Border crossings: First-time visitors describe their experience of Ireland North and South
Few people from the Republic of Ireland are habitual visitors to the North. And many people in Northern Ireland have never been South. Last month, The Irish Times invited eight people to cross the Border for the first – or almost first – time and share their impressions
In this age of easy access to foreign travel, crossing the Border to visit the other half of the island is not particularly high on Irish people’s agendas, especially in the Republic. Perhaps too many chill factors remain, notably the legacy of the Troubles for southerners and the high prices in Dublin and other tourist destinations for northerners.
Coverage of Northern Ireland in the southern media is now largely limited to the annual, and often alarming, marching season and to legacy issues such as on-the-run republicans and the continuing deadlock over flags, parades and dealing with the past.
None of this helps to make the North an attractive destination for southern weekenders or day trippers. With weaker sterling, the days of thousands of people heading north because of lower prices in the shops are largely over, although the practice is still common in the southern Border counties, from Donegal to Louth.
The cross-Border flows are particularly low from south to north, and these are reflected in the tourist figures. People from the Republic made 400,000 trips to the North last year for at least a night (7 per cent down on 2012 and 18 per cent down in the 12-month period to March this year), compared with four times that number – 1.6 million overnight trips – made by northerners travelling south.
The number of trips made by people from the Republic to France was nearly 50 per cent higher than that made to Northern Ireland, and the number of trips to Spain was more than three times higher.
The more than 1.5 million trips made by northerners to the South make Northern Ireland the Republic’s second-largest market for tourists, in terms of numbers, after Britain.
It is curious that while, in the Republic, billboards and television adverts trying to persuade southerners of the delights of Northern Ireland are everywhere, there is little corresponding advertising in the North.
The numbers crossing the Border to work or study are much lower. According to the 2011 censuses, just 14,800 people commuted regularly between the two jurisdictions – only 0.4 per cent of northern residents, and an even smaller 0.2 per cent of southern residents – for these reasons.
The disappearance of the joint council of the two business confederations, Ibec and the CBI, hasn’t helped the situation, although the cross-Border citizens’ information service, Border People, continues its excellent work.
Young people in particular seem less interested in acquainting themselves with the other side of the Border. Whereas for their parents the all-island nature of long-established organisations such as the churches and the main sporting bodies, notably the GAA and the IRFU, often saw them cross the Border, most younger people would prefer to spend a weekend, courtesy of low-fare airlines, in London, Paris, Amsterdam or even New York than in Belfast or Dublin.
The result of this lack of contact is often ignorance and even prejudice. Many northern Protestants continue to insist on seeing the Republic through an outdated mid-20th-century lens, back to when it was a poor, largely rural and overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Similarly, southerners often still fear that violence is not far beneath the surface in Northern Ireland. The reality is that most disturbances are restricted to a few socially deprived areas of Belfast; outside those areas, the North has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe.
The imbalance between southerners who have gone north and northerners who have come south was evident in putting together these interviews. I had little or no difficulty finding people in central Dublin and west Cork who had never been to Northern Ireland, but it took me many weeks to track down their counterparts in Belfast and Co Antrim.
To my surprise, even in my home town of Ballymena – a unionist stronghold if ever there was one – a trawl of relatives, local journalists, Presbyterian ministers, unionist politicians and community workers failed to uncover a single person who had never been to the Republic. Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope in that. NEVER BEEN NORTH Claire MacSimoin and Andrea Flanagan, from Dublin
The Troubles were never real to people like us’
The sun i
s shining without end when Claire MacSimoin, a Dublin social care worker, and her friend Andrea Flanagan, a childcare worker, visit Belfast. Their impression is that the city is “very friendly, good fun, very safe.”
They meet Kim Jackson and Elaine Baillie, who are from a mainly unionist area of north Belfast, when the Belfast women were visiting Dublin. Now their northern hosts are taking them for an evening in the Harp Bar, in the city’s Cathedral Quarter.
“There were clearly both Protestants and Catholics in the bar. There wasn’t the big divide you might have expected,” MacSimoin says. “Everybody there was enjoying the craic. People didn’t care about your religion or political allegiances. You might have expected that people would have to pick a side, but that seems to be all gone.”
Their nervousness about dangers they felt they might face in Belfast quickly evaporates. “We had wondered, would you say the wrong thing? Would you have to be careful what you say? Would they be friendly to southerners or not? But it wasn’t at all like that. People weren’t on edge, trying to suss you out,” says Andrea.
They are particularly struck by how safe the streets in the city centre are. “At 2am we had to walk through back laneways, looking for a bank machine. You felt very safe. You’d feel more on edge doing that at home,” MacSimoin says.
They have the same sense of security during the day. “There were no obvious homeless people or drug addicts in the city centre. We didn’t see so much poverty and social deprivation as you would see in Dublin. Could it be that there are more services for such people in the North?” asks Flanagan.
They are both impressed and shocked by the murals they see when they take a black-taxi tour of the working-class areas most affected by the Troubles. They find the artwork more aggressive in the loyalist areas, full of men in balaclavas carrying menacing-looking weapons, whereas in republican districts there are more small memorial gardens, commemorating everybody from Bobby Sands to innocent children killed in the violence.
They do think it a bit strange that the taxi driver had driven them into ordinary housing estates to see the murals. “The local people must have felt they were in a zoo, with people driving through their estates, pointing at things and taking pictures of them, invading their space and their privacy. But people seemed quite happy about it, smiling and waving to us,” says MacSimoin.
Their taxi driver remarks that if he had told people in the early 1990s that in 20 years he would be driving tourists around the Falls and Shankill Roads, people would have thought him mad. He says that, after all the years of conflict, people in Belfast want to get on with their lives and learn how to live together – life was hard enough in the city’s working-class areas “without all that sectarian stuff”.
MacSimoin and Flanagan say that the basic difference between people in Belfast and Dublin is that those in the North lived through 30 years of the Troubles, and seeing armed British soldiers and violence on the streets became normal for them. Their taxi driver says that when he was nine he saw a soldier shot but was so used to the conflict that he and his friends carried on playing football.
“The Troubles were never real to people like us in the South who are now in our early 30s,” says MacSimoin, although she remembers learning as a teenager, “with absolute shock”, about the Omagh bombing of August 1998, the last big atrocity. Flanagan recalls that her father would go north to attend soccer training camps in the 1980s and early 1990s.