Life on the border has its own subtle customs

Posted By: May 21, 2018

Liam Fay. The Times.London. Saturday, May 19, 2018


Political flashpoints don’t get much more unflashy than the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic, a meandering 500km strip largely made up of fields, streams and bogs. Once the sharp edge of a combat zone, the borderlands are now a haven of pastoral peacefulness.

The beauty of the border is that it’s invisible. There is nothing to see, apart from the odd crumbling customs checkpoint or the decaying foundation of what used to be a British Army watchtower. For anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of history, though, these gaps and ruins speak volumes. They are vivid reminders of how things have changed in the 20 years since the Good Friday agreement and the decade since demilitarisation. They also serve as totems for what could be lost by any attempt to reimpose a hard border.

It’s easy to scoff at the parade of political bigwigs from Dublin, London and Brussels queueing up to hang out at the border in recent months. The posturing and emoting that have accompanied some political visits are a small price to pay for the attendant spotlight on the border-related challenges created by the UK’s impending withdrawal from the EU. Much more problematic are the pro-Brexit zealots who refuse to accept that the border is a problem at all and consequently see no value in taking a closer look at life around it. This viewpoint’s most prominent proponent is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the influential Conservative backbencher and arch-Brexiteer.

Interviewed recently on BBC Northern Ireland, Rees-Mogg sought to make a virtue of the fact that he has not visited the border region in many years and has no intention of doing so. Seeing the border, he insisted, would add nothing to the vast store of knowledge he claims to have amassed through his “studying” of the subject. “My going and wandering across a few roads isn’t going to tell me anything,” he said. Rees-Mogg couldn’t be more wrong. A trip to the Irish border by such a leading Brexit cheerleader would involve a lot more than geographical reconnaissance. It would provide him with an invaluable opportunity to acquaint himself with the cultural and social landscape as well as the topography. It would also allow him to talk, and indeed listen, to the people of the area.

I have lived in the border county of Monaghan for more than a decade. Before moving here, my visits were infrequent and fleeting so I had little first-hand experience of the worst of the bad old days, but nobody who has spent any time here of late can fail to notice how relaxed daily life has become in a region once notorious for tension and danger.

Mind you, getting locals to speak about the issue often requires considerable effort. One of the first lessons an outsider learns is that people who live in the borderlands rarely talk about the border. When the threat of a hard border is discussed, the concerns are almost exclusively practical rather than political: trade, agriculture, tourism, cultural links, the thousands of people who cross the border every day for work and leisure.

Even within the Republic, movement would be seriously impeded by the resumption of border stops. Cavan is Monaghan’s neighbouring county and the shortest route between Monaghan town and Cavan town encompasses multiple brief forays into Northern territory. Border residents are well used to hearing themselves spoken about from a lofty distance by the profoundly ill informed. Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, was rightly derided some months ago when he confidently predicted that crossing a post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be as frictionless as driving between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster.

Nobody in the borderlands expects much by way of insight from most of the Republic’s politicos either. The effective annexing of Clones from its hinterland by security installations became a focus for intense local resentment. At one point a delegation from the town travelled to Dublin for a meeting with Gerry Collins of Fianna Fáil, then foreign affairs minister. He began the encounter by assuring the Clones inhabitants that he fully understood their plight because he was a “border man” himself, having grown up on the “border” between Limerick and Kerry.

Discretion is the keynote of conversation in the borderlands. For a long time it was a survival tactic. Almost everyone knew somebody who was involved in illicit republican activity or smuggling, and sometimes a combination of both, so the less said the better. Fear of violence loomed heavy in the background. It could be risky to drop your guard in the company of people you didn’t know. Even today, a great deal of communication in the border region is conducted through coded language. Pauses can be weighted with meaning.

Thanks to the peace process and its elevation of “constructive ambiguity” to an art form, the reticence of border culture has become a political asset. It’s a remarkable achievement that could never have been brought about through political negotiation alone. To a large extent the conversation has moved on. You don’t have to pick one of two sides any more. Consensus, co-operation and good faith have become game-changing watchwords. There is still no shortage of bigots and hot-heads but, for civilised grown-ups, there is an effective blueprint for neighbourly coexistence. The border can be ignored, if its absence is important to your identity. For those who feel otherwise, there is no denying that it is still in place.

None of this came about by accident. It required an enormous act of group will and willingness to keep it going. Any attempt to reimpose border controls or tinker with the prevailing arrangements could be a significant setback.

The new dispensation is delicate and carefully balanced. It is also in its infancy. Decades will have to pass before it can be regarded as bulletproof.

“Controlled borders” was one of the chief catch-cries of Rees-Mogg and all those who campaigned for Brexit, and that is precisely what the people of the Irish borderlands want as well. They cannot be expected to return to a topsy-turvy world where it is the border that controls the lives of those who live at either side of it.