What if Brexit brings the violence back?
Fears that re-emergence of Border will lead to return of Troubles
Johnny McCann, as he was known to his fellow drivers, brought home tubes of Rolo chocolates for Mary and left them under her pillow, right up until she was 21.
That’s how old she was when her father was killed in an IRA bombing of a customs centre a few kilometres over the Border in Northern Ireland.
I just knew when I seen her that it was Daddy, that he had been killed
To the republican paramilitaries, the post was a symbol of the British government, a regulator of partition – not just a division on the island of Ireland that blocked the free movement of people and goods.
“I just knew when I seen her that it was Daddy, that he had been killed,” she says, recalling the moment as she sits at her kitchen table at home in Inniskeen, six kilometres from the Border.
The bombing was the worst attack on a Northern Irish customs post and the single biggest loss of life involving HM Customs & Excise officials during the 30-year history of the Troubles. Jack McCann (60) was one of nine people killed that day. Four customs officials and three IRA men also died in the blast.
Last week Mary, her husband Pearse, son Sean and cousin Seamus gathered around in their Monaghan home, the same home her father lived in, to recall a family tragedy almost a half-century ago.
They hate the description of their relative as “an innocent victim of his country’s Troubles” or the “awful habit” of people saying he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He was in the right place at the right time,” says Pearse. “He was doing his job, earning his pay, making a living.”
The family express concern about how Brexit might bring a return of the Troubles along the Border.
“Brexit is the thing that could break it again,” says Seamus.
The family despair at the possibility of customs posts reappearing along what is now an invisible frontier should the politicians in London and Brussels fail to find a solution to avoid a hard border in the Brexit negotiations. They are fearful about how the re-emergency of customs posts might bring a return of the kind of violent acts that might devastate families in future like it did theirs 46 years ago.
“I don’t see how it is not going to happen because there is nobody coming up with any better ideas,” says Mary.
Attempts to break the deadlock in the negotiations failed this week. EU and UK negotiators could not agree on the backstop – the fail-safe option to avoid a return to a hard border unless and until the issue was resolved in a post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and UK. It has become the final sticking point in talks around the divorce deal and the clock is ticking down with less than six months until Brexit.
Today, EU leaders meet for a summit in Brussels to figure out the next steps. This deadline appears to have slipped, making a likely special Brexit summit in November the next make-or-break moment.
“The next month is going to tell a few tales,” says Pearse.
His wife is not holding out any hope.
“I think there will be a hard border,” says Mary. “I don’t know how else it is going to work, to be honest. It would be scary. I imagine it is going back to the way it was.”
The “way it was” was a period marked by violence and fear. 1972 was the worst year of the Troubles when 497 people were killed. That year Mary’s father was working for coal merchants MJ O’Rourke & Co in Dundalk and had to navigate a hard border many times in his working week.
On the day of the attack, he was transporting coal from Newry to Dundalk and had to stop at the Newry Customs Clearance Centre on Dublin Road to have the customs paperwork on his load signed off.
At 9.45 am, a black Austin A35 car drove into the forecourt of the centre, which was located a short distance from the Dublin-Belfast motorway that now bypasses Newry. Three IRA men left the car, entered the building armed with a submachine gun, a revolver and the explosive device weighing between 50 and 70 pounds. Once inside, they started ordering people out, shouting that they had a bomb. A customs officer activated a push-button alarm as he left. Within seconds, the bomb exploded prematurely.
McCann was in the reception area of the building. He was killed instantly. Eight others died in the explosion, including another lorry driver Joseph Fegan (28), who was standing next to McCann.
Four customs officials were killed: Frankie Quinn (30), Patrick Murphy (41), Ronan Gilleece (32) and Marshall Lawrence (33). Lawrence was from Scotland and the only Protestant to die in the attack. The three IRA members – Noel Madden (18), Patrick Hughes (35) and Oliver Rowntree (22), all from Newry – were also killed. Six other customs officials inside the building were injured, one seriously.
One official, who was in the centre at the time but did not want to be named, told The Irish Times: “All I remember was the bang and a cloud of dust and struggling to know which door was the way out.”
Many of the bodies were badly mutilated. The emergency services had difficulty in establishing how many had been killed and later in identifying the victims when they had a final count.
Kate O’Hanlon said her father Vincie Trainor, a worker at nearby Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, volunteered to help and travelled out to the bombed-out centre in one of the hospital’s ambulances. What Trainor saw “left him speechless and disturbed for a long time,” she says. “This stoical, hard man who though he had seen everything.”
“He did not talk a great deal about it but he did describe finding pieces of human remains scattered right across the road, over the surrounding fields and hanging from the electricity wires. He himself found a human head on top of a nearby greenhouse,” she says.
McCann ended up “in a plastic bag,” says Mary; there was “nothing recognisable left.”
“They got the full belt of it,” she says of the victims.
The Provisional IRA accepted responsibility for the blast later on that night and said in a statement that “the unintended loss of life was regrettable.” But this was never enough for McCann’s family.
“I never had closure,” says Mary.
She later asked the Historical Enquiries Team unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland who investigated McCann’s killing in 2010 about a suspected fourth bomber who is thought to have waited outside the centre in a getaway car and escaped uninjured. The team could never confirm his identity and nobody was ever arrested over the attack. To this day, Mary still has trouble trusting people she meets.
“You wouldn’t know who they are,” she says. “I couldn’t trust anybody afterwards. It still lasts.”
The Newry bombing had a devastating effect on the wider McCann family. Cancer, which Mary’s mother had beaten four months earlier, returned and she died 14 months after her husband’s death.
“It brought it all back,” says Mary. “She threw in the towel.”
Artie Quinn says the death of his brother Frankie, the third eldest in a family of 13, was “just immense” and even 46 years later is “still very raw” for the family.
“It was an extremely heavy burden on my mother, both mentally and emotionally. She never got over it. She lived another 10 years but that took her to her grave,” he says.
“The effect that it can have on siblings and the wider family - you don’t have what would be classed as a normal life.”
Quinn, sitting in a Newry hotel, believes there was no justification for the attack on the Newry customs post in 1972, just as there would be no justification for any attack on any possible border posts that might spring up after Brexit.
He feels the painful memory of the Troubles is too much for people in Northern Ireland to allow that to happen. Still, he is worried about what Brexit might bring.
“I would have concerns that the symbolism of check points, queues and lorries have to wait to get checked out - the symbolism of division and disruption that would not be desirable,” he says.
“It would bring back memories of a time before when there was that visible division and nobody wants to see that again. If you take a straw poll around Newry, no one wants to see a return to that kind of violence no matter how romanticised it may be in the eyes of some. Only a minority would go to those lengths.”
His best friend
Conor McConville, now 76 and long retired as a customs official, knew all four dead customs men. Frank Quinn was his best friend, he says. He attended Quinn’s going-away party the previous Friday before his transfer from the customs centre at Belfast Docks to Newry. The day of the blast was just Quinn’s second day on the job in Newry and the young customs official had high hopes from his job.
“He said to me he was going to buy himself a brand new Hillman Hunter car,” says McConville.
Marshall Lawrence, says McConville, had got a transfer back to Scotland but delayed his return for two weeks to sort out his affairs. He recalls the Scot had a daughter with disabilities who “adored him”.
Mary and her son Sean could not let the 40th anniversary of their father and grandfather’s death pass in 2012 without marking it. They wrote to the local newspaper in Dundalk, the Argus, calling for all the victims of the Troubles including civilians with no political affiliations to be remembered.
“We wanted to make people remember somebody who was loved could be wiped out and never came back. There was a gap that never closed,” says Sean.
Those were terrible times and I hope that nothing like that ever comes back. The orange and the green both suffered, nobody gained
After the letter was published in the Argus, a woman who said she was the daughter of one of the dead IRA bombers dropped an unsigned handwritten note for the McCann family into the newspaper.
“I would like to say I’m sorry on behalf of my father; so many people and families were destroyed that day,” she told the family.
The 1972 attack on the Newry customs office was not the first and would not be the last. There were 27 attacks recorded there out of 484 reported incidents on customs posts along the Border between 1969 and 1992, according to the 1993 book, The Northern Irish Land Boundary 1923-1992. Only three other customs outposts along the Border were attacked more.
The psychological impact of another attack on the Newry outpost in 1976, was enough to force McConville out of work on sick leave. “Get out the f**k; there is a bomb in this,” the IRA man shouted at him after crashing a petrol tanker through the centre’s gates and jumping out. He was just three feet away from the tanker when it crashed and momentarily froze before he shouted at people to run for it.
“Those were terrible times and I hope that nothing like that ever comes back. They talk about the orange and the green, but the orange and the green both suffered, nobody gained,” he says.
“Absolutely no chance,” says the old former customs man when asked about the chance of a return of customs checks returning along the Border. “People power will dismantle any attempt at doing it.”
As Brexit negotiations rest on a knife-edge, he is most critical of the DUP, the party keeping Theresa May’s Conservative government in power, for their opposition against the EU’s backstop proposal to avoid a hard border by keeping Northern Ireland under EU economic rules.
“If the DUP weren’t such idiots, the Border down the Irish Sea would solve the problem. When they say they don’t want any border in the Irish Sea, they are talking bullshit. It already exists and all we would be talking about is an extension of what already exists,” says McConville.
Now a farmer, he speaks from experience: British department of agriculture inspectors regularly take blood samples to test his sheep when he transports them once a year to and from Carlisle for pedigree sales.
Like McConville, Sean has concerns about the political situation in Belfast and London. He is concerned the lack of a Northern Ireland government at Stormont and the fact that there are no nationalist MPs at Westminster representing the 56 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population who voted to remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum. He feels this means the importance of the Border issue in London is lost.
“There is nobody taking responsibility in the North and for the North and both,” adds his father Pearse. “The worse thing you can do in the North is to let things drift.”
Mary sees the quick Brexit-related visits of UK cabinet ministers and politicians to the Border as tokenism, calling them “one-day wonders” – “they don’t care because they are not living here,” she adds.
Sean uses the building his grandfather was killed in as an example of how trouble can escalate and how a building representing a UK government department is targeted and how it ultimately becomes a place with people to be protected.
“People are impeded from going about their day-to-day business and if there is something like these checks, they build resentment. Resentment is going to spill over into anger and this building bore the brunt of this anger,” he says.
Mary has painful, first-hand experience of the fragility of the Border region. She fears for the fallout from Brexit if the politicians get it wrong
“Technology didn’t work particularly well before; we had lookout towers, helicopters flying around, infrared cameras,” remarks Sean, who says he “grew up with the sound of helicopters.”
McConville displays a clear love for the Border region he now farms. He notes that its drumlins, relics of the Ice Age, dominate the topography of the area; he describes them as “a gentle slope up one side and a steep side down the other.” Metaphorically, they match the gradual climb to peace in Northern Ireland over the past five decades but also the potential for it to fall away suddenly with something like Brexit.
“From the air, they look like eggs in a basket,” he says of the little hills that dot the landscape.
Mary has painful, first-hand experience of the fragility of the Border region. Still bitter about her father’s killing, she fears for the fallout from Brexit if the politicians get it wrong. She is particularly concerned about the reaction of those not old enough to remember the Troubles. Her son shares her view and is worried too that the Border youth have a romanticised view of the IRA’s conflict that would not help.
“An awful lot of people around here wouldn’t know. You see if Brexit brings the violence back, they will be younger and they will have no fear because they won’t remember,” says Mary, who will never forget.