colm Tóibín walked the length of the Irish border from Derry to Newry. The resulting book, titled A Walk Along the Irish Border (recently republished as Bad Blood) is a sombre read, a starkly matter-of-fact account of the people he encountered and the climate of fear and terror they lived in.

Along these borderlands, sectarian killings occurred with a dreadful regularity. On 5 January 1976, a minibus carrying 11 workmen was stopped by gunmen near the village of Kingsmill, in south Armagh. They were forced out of the bus, lined up and shot. Only one survived, despite having been hit 18 times at close range. All were Protestants, murdered by a republican paramilitary group in retaliation for the killing of six Catholics by a loyalist death squad the previous night.

If one were to imagine a worst-case post-Brexit scenario for Northern Ireland, it would involve the border becoming once again a focus for paramilitary aggression. Dissident republican groups remain sporadically active in Northern Ireland, but have thus far lacked a defined focus for their cause. They are relatively few in number and have little support among the nationalist population of the north of Ireland, but it is worth remembering that the IRA occupied a similar position on the margins at the start of the Troubles. One of their number back then was Laurence McKeown, who took part in the IRA hunger strike of 1981, and is now an author and screenwriter who lives near the border in the south.

The old border had to do with conflict rather than customs and free movement,” he tells me. “Now, it’s about the impact on cross-border businesses and the flow of people back and forth. And yet any form of a hard border would provide a viable context for dissident activity. If even one border checkpoint was to be attacked, all the rest would have to be fortified.”

For people on both sides of the border in Ireland, this is the post-Brexit possibility that does not bear thinking about.

For most of my childhood, in the 1960s, the border was nothing more than a vague presence somewhere up the Monaghan road in Armagh, a few miles past where my grandparents lived. It was a line on a map that we crossed on our annual summer holidays to Donegal. Then, as now, Northern Ireland came to a kind of standstill in what was called the 12 July fortnight. As the Orangemen of Ulster prepared for their annual celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, my family, like many Catholic families in the north, headed south. We crammed into my uncle Francie’s car to make the journey from Armagh through Caledon, Augher, Clogher and Fivemiletown and on towards Enniskillen and the border crossing into Donegal. Our destination was Bundoran, a seaside town on Donegal’s wild Atlantic ocean, where the entire caravan park was inhabited for those two weeks by Northern Irish families.

On those journeys, I don’t recall ever being stopped at British or Irish customs posts, which were then only a hundred yards or so apart and manned by men in uniforms in huts whose job seemed to consist of waving cars through with an almost imperceptible movement of the hand. What I do recall was my brother and I cheering at the first Irish tricolour we spied and the general sense of what can only be described as cheery relief emanating from my parents. Like the Irish language we learned at school, our annual summer holiday in the south was, I now realise, a way of keeping alive that increasingly tenuous, but no less heartfelt, sense of belonging to Ireland.

For my generation, who came of age as the Troubles flared from civil disobedience into a violent guerrilla war, the border became a very real entity, a place you approached with a mounting degree of anxiety and trepidation. In the early 70s, the hotels and dancehalls of Monaghan and Dundalk on the southern side of the border drew teenagers from the border towns in the north, where the Troubles had engendered a kind of clampdown on the having of fun.

Every Friday and Saturday night, a minibus ferried teenagers from Armagh to the Hillgrove and the Four Seasons hotel in Monaghan or the Imperial Ballroom in Dundalk, where, if you were lucky, the Irish rock band Horslips might be on the bill, instead of a showband that belted covers of contemporary pop songs and country-and-standards in an altogether too-slick fashion. Often, at the bar, I would recognise a lad I knew from Armagh, but had not seen for a while. Invariably, it would be someone who had joined the IRA and gone “on the run” across the border.

Today, Monaghan is a tidy and thriving town, but the smaller rural towns around it have a neglected feel that suggests the successive waves of regeneration money from the EU never quite washed up this far north. In Clones, immortalised in The Butcher Boy, Pat McCabe’s darkly surreal novel of small-town border life, we stroll around the town centre, taking in the fading grandeur of the buildings, before calling on George Knight, a Protestant historian who lives in a house adjacent to the imposing Church of Ireland building. Now in his 70s, George is affable and stimulating company. His family have lived in Clones since 1670 and he gives us a potted history of the region, from the Williamite war to the present. Of the Troubles, he says:

Those were dire times along the border. We lived through the horror and we accepted it as normal.” Of Brexit, he professes deep bafflement: “It makes no sense to me. It’s a huge and terrible accident that has been allowed to happen – a whole swath of disenfranchised English people blaming the other, the foreigner.”

Could he envisage a hard border on his doorstep once again? “At the moment, nothing would surprise me,” he says, frowning:

There are so many possible consequences of Brexit and very few of them pertaining to Ireland were given a thought by the people who drove the decision to leave. We are separate nations with a huge common interest, but one thing that sets us [both] apart is that people here have such a long memory, because of what they lived through on this divided island, while people across the water seem to have no comprehension of that. That’s one thing that Brexit has highlighted.”

The following day, we drive along the Cavan- Fermanagh border, entering what seems like a different country of lakes and streams. The border divides the small towns of Belcoo in the north and Blacklion in the south, passing along the river that separates them. Early in the morning, an elderly lady crossing the bridge from the south to the north greets us as we are trying to find a vantage point from which Nigel can photograph the river, along which the border seems to run. “If you’re looking for the border, it’s on ahead a bit yet,” she shouts down at us from the bridge. I ask her: “What does she think about the possibility of an actual border going up again between the two villages?” “Oh, I’d be all for it,” she says, cheerily. “I’m sick listening to all the talk about it. I hope they bring it back just to shut them all up.”

A few hours later, we arrive in the city of Derry to meet Eamonn McCann, longtime socialist, political activist, journalist and, latterly, politician. A member of the People Before Profit party, McCann was, until the recent NI Assembly election, the elected representative for the Foyle constituency. He is anti-austerity and pro-Brexit on the grounds that it is a break with the “racist, neoliberal elite of the European Union”. Though the stance probably cost him his seat, it was worth it “just to signal that there was another perspective”. McCann also believes “there is zero possibility of the return of a hard border”. How, I ask, can he be so sure? “Well, first up, it’s classic scaremongering from the Remain camp. Think about it – what are the chances of Theresa May sending over border guards to stand on a country road in Forkhill or Crossmaglen?” He tells me that it would take, at a conservative estimate, around 10,000 personnel to maintain customs posts.

Never mind the cost; that would mean there would be 10,000 sitting ducks along the border.”

Does he honestly think the reappearance of customs posts between north and south could reignite violent republicanism in Northern Ireland? He nods.

As we know from recent history, it does not take that many people to destabilise a country. I would say there are enough people around here who would see the border as an opportunity for just that. It would be a mistake to underestimate the potential of dissidents to become a violently disruptive force. I don’t think anyone who lived though the last 50 years in Northern Ireland would do that, but, in England, it seems to be taken as not more than a remote possibility.”

Depending on who you speak to, then, the ramifications of a hard Brexit for Northern Ireland seem at best deeply worrying and at worst cataclysmic. McCann and Knight, from their differing perspectives, both intimated that they believe Brexit will probably lead to the breakup of the UK. It is a view shared by the cautious, thoughtful O’Toole: “The United Kingdom has proved itself to be a very contingent construct, but I am not sure it will survive Brexit,” he says. He proposes a special bilateral deal that could be worked out for Northern Ireland, which echoes what he calls “the constructive ambiguities of the Belfast agreement concerning the uniqueness and complexity of the state”. It is difficult to see that kind of flexibility being formulated by what Foster calls “the awful Daily Mail government at Westminster”.

What future, then, for an island that, pending the June general election result, is currently united north and south in its opposition to Brexit? “What we may see,” says McCann, “is that the question of a unified Ireland is posed in an unprecedented context: not as republican versus unionist, but in terms of alignment with Europe.” It is one of the ironies of Brexit that the Irish border may yet be consigned to history by the very people who insist that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley. Stranger things have happened of late.

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