An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Apr 19, 2012, 01:00

I SEE Iarnród Éireann has upset some people in Northern Ireland with the terms of a competition offering Irish football fans the chance to travel to Euro 2012.

It’s a throw-back to the Troubles, really. The problem is that the service is not available north of Dundalk due to a suspect package on the line: ie the Border. In this case, however, there is no possibility of a bus transfer. The competition, which involves writing a “blog post” about a memorable sporting event or journey, is open to residents of the Republic only.

The condition upset Belfast journalist Michael Fisher, who wrote his own blog post about it, pointing out that many Republic of Ireland fans come from the North (as do some of the players). Since when, the issue has provoked skirmishing on several internet forums, including that fiercely-contested community interface area: the Slugger O’Toole website.

Excluding the many contributors who have gone to the trouble of arguing (often vehemently) that this is a non-story, opinion has divided broadly between those who think the competition is discriminating against an important section of the team’s support, and those who applaud Irish Rail’s pragmatism in recognising the reality of the Border.

Indeed, the company has defended itself on just those grounds: saying that the competition is limited to the jurisdiction in which Iarnród Éireann trades. The joint operation of the Dublin-Belfast service means nothing, apparently, because if you board that in Northern Ireland, you pay in the queen’s shilling, and IE doesn’t benefit.

Which I suppose has a certain brutal logic. And yet, as someone who grew up in one of only three counties in the Republic devoid of a rail service, I have more than average sympathy for Michael Fisher’s point.

After all – leaving questions of national allegiance aside for a moment – I would argue that if you live in, say, Forkhill, you’re more likely to be a customer of Iarnród Éireann (and a euro-paying customer at that) than somebody in Emyvale, or Belturbet, or God help us, Gweedore, where the existence of an Irish Rail network is only a rumour.

But that’s another issue. In general, this is a question of the North’s competing socio-political allegiances and the extent to which State companies should go in accommodating them.

Overall, these are happy days for Northern nationalists wanting to celebrate their identity. The genius of the Belfast Agreement was that, in confirming the Border, it also helped make it invisible. Thus, driving North in certain places now, you only know you’re in the UK when you see the Irish flag flying from lampposts.

Even in South Armagh, where boundaries of currency and diesel colour may also be blurred, it must be a struggle to feel oppressed. In some respects, Northerners have the best of both worlds. On the M1, for example, they still appear to be exempt from that competition whereby, if we travel at more than 70mph, the rest of us have a chance to win a speeding ticket.

So it must come as a shock when Iarnród Éireann imposes border restrictions. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that the company is not seen as a mere commercial entity. It’s the railway wing of the State, in effect. As such, it might be expected to aspire – however implicitly – to a situation wherein one day, by peaceful means, and with the democratically expressed consent of a majority in both jurisdictions, it could collect the fares of Northerners as well.

Even its poetic name seems designed to finesse such harsh realities as the Border (or Limerick junction, or the late arrival of the 5.15 from Sligo). Yes, it means the “iron road of Ireland”, more or less. And you could argue that a company so named is uniquely entitled to take a hard line.

But it seems somehow wrong that Iarnród Éireann should exclude the Republic’s Northern followers from a chance to be part of Euro 2012.

Especially when it then rubs it in by making part of the prize a free month-long pass on the railways of Europe, multiple border crossings included.

THIS IS just the sort of issue, by the way, that a conference starting today in Galway might tackle. The event is organised by an entity with the very strange name of Mapping Spectral Traces. But essentially, this is an international group of scholars, community leaders, artists, and others who specialise in working with “traumatised communities” and in “contested lands”, resolving problems through art and dialogue.

The group’s name refers to its attempts at “mapping” the unseen effects of difficult histories on present-day relations. The term “post-colonial geography” also features in its promotional material.

And yes, it all sounds very high-concept. But to help bring things down to earth, the three days of workshops, talks, and exhibitions will also incorporate a dance festival.

The event takes place at the Centre for Irish Studies, NUI, and various other venues throughout the city. Further details are available at And the good news is that, this being in Galway, unlike Euro 2012, even northern nationalists can get there with Iarnród Éireann.