Crossing the Border is a way of life that shows little sign of changing

Northern residents who cross Border without reasonable excuse could face €100 fine

Lifford local Kevin Tourish crosses the Border from Strabane to Lifford, Co Donegal after shopping at the Asda store in Strabane. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Lifford local Kevin Tourish crosses the Border from Strabane to Lifford, Co Donegal after shopping at the Asda store in Strabane. Photograph: Joe Dunne

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It is mid-morning on Lifford bridge. The Border lies somewhere in the river beneath; above it, a steady stream of vehicles – displaying both Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland registration plates – are making their way back and forth between the Donegal town and its neighbour in Strabane, Co Tyrone.

Austin Daly, of Daly’s filling station in Lifford, estimates that about 30 per cent of his business comes from the North, but this week has seen a “significant reduction” in the number of northern cars on his forecourt.

Under the Republic’s current Covid-19 public health restrictions, travel is restricted to within 5km of a person’s home except for essential reasons.

Since Monday, gardaí have had the power to impose a €100 fine on northern residents who cross the Border without a reasonable excuse.

Daly believes if Northerners are not filling their cars in Lifford, it is down to careless reporting and a lack of understanding about the new rules on essential travel.

It underestimates how important northern customers are to the Donegal economy

“People thought if they crossed the Border they’d be fined €100,” he says. “It’s scared a lot of people, and it’ll take time for that confidence to be built back up.

“It underestimates how important northern customers are to the Donegal economy,” he adds. “We’re a Border community. I have staff here whose children go to school in Strabane, and lots of people have family who live on both sides of the Border. It’s very important cross-Border movement continues, and not just for economic reasons.”

In this Border “buffer zone”, there is no Garda checkpoint in evidence on Friday morning.

Local people explain that any checkpoints have been further back, near or in Letterkenny. There are reports of a “handful” of Northerners being turned back– including one driver on his way to buy diesel who, it is claimed, was told he had already passed two petrol stations – but no fines, and most credit gardaí with using common sense when applying the regulations.

An Garda Síochána said on Friday that for the first three days this week, traffic volumes in and around the Border were down by 13 per cent compared with the average last week. The number of fines for cross-Border travel is still being collated.

“There certainly hasn’t been anybody on that bridge that I’m aware of, certainly in the last few days,” says Dr Martin Coyne, whose GP surgery is right beside the bridge. He and his colleagues now make sure they provide appointment cards for patients travelling from outside the 5km area “because the guards will stop them”.

Dr Martin Coyne in his surgery in Lifford, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Dr Martin Coyne in his surgery in Lifford, Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne

His view is that “there is a degree of the horse has bolted” in terms of preventing the spread of virus from the North, where the incidence was previously much higher. “I think a greater presence on the Border in late September, October would have been the thing to do.”

From a Covid point of view, he says, “There is only one part of this that makes sense, and that is trying to get everybody on the island to adhere to their 5km. It’s just for limiting movements, it’s certainly not about sealing the Border off.”

On the other side of the Border, there is broad agreement. In the North, the regulations specify that people must leave home only for essential reasons, and a 10-mile limit for exercise is recommended but not legally enforceable.

“A lot of people in Strabane term themselves Irish citizens,” says Trevor Mealiff. “Five kilometres from here includes going to Lifford to get diesel, so the Border shouldn’t really come into it.”

Trevor Mealiff in his restaurant, Caffe Fresco, in Strabane, Co Tyrone. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Trevor Mealiff in his restaurant, Caffe Fresco, in Strabane, Co Tyrone. Photograph: Joe Dunne

His cafe-restaurant, Caffe Fresco, is within sight of the bridge and right beside the large Asda supermarket, which has traditionally been a significant draw for people from both sides of the Border.

Applying the rules to northern drivers, he feels, is “fair enough”. If the authorities in the Republic, he says, are “stopping their own people, then the same should apply. We shouldn’t be allowed to be there without a good reason either, same as them.”

Johnny Kelly, owner of the Fir Trees Hotel in Strabane, says: “People should only be going within their 5km. About a third of his clientele traditionally came from Donegal, and 20 per cent of his staff.

We’ve been crossing the Border for years and years, it’s no big deal

“Strabane and Lifford have forever been one community,” he says. While he feels “the guards are being sensible on the Border”, he has questions about the financial consequences for people if they are unable to travel to buy from larger, cheaper stores as well as longer term concerns. “How will the enforced changes in people’s behaviour impact on the economy and on social life in the long term?”

Back in Lifford, those out and about have no intention of changing their behaviour. Kevin Tourish is walking back across the bridge from Asda, shopping bag in hand. “This is an essential journey,” he explains. “Letterkenny or Ballybofey, they’re outside the 5km, anyway. Going to Strabane makes sense.”

Joe Dooher’s morning walk takes in both Lifford and Strabane and is worked out to keep him exactly within the 5km limit. “We’ve been crossing the Border for years and years, it’s no big deal. Most people are just trying to do it right, follow the rules, and keep our families right.”

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