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The Forgotten Frontier

Darach MacDonald

Unapproved Routes: Histories of the Irish Border, 1922-1972, by Peter Leary, Oxford University Press, 272 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198778578

Borders are peripheral by nature, consigned to the outer limits of public consciousness. For most, they are where one place stops and another begins; fixed lines separating citizens into shared histories, attitudes, loyalties. More often than not, there is real or feigned indifference to – or ignorance of – what lies beyond.

Even when called to mind, the border usually evokes a fixed boundary between autonomous communities, a virtual No Man’s Land. In Ireland, it is invariably a location just off the shiny new M1 motorway between Dundalk and Newry. That now neglected stretch of road is caught in a time warp of memory, bounded by storage tanks, haulage depots, small warehouses and currency exchange shops. The traffic hurtles by, heading at speed for an uncertain Brexit. Passersby who realise they are crossing the border might note the absence of former hilltop forts, those dark green military installations sprouting antennae and satellite dishes, serviced by huge nets suspended from hovering helicopters. That was the hardware of British security in a hostile district on the militarised boundary of occupation. It is the popular image of what a hard border might look like if Theresa May’s negotiation with the EU turns sour and the only land frontier between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) washes up on our shores.

For now the popular perception is that the border disappeared with the Good Friday Agreement and the advent of peace, and it now threatens to return. Yet for more than one million Irish people who inhabit the frontier zones, their border is a fluid presence that already determines daily life. Even with the welcome free movement of goods and people across the almost invisible frontier of recent years, there are still inherent differences in jurisdictions, administrations and currencies. The border dictates where they shop and work; where they go to school and what academic qualifications they pursue; where they pay taxes; and where they avail of health and other professional services. Often, that is at the furthest remove from their homes; at other times, it is closer to hand just across the frontier line.

While there is no fixed line that outsiders presume, these “Borderers” live with the invisible presence of a frontier and all the perceived and actual differences it entails. And it has been so since the foundation of the two states almost a full century ago. Yet that deeply traumatic event and all that has flowed from it is glaringly absent from the national narrative and even the foundation myths of the Irish state. It is as if what happened on the border, what is happening now and what might happen under Brexit is of only marginal impact on a sparse scattering of the population in a peripheral region of the island.

Yet even a cursory survey of local council areas bounded by the border shows that the population of that interface is just shy of 1,250,000, roughly the population of Dublin city and county. Of these, almost half a million borderers reside within the Southern jurisdiction.

In Unapproved Routes, Peter Leary points out that “historians have oscillated between deference and neglect” in failing “to consider the border as an important feature of the social, political, cultural and economic landscape”. Rather than providing the impetus for change that would lead to reunification, which is the stated will of all the main parties in the South – and of about half the population in the North – the border is brushed under a carpet of deference and indifference. Yet the glaring anomalies, blatant injustices and nonsensical discrepancies identified and documented from its inception remain and fester on the frontier.

They are now beginning to re-emerge as Brexit begins to play out.

Unapproved Routes focuses on the strange hybridity of border life in the first half-century, including glaring anomalies left behind when the provisional border was established after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Even falling short of the Free State’s hopes that the Boundary Commission would transfer large swathes of territory, including all of counties Fermanagh and Tyrone, to make Northern Ireland unviable, these obvious discrepancies were to have been resolved or modified by the Boundary Commission Report. However, that was shelved in December 1925 so that its relatively minor rectifications would not embarrass the Free State government.

The anomalies included the village of Pettigo, split in two along the Termon river between Donegal and Fermanagh; and the Clones district of Drummully, sixteen Monaghan townlands surrounded by border and only accessible through Fermanagh. Both of these cases emerged in the early years of partition, yet they remain unresolved as the most obvious places where the border simply does not work and never has. They were set aside as too much bother then, and nobody has gone back to sort them out since.

Also featured is the Foyle Fisheries, which was the focus of a long battle on water and in the courts against the claim that the river, its tributaries and estuary and all the wildlife therein were the sole property of the Foyle and Bann Fisheries Company. That company had leased it from the Irish Society of London, the company which undertook the seventeenth century plantation of Derry.

Given such legacy issues, it is little wonder that the long, rambling and economically deprived border region became an interface for illegal activity. Smuggling, poaching, cock-fighting and other gambling, along with other supplementary recourses, became the norms of economic survival and diversion along the unapproved routes. As former British Tory minister of state for Northern Ireland, Lord Gowrie remarked in the mid-1980s, “The border is an economic nonsense; anyone with initiative can laugh all the way to the bank.”

Yet despite all those glaring anomalies, injustices and the sheer inconveniences that could have been rectified, the border remained as it was in 1922. Based on almost arbitrary county lines dating back to the late sixteenth century, it had neither natural geographic nor obvious social delineations. It split homes and farms, separated rural hinterlands from their towns, congregations from their places of worship, and close family members from each other. And as Dublin turned its back on Northern nationalists, Belfast shunned tens of thousands of Ulster unionists in Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan as superfluous to the need for a secure and sectarian Protestant state. Along the five-hundred-kilometre interface of the border, all those betrayals and displacements came to a head in confused identities, questionable loyalties and lawlessness, from furtive defiance of official diktats to occasional subversive violence.

Rather than ameliorate the underlying causes, state policy on both sides has been consumed with shoring up the border. As if its integrity was beyond question, they feigned mystification about the disaffection of frontier communities, while framing their historical narratives to bestow some legitimacy on the division.

Lines of communication were whittled away and the disruption has resulted in huge infrastructural deficits to this day. For instance, the historic Ulster counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan are the only three counties in the Republic where there is no rail service and none of the three has motorways either. Perhaps that explains why they have not benefited to any degree from the much-vaunted economic policy of direct inward investment. By turning their backs on the border, both states avoided awkward questions about the disruptions, deprivations and deceptions it has bestowed. For Dublin, as much as Belfast, was complicit in the ruse.

For instance, it is almost universally presumed that the bitter Civil War in the south was precipitated by partition. Yet the anti-Treatyites’ proffered alternative to that bi-partite deal, Eamon de Valera’s “Document 2”, included, word for word, the exact same provisions on the boundary question. Indeed, the outbreak of Civil War, largely over the concept of the republic and the Oath of Allegiance, allowed William Craig’s Belfast regime to dig itself into its own foundation myths. By the time anyone got around to doing anything about the border, it had settled into the framework of two administrations.

Yet the largest man-made structure on this island has been more than a backdrop to the past century. What Michael Collins called the “stepping stone” to reunification has seen major development since its inception as a stopgap to allay unionist concerns about Home Rule, thereby leading to mutual coexistence under a Council of Ireland.

Yet as Dublin, Belfast and London continued to move in concentric circles around the dividing line, there has been a pervasive view that the border has been a safe containment of the status quo. While it has never moved, however, it has never been static. It has changed, metamorphosed and evolved since it stumbled into being as that provisional boundary that was subject to removal, change or rectification under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

In its earliest days, it became a war zone after Collins established the shadowy Ulster Council at the start of 1922 to harass Craig’s Special Constabulary in a concerted military campaign squeezed between the Treaty and the Civil War in the south. As those hostilities ceased, it became a customs frontier on April Fool’s Day 1923, even before the boundary was determined under the Treaty, when roads were closed and tariffs were imposed by the cash-strapped Free State government of William T Cosgrave.

Then it became an actual permanent border when Cosgrave engineered the Anglo-Irish Deal of December 1925, after the projected outcomes of the Boundary Commission caused Free State panic and threatened his regime. The trade-off was Dublin’s share of the Imperial War Debt.

When Eamon de Valera came to power in the 1930s, the border became a solid trade barrier during his Economic War to wrest back the Treaty ports and end the land annuities that had not been taken care of in Cosgrave’s grubby 1925 deal.

De Valera’s policy of Irish neutrality during the Second World War/Emergency established a cordon sanitaire along the border, encouraging a sharp divergence of the island’s two states. That was entrenched further during the IRA’s sputtering border campaign and economic protectionism of the 1950s. Then, after a brief hiatus during the North-South entente cordiale or Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch with Terence O’Neill’s Stormont, it became a military zone once more when the Dublin authorities rushed troops north in 1969.

The prelude to joint membership of the Common Market in 1973 coincided with British military efforts to seal the border. Then the British security policy of Ulsterisation after 1976 put local UDR and police reserve into frontline border security providing “soft targets” for the IRA and unionist claims of cross-border “genocide” that were taken up by media commentators. The resulting road closures and construction of huge British military checkpoints on roads that remained open caused huge disruption, resentment and economic decline in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, despite the 1992 creation of the European Union single market for “free movement of goods and people”.

Only the ceasefires of 1994 and 1997 brought gradual reopening of border roads and commerce, disrupted briefly in 2001 by foot-and-mouth outbreaks. Yet many of the huge military emplacements and shattered road crossings at border locations remained until the end of Operation Banner, the British army deployment in 2007.

The recent phenomenon of an open border in Ireland, therefore, is set against decades of retrenchment, closure and forced separation, most keenly felt in frontier communities on both sides. People had to comply with restrictions on driving across the border and even needed permits to work and live in Northern Ireland, even as Britain and Ireland operated a Common Travel Area with privileges in voting and other entitlements of citizenship.

Often there were much stronger ties to those on the “other” side than those on your own. There were sizeable minorities, people who felt betrayed, unwanted and discounted; people denied a voice in the new dispensations. They languished in that liminal space that all frontiers become, hoping that somebody would notice and make things better. Yet their fate would always be determined by those far removed in the centres of power.

Protestations of concern rang hollow in the shadows of neglect. Rather than creating a shop window of progressive modernity, the Dublin government presented shoddy neglect along its border. It seemed as if notice was taken only when security was threatened.

So the notion now being promulgated by Theresa May and her Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, and echoed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, that the current open access of a seamless, frictionless border could survive Brexit simply doesn’t stack up. Nor does the forlorn hope that a bipartite deal dating from 1923 could supersede the Treaty of Rome.

Italian scholar Claudio Magris has observed that “a border has two sides to it, it’s ambiguous: at one moment it is a bridge on which to meet, at another, a barrier of rejection”. Even that bipartite perspective fails to capture the multiplicity of confounding realities that are inherent in the border that snakes its way from the mouth of Carlingford Lough along a widely meandering course back to the sea at Lough Foyle. That’s roughly the length of the entire island north to south from Torr Head in Antrim to Mizen Head in Cork. Perhaps it defies explanation beyond the personal experience of living there; or here and there, for there are many differences of location, practice and experience. For instance, there is a stark difference between the historic borderland of Ulster and Leinster at the Gap of the North, and the fickle line that runs through holdings and homes elsewhere along the frontier that partitioned Ulster itself, severing historical connections and cultural ties with wanton abandon. The realities of life in those districts down the decades defies the simplistic approach of considering the border as a line with homogenous realities on both sides of it. How does one square the stark reality that for some, the border is an unwelcome intrusion in the community that spills over it; while for her/his neighbor, it is the boundary of the world and beyond it lurks danger and threat?

A good place to start, however, is to set aside the deference and neglect noted by Peter Leary in Unapproved Routes, which sets out the narrative of the first half century from 1922 to 1972. As we now brace for Brexit, it is worth reminding ourselves that it hasn’t gone away, you know.

1/5/2017

Darach MacDonald has been a professional journalist since 1976 and is the author of The Sons of Levi (1998), The Chosen Fews (2000), Blood & Thunder (2010) and Tóchar (2013). He was awarded his PhD by Ulster University (Magee) in 2016 and is currently completing a book on the Irish border.

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