Borderline fear: Brexit jitters awake past anxieties
UUP MP and former UDR soldier Tom Elliott recalls days of hard Border in the North
As we criss-cross the Border between north Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and south Donegal in the Republic, Mr Elliott recalls how dangerous this frontier was during the conflict, observes how it looks now, and tries to get a grip on what it will be like when Brexit finally kicks in.
After a lot of soul-searching Mr Elliott voted ‘out’. Even now, while fairly content with that decision, he knows there are risks that ultimately could threaten the union he defended and loves. It is part of the generally unspoken worry over Brexit in Northern Ireland, a half-buried anxiety that – based on the law of unintended consequences – it could be the catalyst for a return to bad days left behind.
Mr Elliott served in the UDR during such days, from 1982 to 1991, and in the Royal Irish Regiment that succeeded it from 1991 to 1999. He takes us along minor and back roads between Kesh, Tullyhommon, Pettigo and Belleek.
He stops briefly at Drumrush near Kesh, the scene of a disputed shooting in December 1984 in which an IRA man and an SAS soldier were killed and where a second IRA member drowned in the Bannagh river while attempting to escape. His unit was involved in follow-up searches after the shooting.
He relaxes the handbrake and we push on to Tullyhommon, which is right on the Border with Pettigo in the Republic. He points to an area where cattle, sheep and pigs were penned pending customs clearance.
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A couple of hundred metres further on he says, “That’s Mervyn Johnston’s garage, the last building in Northern Ireland. Mervyn was in the UDR. The IRA shot at him a number of times from across the Border. Mervyn survived.”
Farmer shot dead
We zip along a back road to Belleek, driving back and forth between Fermanagh and Donegal, along a previously unapproved road that had been cratered by the British army to make it impassable. We pass a Protestant country church. “That’s Muckross Church. That’s where Ronnie Funston is buried.
“Ronnie was an ex-member of the UDR. IRA gunmen shot him on his tractor one morning as he was out feeding his cattle. He lived on the Border near Pettigo. I met him the previous Thursday at Enniskillen cattle mart. A lot of my colleagues were killed that way. They were farmers and they had a routine, you see.”
A signpost for Ballintra, about 10 miles up the road in Co Donegal, prompts another memory. “That’s where the IRA shot Harold Keys. He was a former police reservist visiting his fiancée. People remember the IRA gang jeering and cheering as they left the scene. Harold was in the same class as me at school. He was a very good gardener. I knew him very well, very decent people.”
We drive into the busy village of Belleek, past where the British and Irish customs posts were located and down to the old disused fortified Royal Ulster Constabulary police station. A couple of hundred metres across the river Erne is a height known as the Battery in the Republic, from where the IRA fired mortars onto the station. On less than an acre, the station is now for sale. “I knew police officers who served in the station who were murdered by the IRA,” he says.
Heading back for Kesh Mr Elliott points to the home of Gillian Johnston, a 21-year-old chemist’s assistant shot dead by the IRA in March 1988 – a “mistake”, according to the IRA. It is believed that the same unit murdered Harold Keys. It was so vicious that the IRA disbanded and disarmed its members.
It’s a grim litany. Mr Elliott says he was relatively lucky in his part-time soldiering days. “I wasn’t caught in any ambushes or anything like that. I remember going out on duty the same night as a Roman Catholic member of the UDR; he went on one patrol and I went on the other; he was blown up in Belcoo.”
There was always a tension when serving in the UDR. Like Ronnie Funston Mr Elliott was a farmer and particularly vulnerable, so he had to be careful. “I didn’t think about it so much when I was single, although obviously my parents worried about me. But when I married Anne I became more conscious. There were no mobile phones in those days. Sometimes you were called to an incident and you mightn’t get home to five or six in the morning when you should have been home at three. Anne would have been wondering ‘why is he not home?’.”
Regardless of how Brexit unfolds, Mr Elliott believes such days won’t return, as do most people. Still, at the back of many people’s minds there is a concern. He hesitantly voted Leave because he sees the EU as too unwieldy and regulation-heavy and believes it is detrimental to business and farming interests, notwithstanding the big EU farming subsidies.
But he is aware of the paradox that, while the Brexiteers concentrated on “restoring UK sovereignty”, quitting the EU actually could weaken the union. Conscious of the days of patrolling the Border and the friends he lost, Mr Elliott puts voice to that generally unspoken anxiety over Brexit and why he was a reluctant Leaver: “The big issue is around Scotland,” he says.
Mr Elliott knows it’s an issue that could trigger hitherto pretty quiescent nationalist emotions – aspirations and feelings that were largely kept in check as Northern Ireland tried to find its feet after the Troubles: “If Scotland push for their independence again, that could be a difficult one for Northern Ireland.
“It would be hugely problematic if it ever came to a situation that England, Wales and Northern Ireland were out of the European Union and Scotland and the Republic of Ireland were in the European Union. And here was us, Northern Ireland, sitting in our corner in between nationalist Scotland and the Republic. So, I think that is the biggest danger viewed from the perspective of the union. Hopefully that’ll not come to pass but I have always seen that as a potential danger . . .”