The Hard Border1986.
The last town in the Republic of Ireland that we passed through on the way to Derry, in the British administered North was Emmyvale in Co Monaghan. After that there were signs for places in Northern Ireland, places sounding sort of Irish but not really, Magharerafelt and Aughnacloy; there was something wrong with the sounds, there was a guttural quality to them. Many times I had heard those place names pronounced on the daily news reports of shootings and bombings during the troubles. So when I saw the signs, I was very sure that they were in Northern Ireland.
The road wound its way between high hedges, with dairy farming land seen briefly as we passed a gate, or some other gap in the hedgerow.
There was no real warning of the Irish side of the border, no barricades, no red and white pole that was lifted when you were clear to go, no Tricolour, nothing except a Garda standing beside a hut which, had a mud splashed sign on the side stating that it was the Custaim agus Mal (Customs and Excise) indicating that this was the Irish Border and hinting that inside the hut lurked a customs man.
Some Irish soldiers stood off to the side beside two green 4×4 SUV’s, looking a bit bored, and not at all threatening, although they were armed.
I slowed down, stopped and wound down my window beside the Garda, who almost saluted, tipping the peak of his cap as he leaned down and rested one hand on the sill of the open car window, and one hand on the roof in a very friendly manner. He was dressed in what was typical Garda uniform of the time, a navy greatcoat with his garda number prominently displayed on his epaulets, and his peaked Garda cap.
“Hello, how are you today? Where are you off to?” He enquired.
“We’re grand thanks, we are off to Derry for a wedding” I answered.
“You’re on the right road anyway, just follow the signs, it’s well signposted over there” he advised, nodding his head generally up the road. “On the other side” he clarified.
“That’s great thank you” I responded.
“Have a lovely day” he said as he straightened up and as I moved off.
I smiled and waved in salute.
The corporal who was the highest rank I saw among the soldiers, turned and waved once to us as we passed. He was armed with a Gustav submachine gun, which he held barrel down as he watched us.
His men were armed with the FN automatic rifle, standard Irish Armed Forces weaponry; they likewise held their weapons muzzle down.
They wore the ubiquitous Irish army green combat uniform, green flak jacket body armour, black beret and black military style laced boots.
I wore the same uniform and carried the same weapons, when I went through the ranks from PVT to acting corporal in the FCA (Forsa Cosanta Auteuil) the Army reserves, from 1971 to 1976. And I carried out the same duty at Electrical generating stations, railway junctions and army camps throughout Leinster, anywhere that the powers that be considered were at risk from UVF bombers, after the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1972 and 1973.
I drove away from the Republic of Ireland side of the border, thinking how almost seamless that was. Okay, I had to stop and have a quick chat with a Garda officer but it was routine, there was no intrusion by the authorities. I was not made to feel threatened or uneasy in any way at all.
The army kept their distance but they were there if needed, in support of the gardai.
I had never been in the North before, so I was surprised to find that the British side was a few miles up the road, from where I’d had my little chat with the Garda. I supposed that the road I travelled between the Irish border and the British border was Irish territory, I didn’t really know.
Britain was much more prominently advertised, and one was left in no doubt whatsoever , that one was approaching the British frontier.
There was a reinforced concrete bunker on high ground to the left , with a British flag fluttering from a flagpole on top, with loopholes and rifle slits pointing south in its sombre grey side.
There was a variety of vehicles parked along the road, two RUC armoured land Rovers and three or four green armoured personnel carriers.
On the right-hand side of the road there was an office, with yet another British flag fluttering from a flagpole atop it, and which had a sign on its side announcing that this was a British border crossing, and that anyone crossing at this point was subject to passport check and Customs and Excise search.
It didn’t mention soldiers or RUC but they were there in abundance.
A soldier from a Scottish regiment approached the car smiling, and in a friendly manner with his weapon resolutely pointed downwards.
I rolled down the window again, and he leaned down to talk to me.
“Hello, where have you come from and where are you going?” He asked in a polite manner.
“Hi, we have driven up from Dublin and we are going to Derry” I answered.
“What is the purpose of your trip may I ask?” He continued.
“We are going to a wedding of a friend of mine” I offered.
“Very good, drive carefully and have a nice day” he said in closing, smiling at us.
“Thank you very much, I’m sure we will” I smiled back at him as we moved off.
There was probably eleven or twelve soldiers in groups around the armoured personnel carriers; they didn’t look at us as we passed.
The British Army preferred camouflage uniforms, flak jackets and green canvas jungle boots. And this regiment topped it off with their cute little Scottish caps, trimmed with black and white check, with two navy or black ribbons, fluttering behind.
Although there was a lot of firepower at the British side, there was no real sense of threat. The soldiers were relaxed, although if threatened I am sure that they could have turned into a very effective fighting force in seconds. I wasn’t intimidated by them; in fact, Border Force and special branch in Heathrow airport, with their black uniforms and concealed weapons, were far more intimidating than those guys.
The RUC men congregated around their land Rovers, did seem to scowl and glower at us as we passed however.
I left the border crossing, pleasantly impressed with the friendliness of the personnel on both sides, entrusted to guard it.
There was no customs or passport check, and the people South and North seemed primarily concerned with the ever-present terrorist threat. Still I was glad to leave that bit of British jingoism behind me. I suppose, like many Irish people, I feel distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of the Union Jack and the symbolic trappings of Great Britain, all of which have a special unhappy significance for us.
Things changed as soon as we entered Northern Ireland. Everything seemed neater
We still travelled through agricultural land but the hedges were smaller , and we could see the fields beyond and the cattle grazing pastorally. I’m not sure; as I’m sure they are not sure, whether they were Irish or British cows.
Even though there was no breakdown lane on these relatively narrow country roads, the British authorities believed it prudent to paint a white line, about a foot in from the edge of the road, going on for miles and miles and miles, presumably on every narrow country road in the six counties..
I’m sure that it was handy at night to know where the edge of the road was, but cars have headlights so that you can see exactly that, whether there is a white line or not. It must keep the Northern Irish road people in permanent employment.
I had always thought that members of the EU must display distances on road signs in kilometres. However in Northern Ireland, and from my experience of driving in Britain since then, their distances remain stubbornly in miles. This had the effect of making everywhere further away than on the continent or in the Republic.
I think that we must do little calculations unconsciously as we drive, and apply a time to distance ratio as we travel. That didn’t work in the North. Thirty miles were not the same as thirty km. I remember thinking to myself that it’s going to take ages to get anywhere, because I had seen a sign for Derry (Londonderry, it nearly chokes me to write it) saying 53 miles. Now if that were kilometres, we would be there in forty or fifty minutes, but with miles I didn’t know.
We made good time after Aughnacloy and the border crossing. The roads weren’t busy and we barrelled along speedily through the sunny Northern Ireland morning.
About twenty minutes out from the border, we came to a joint UDR / RUC checkpoint.
As I came around a bend, luckily the speedometer on my European car was in both mph and K mph, so I was within the speed limit of 40 mph. Because 50 metres ahead of me, there were two white armoured RUC land Rovers parked at angles across the road.
I didn’t actually have to slam on the brakes, but it was lucky that I had my wits about me.
I stopped where it was indicated for me to do so, by the heavily camoed, black-faced and helmeted UDR soldier, trooper, man, whatever the appropriate designation is, holding out his left arm indicating for me to stop, whilst his right hand directed his SLR rifle directly at me.
He made great drama, out of looking at the registration plate on the front of my obviously not British car, as if he had never seen a southern registered vehicle before.
I felt intimidated and uncomfortable before I’d even opened my window.
He made a further drama out of looking at the insurance and tax tags on the windshield, again as if he’d never seen similar before.
I rolled my window down, smiling sort of weakly and trying to look relaxed as he approached me.
He bent down and rested the muzzle of his weapon, exactly where the Garda had laid his friendly hand less than an hour previously.
He was pointing it directly at my chest.
“Where are you going son?” He asked, growled.
“Were going to Derry” I said as airily as I could.
“Where did you say you’re going son?” He enquired further.
“Derry” I repeated rather more weakly than I intended.
“That would be Londonderry son” he continued, pronouncing the London part as Lonton, Lontonderry.
“I was told that it was Derry” I rejoined, seizing my courage even though my mouth was dry. That guy was truly menacing.
“Well you were told wrong son, it’s Lontonderry” he pressed home his obvious advantage.
“Oh I see,” said I.
“What are you going to Lontonderry for?” He growled at me.
“For a wedding” I didn’t growl back.
“Where did you cross the border at?” I was tempted to correct his sentence construction, but I didn’t.
“Monaghan” I replied, knowing that he meant on the British side, but figuring that I could get away with some deliberate obtuseness.
“Where on this side of the border did you cross?” he clarified.
“Oh I’m sorry, Aughnacloy I believe” I answered.
”And were you stopped by the army?” He snarled as he leaned closer to look across at my wife in the passenger seat.
As he leaned in, the muzzle of his weapon pointed downwards and I was acutely aware that guns can go off spontaneously. Plus, I was nervous, almost enough to ask him to point it somewhere else; however I did not consider that to be prudent at this moment.
“Yes we were, by a Scots regiment. They were very polite and friendly.” I offered.
“Were they now?” he said to no one in particular, as he straightened up, pointed his weapon at me and then in a sweeping action towards the RUC land Rovers and the road beyond.
“Thank you.” I tried not to sound submissive.
A general sigh of relief issued from the two of us, as I rolled up the window and moved off.
The police land Rovers were parked at angles to the road, so I had to slalom through them, under the watchful and intimidatory eyes of the heavily armed RUC men, using them as cover.
There was a distinctly surrealistic sense to driving through Northern Ireland in those days.
Unionist and Nationalist areas , were clearly delineated and identified by either Tricolours and green white and orange painted kerb stones and lampposts, or similarly with the Union-Jack and red white and blue.
National Identity was clearly very important in the six counties.
We approached Derry on the road which ran along the RiverFoyle.
The bridge over which, we drove into the Republican side was half loyalist and half Republican, bedecked in the appropriate colours. It made one wonder whether the two opposing sides had measured the bridge, and come to a genial agreement as to where halfway was.
Our friend lived in a steadfastly Republican area of Derry, although I had no idea whether his family were ‘active’ or involved in any way.
We called to the house first and then went in convoy to the church.
After the ceremony, we crossed the river (into enemy territory) and drove to a hotel somewhere that didn’t seem to have any affiliation to either side.
During the champagne reception the meal and the speeches, we were partnered with a cousin of our friend, a very pleasant, somewhat shy yet affable young man, with whom we chatted politely until the party started when we lost sight of him.
There was much drinking and singing of rebel songs, however, we took our leave rather early, making our goodbyes to the bridegroom and families, blaming our early departure on the long drive home.
That ‘affable’ young man, with whom we shared pleasantries during the early stages of the reception, was a cousin of our friend the bridegroom.
He was killed a week after the wedding planting a bomb, he had been an active member of the IRA.
The Irish border at Donegal is less than 10 miles from Derry. So, even though the drive back through Letterkenny Donegal town Bundoran Carrick on Shannon Longford and Mullingar, added more than an hour to the return journey. Ninety-nine percent of the route, was within the Republic of Ireland and so to avoid any UDR / RUC nastiness, we took the long way home.
As I type these words in mid-September 2019, government and governance in Britain is tearing itself apart, over the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the so-called Backstop as it applies to BREXIT.
The warnings are stark; reintroducing a hard border may empower and facilitate terrorist factions, on both sides of the sectarian and political divide.
About ten years ago we drove to Belfast, but that time the border was non-existent.
There were no skulking UDR or RUC patrols to stop and intimidate us. Because thankfully, both of those loathed institutions have been consigned to history.
In fact, apart from the murals which are now tourist attractions, rather than terrifying art, Northern Ireland looked just like the South.
Enough blood has been spilled in the province, and if there is even the smallest chance of going back to the dark days of the troubles, because of political intransigence, arrogance, or imperiousness. Then those politicians responsible for backsliding will have any future blood spilled, on their hands.