An old man inspects a large earth bank straddled by people of all ages marking the Irish Border

Keeping the Peace

An old conflict and a new Border: How Britain's exit from the European Union could threaten 20 years of peace in Northern Ireland.

Photograph by Tony O'Shea - "Border Roads" 1990 - 1994

IN 1989, as the bloody conflict that was the Troubles wore on, British authorities commissioned a confidential report on the "Irish Border problem".

Despite being 20 years into the violence that had plagued this small corner of the United Kingdom, the conclusions of the lengthy paper into the Irish Border led senior officials in the British army to privately admit that it was proving almost “physically impossible” to close.

Since the early 1970s, 90 per cent of the roads crossing Northern Ireland’s meandering rural Border had been cratered with explosives, blockaded with concrete blocks or saw scraps of railway driven into the roads at an angle to block traffic.

"Unapproved" roads were patrolled by armoured jeep or helicopter, while armed soldiers, police and customs officers carried out their checks at the approved crossing. The most vulnerable crossings, and there were many, were protected by heavily-protected military checkpoints. In some cases, they were backed up by large watchtowers, transforming the Borderlands into a heavily militarised zone.

Yet, even with British military boots on the ground, the Border proved porous.

The core of problem, however, was not simply violent paramilitaries evading or attacking Border security forces. Instead, the British struggled most of all with long-running campaigns by locals to reopen their own local roads.

And so, often on a Sunday afternoon, men, women and children, from Border communities and farther afield, would gather together to fill in roads and rebuild bridges in a constant cat-and-mouse battle with British authorities.

“Having mounted major operations to affect closure these [Border crossings] have simply been reopened making us appear ineffective,” the report bemoaned, saying local efforts were deliberately trying to “embarass and frustrate” them.

Despite acknowledging it was “politically unacceptable”, the report’s authors requested more explosives.

The battle of the Border

“The battle of the Border was fought so fiercely and so long precisely because it was difficult. Northern Ireland is still divided not only theologically but also by a geographical/psychological line. But to draw that would be even more difficult than to decide on a border which would meet with general satisfaction. Any generalisation about the boundaries of political sentiment is certain to be inaccurate.”

The "Irish Border issue" is nothing new.

The above paragraph was written in 1969 by Guardian journalist John Cole unknowingly at the outset of the 30-year violent conflict that would become known as "the Troubles". But it could just as easily have been written today as Westminster, Dublin and Brussels deliberate over how the UK’s new EU border should exist in Northern Ireland.

The Border has been an "issue" on the island of Ireland since it first came into existence in the 1920s - brokered as a solution to the Irish War of Independence - its acceptance the cause of the Civil War in the South, the focus for persistent smuggling and the target of a campaign of attacks by the IRA in the 1950s.

But it was not until the civil rights campaign of Catholics in the 1960s, and resulting violence between Catholic and Protestant communities and the Stormont state, that a sustained conflict broke out. The Border would become a focal point for that violence until the Belfast Agreement finally brought peace to this small region in 1998.

However, the world-renowned peace process did not really solve the Border issue so much as postpone it, or at least give citizens of Northern Ireland the ability to ignore it.

These heavily-manned military and customs checkpoints or abandoned roads that were cratered, blockaded and spiked returned to the scenic country roads they had once been. Peace meant any physical markers of the Border disappeared and along with it, an awareness of where the Border lay.

So forgotten was its presence in the past 20 years of peacetime that when Brexit arose, even when British prime minister Theresa May was guaranteeing a "backstop" ensuring no infrastructure would be erected at Border crossings in December 2017, officials in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK were unsure where the Border actually existed on the ground.

It was by all accounts, invisible. So invisible, in fact, that it took a team of civil servants nearly six months to re-establish where the 208 official road crossings were located, only publishing their findings in June 2018, two years after the Brexit vote.

While forgetting the location of the Border is one thing, forgetting the Troubles and the Border’s significance in Northern Ireland’s dark past is another.

Here, The Irish Times sets out to highlight that connection between the conflict and the Border and assess what a new border might mean for the maintenance of peace in Northern Ireland.

Taking the Toll

In the 30 years of violence that defined the Troubles, over 3,500 people died (although more have died since). Nearly one in three of those who died were killed in bombings (30 per cent), one in five killed was assassinated while ambushes accounted for 17 per cent of deaths and gun battles for 11 per cent.

A number of deaths were also caused by beatings, riots, arson, sniper fire or, as was the case for 10 republicans protesting over their prisoner status during the 1981 H-Blocks hunger strike.

Over the 30 years of the conflict, as a generation became swept up in the violence, men were primarily on the front-lines, accounting for 91 per cent of all of the deaths associated with the Troubles.

The losses affected both sides. Forty-four per cent of those killed between 1969 and 1999 were from the Catholic community, while 36 per cent were from the Protestant community. Religion was deemed not relevant to the deaths of the remaining 20 per cent.

Fifty-six per cent of all of the killings were caused by republican paramilitaries such as the IRA, Provisional IRA and INLA, 28 per cent were caused by loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, or the Red Hand Commando. Eleven per cent of all deaths were at the hands of British state forces including the British army, the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment.

Violence spiralled quickly from the outset with the highest number of deaths occurring in the early 1970s and quickly spreading across the region.

The accompanying visualisation shows the spread of violence between 1970 and 2000: fatal casualties quickly multiplied spreading across Northern Ireland (93 per cent) and into the Republic (110 deaths) and Britain (123 deaths). Twenty-one people were killed elsewhere in Europe in Troubles-related violence.

It is important to note that the above graph does not account for deaths caused by state actors however, the data, taken from the Global Terrorism Database does show how very little of Northern Ireland was left untouched by the conflict.

The violence in Northern Ireland was not just significant for the UK and Ireland. In fact, as the below map shows, it has been one of the deadliest conflicts in the whole of Europe in the past 50 years. This small region experienced one of the most sustained and densely clustered campaigns of violence the European Union has ever witnessed.

Conflict in Europe: Fatal Terror Atttacks 1970-2017

More people were killed in the Troubles than in the 9/11 attacks in the US. Yet many question if its legacy in Brussels and Westminster is equally felt.

For many, the Troubles have been forgotten with the small region of Northern Ireland, a population of fewer than two million, struggling to come to terms with the memories of its violent past.

Yet, for all of its difficulties, and stop-start attempts to get local government by local politicians to work, Northern Ireland is lauded worldwide as an example of how dual national identities marred by a history of sectarian strife can begin to overcome that and live in harmony.

Decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was declared to be a success, mixed marriages became more common, while there were signs - tentative ones, perhaps, but signs, nevertheless, that community divisions were easing.

Then Brexit happened.

A young boy on his bike cycles on a dirt track past large concrete blocks painted with graffiti criticising the border Photograph by Tony O'Shea - "Border Roads" 1990 - 1994

Europe’s new frontier

How does Brexit change the Border?

After the United Kingdom leaves, the Irish Border becomes not just a border between Britain and Ireland, but a border, too, between the European Union and the rest of the world - Europe’s new "west wall".

Europe’s hardest border to the east offers a stark comparison to the extremes of what a European external border can entail.

From the most northerly tip of Norway down to the Black Sea, there are 120 official border crossings. Marking the boundary of Europe’s single market, customs union and the Schengen Area, crossings are marked by large physical structures, blockaded with traffic barricades and surrounded by fencing and compounds for customs checks. They are policed by state personnel checking passports, customs officials monitoring the flow of goods and security personnel guarding the entrance to their respective countries.

The Irish Border by comparison has 208 official road crossings, mostly made up of country roads, along its 500km stretch. Some Border residents claim that if every laneway, track and trail were included the number would be closer to 300.

This is nearly twice as many as the entire border to the east of Europe, making it potentially the most porous land border in Europe.

Could Brexit bring a hard border, like in the east, to Northern Ireland?

EU's External Border: East & West

Passport checks are unlikely as under the Belfast Agreement Northern Irish citizens have a right to claim an Irish, and therefore EU, passport and the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland where citizens can move freely between the two countries pre-dates the EU (although the UK has indicated this may need to be renegotiated).

The nature of the Border then comes down to a question of trade and customs.

Any country outside the single market or customs union, typically requires customs checks at their borders.

There are of course many customs borders within Europe that are less extreme than the external border to the east.

Non-EU countries such as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland have softer customs borders because they still have access to the single market (allowing for the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour).

There will be twice as many land Border crossings in Ireland as there are in the entirety of Europe.

In this case customs checks are still needed, albeit they vary in severity depending on the individual country’s agreement. Switzerland, for example, has numerous customs stations surrounding the land-locked country, whereas Norway has a relatively soft customs border, largely owing to its close relationship with neighbouring Sweden.

Any country opting to be outside the EU, customs union and single market however, would require a tougher customs border - though developing technologies for tracking goods and the possibility of other alternative agreements could help in time, but not immediately.

For Northern Ireland, despite the logistical issue of a particularly porous border, the EU has navigated complex border arrangements before. A matter of careful political arithmetic and sensible trade solutions, it is complex but achievable.

But one factor endlessly complicates the issue of the UK’s desired trade withdrawal - that is the Irish Border’s unique history of violence.

A small makeshift rusty bridge crosses a stream. Banners saying Britain’s Berlin Wall and open border hang from the bridge. Photograph by Tony O'Shea - "Border Roads" 1990 - 1994

Ordinary life, extraordinary violence

The Border of the Troubles was a scene of ordinary and mundane life interrupted by shocking violence and peculiar incidents; military patrols and terror attacks; customs checks and smuggling operations, everyday passage and frequent narrow escapes.

Bombs at Border crossings shattered windows in nearby homes, hospitals and towns. Civilians caught up in the explosions learned to run for cover in their own backyards, drop to the ground amid shooting and evacuate buildings quickly in the event of bomb scares.

Bodies from the IRA’s executions were discovered left near the Border, on one occasion by a man on his way to Mass. Buses, even ones used by primary school children, were repeatedly hijacked and set alight. Vehicles, including milk lorries, were hijacked and filled with explosives, while drivers were forced to drive them into Border checkpoints. A van delivering English newspapers was even taken over and the papers thrown into the river.

Initially, it was the Border’s straddling of two separate legal jurisdictions that led to serious difficulties in policing crime.

In one incident in June 1969, a farmer died after being found with serious head injuries in the middle of the Termon bridge but before investigations into his murder could begin, a county engineer had to be called to decide on which side of the Border he had been killed so the appropriate policing authority could investigate.

“After an examination of some bloodstains, Mr Brady was able to establish that it was Northern Ireland,” the Fermanagh Herald reported at the time, “but only by a couple of feet”.

Preventing paramilitaries from committing terrorist offences in one jurisdiction and crossing into the next state to evade security forces became a constant struggle, with the British army describing Border crossings as “easy avenues of access and escape for the terrorist across the Border”.

So bold did republican paramilitaries become that they began to attack British troops on the northern side of the Border from the southern side, with attacks happening across hillsides, roads and rivers. Sometimes, booby-traps on the northern side were set off by detonation wires that trailed across into the Republic.

The Border of the Troubles was a scene of ordinary life interrupted by shocking violence.

Such cross-Border attacks killed a young civilian woman as she walked from one village where she worked in Lifford to her home in Strabane across Lifford Bridge. A waitress in a Lifford hotel, she reportedly "sank to the ground" after getting shot in the gunfire targeted at British troops building a ramp on the bridge. The shooting was reported to have "come from the South".

So frustrated was the RUC that in March 1983, a 39-year-old known republican woman claimed she was even "dragged into Fermanagh" by British police for arrest. She had been facing an exclusion order in the North at the time and so claimed to be waiting on the South side of Belleek bridge, while her children enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the Northern village.

While paramilitaries exploited the Border to pass unchecked into the North, the British army’s incursions South of the Border were the source of repeated controversy.

In June 1992, at the Derrygoas Road between Fermanagh/Cavan the Northern Standard described a stand-off in which nine British soldiers took up a firing position against locals working on the bog after they were challenged for crossing the Border. The paper reported:“Everybody, including about thirty people working in the Derrybeg bog about a quarter of a mile from the Border, armed themselves with turf.” The stand-off lasted for an hour.

Tensions over incursions came to a peak however when two British army "ferret" jeeps crossed the Border at the Courtbane crossing on the Armagh/Louth Border and were quickly surrounded by an angry crowd who prevented their return back over the Border, boxing them in with cars and blockades, for over an hour, and lighting one of the vehicles on fire.

After the four soldiers escaped back over the Border in the remaining vehicle, their wheels were damaged in the process. Stopping to repair a tyre a few feet from the crowd they had just escaped, shots were fired, hitting two soldiers, killing one and injuring another. While the two other soldiers escaped through the fields on foot, a local paper reported the slain soldier lay on the road at the Border for half an hour bleeding profusely before reinforcements could reach him. He died en route to the hospital.

Away from the sporadic violent clashes between paramilitaries and security forces at the Border, it was usually the physical markers of the Border itself that became the most consistent source of violence.

Customs huts were repeatedly raided, set on fire, petrol-bombed and blown up. Officials would routinely be held at gunpoint while explosives were laid, hand grenades were lobbed through windows or petty arson attacks took place overnight.

It wasn’t just another bomb at a customs station.
It was a bomb of death.
One customs post outside the village of Belleek was blown up and the customs caravan that replaced it was burned out and replaced again 12 times in the space of two months.

So relentless were the attacks that authorities decided to start towing the customs van out of the area each evening to prevent attacks overnight. Yet the caravan was intercepted in transfer, with a group of armed men placing the customs caravan and the car towing it across the road and lighting both on fire.

One of the ugliest attacks on a border post was at the Killeen customs checkpoint, a frequently attacked crossing on the Armagh/Louth Border. Two men carried a box of explosives into a customs-checking facility with the presumed intention of evacuating the customs post and bombing it for the third time.

However, the large bomb exploded prematurely, killing them and six civilians working there that day, including four customs officials and two lorry drivers.

A local reporter described the harrowing scene they came upon in the aftermath of this bombing describing how "the bodies of the dead were severely mutilated and firemen and ambulance crew had the gruesome task of picking up limbs and broken skulls, collecting the remains in plastic bags".

"It wasn’t just another bomb at a customs station,” the paper said. “It was a dreadful nightmare of stark reality - a bomb of death".

The map below illustrates a number of conflict-related incidents that occurred across the 208 Border crossings as reported in local newspapers at the time.

Although these are likely to only be a sample of the complete number of incidents that occurred, they provide an insight into the relentless day-to-day conflict experienced by Border communities during the 30 years of the Troubles.

The violence on the Border was of course a side-note to the major horrors of the Troubles - atrocities were happening all over Northern Ireland and bleeding into the Republic and the Britain.

But the Border was also a unique target - both for its symbolism as the manifestation of the divide between the UK and Ireland, its practical target of customs huts and military checkpoints, and also the opportunism it encouraged. In a border so wide and porous, it was near impossible to close and thus near impossible to effectively police as criminals danced between both jurisdictions.

Many things have changed since this violence - with the peace process, there are no more barriers, no cratering or blockading of country roads, no waits as the military search cars and their passengers, no divides between cross-Border communities.

Increased integration of the UK and Ireland within the EU removed the need for customs checks and controls and trade and people now move freely between North and South. New bridges and roads have been built where they were previously destroyed.

Often, the only indication of the Border today are single black and white road signs on either side of the road.

The question facing Brussels, Westminster and most of all the people of Northern Ireland come next March, is will it stay that way?

“The point of conflict was always along the Border because the conflict is about the Border.

Keeping the Peace

“The point of conflict was always along the Border [because] the conflict is about the Border,” says Peter Sheridan, formerly one of the highest-ranking Catholics in the PSNI during the conflict and now chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, a cross-Border charity that aims to promote better relations between people on both sides of the Border,

“As far as most people who live around the Border, [are concerned it] is invisible at the moment. There is no impediment to you crossing the Border, the only difference comes in terms of using euros or sterling or miles per hour v kilometres per hour.”

“If there were a land border, then it is difficult to see how there wouldn't be at the very least a state of civil disobedience and the history of this place shows that that grows into something else.“

Mr Sheridan reflects on the snowballing effect of violence in the past, when increased violence led to increased infrastructure, one triggering the other.

“Some of the first attacks happened on customs posts along the Border, that required then the police to go in and guard customs officers and the customs posts, and when the police were attacked along the Border, the British army came in to support the police. And when the British army came in to protect the police, they built physical structures on the Border”.

He points out that, during the Troubles, within 10 miles in south Armagh, there were 12 British army watchtowers, four helicopter bases, six army bases, four police stations, six permanent Border road checkpoints and numerous other roads sealed off.

Mr Sheridan is sceptical of how some of the proposed means to monitor the Border in the event of a future trade deal would prevent this happening again.

Terrorists are scrabbling for a reason and we need to make sure we don't give them a reason.
“If you put up a drone, even though it’s about customs… it's seen as surveillance because of the conflict. The likelihood is someone will try to shoot that drone down.”

“Similarly, [the idea of] ad-hoc Border stops by Border force officers - what happens when the first Border force officer’s car gets rammed or he/she gets kidnapped or beaten up or worse?”

“People say ‘we’ve no intention of any physical infrastructure on the Border’ and I agree, they haven't. But that's not what happened in the past. That’s the bit they’re missing.”

While Mr Sheridan argues violence is not inevitable but a matter of choice, he warns there are violent extremists still waiting for an opportunity to "resurrect the [Irish Republican Army’s] flagging campaign".

He cites the Chief Constable’s calls for an additional 400 officers to be dispersed to Border areas.

“These guys [terrorists] are scrabbling around looking for a reason and my point is we need to make sure we don't give them a reason.”

“It's not [that you] make your policy because the person who has the biggest gun wins. It's about recognising that there is a possibility and that might mean you make different decisions around it," he warns.

"If you simply blank it out of your mind and say 'that's never going to happen' then that’s also a mistake.”

A crowd of men of all ages stand on a barricaded bridge looking at something off-screen. There is a lone girl sitting in a tractor in the middle of the crowd. Photograph by Tony O'Shea - "Border Roads" 1990 - 1994

However, there are others who are sceptical that a hard border would see a return to the violence of the past.

Speaking from a unionist perspective, Prof Peter Shirlow, a historian and leader of Civic Unionism, argues the same conditions that began the violence in 1968, namely the lack of civil rights for Catholics and the factors that sustained it, such as widespread anger over state violence, reactionary terrorism and the supply of arms, no longer exist.

“Where would this violence come from? Why would they go back to war, why would they do that?” asks Prof Shirlow.

“People forget that the peace process, despite its ups and downs, has been incredibly successful... It's a different place now, it's a different mood... How would we ever go back to the violence that we had when the reasons and causes of that violence have gone?

“We’re not a pathological people. We don't go around and engage in violence because there are difficulties. There is more to this than a simple ‘here's another episode’ – ‘here's a knee jerk’ and people get the guns out again.”

We are not a pathological people. How would we ever go back to the violence that we had?

When it comes to the backstop, Prof Shirlow argues that contrary to the DUP’s rejection of any difference in regulatory alignment to the UK in order to prevent the need for infrastructure for a customs border in Northern Ireland, many unionists see getting special status under a different customs arrangement as a positive.

“There are other unionists who think that would actually strengthen the union, not undermine it, because then Northern Ireland would be a special case. It would stay within the customs union, it would attract investment into Northern Ireland, it would obviously make Belfast port a key site for the movement of goods and it would provide an economic dividend.”

By contrast, Prof Shirlow sees that, if anything, a poorly played out Brexit, or backstop would only strengthen the nationalist cause. “A plan for a Border poll, that's been the most vociferous issue that has emerged out of [Brexit]. “

A Border poll, as agreed in the Belfast Agreement, could take place when a majority of the population indicate support for a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should become a part of the Republic of Ireland. It has long been promised but also feared as a catalyst for bringing up old wounds too soon, especially for the Protestant unionist community who fear becoming an ethnic minority in the Republic.

The Brexit Divide

Could Brexit become a new issue that divides Northern Irish society along old lines and sparks the call for a Border poll?

The graph below represents the Brexit vote in Northern Ireland where, while the majority of Northern Ireland voted to stay, a look at traditional voting demographics reveals unionists and nationalists divided along Brexit lines.

Colin Harvey, a professor of human rights law at Queen's University Belfast school of law believes that away from the the immediate threat of violence a border may bring, the social and political effects of Brexit could be "profoundly destabilising" to Northern Ireland.

“British identity now becomes non-EU, Irish identity remains EU. You only need to say that out loud to realise how divisive that potentially will become here .”

He warns of the risks of Brexit to the peace process owing to a lack of understanding in Westminster of the full implications of the Belfast Agreement and the lack of protections for equality rights supported by the European Union.

“There's a real palpable sense the human rights and equality promises of the peace process have not been delivered at all, and that was prior to the Brexit vote.

“All the specific issues around equal marriage, language rights, questions of abortion law reform, it all blends together to create a very disturbing picture in terms of human rights and equality protections for everyone and then you add into that the already febrile mix - Brexit and the loss of that European Union framework and you've got a recipe for a real rights and equality crisis here.”

“I think it's just all combining into a perfect storm situation for constitutional rights and equality matters.”

Drawing parallels with the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, he warned of the further deepening of divisions in identity Brexit could bring.

As part of a collaborative research project compiled by academics across the North called Brexit LAW NI, Prof Harvey conducted “town hall meetings” across Northern Ireland, and discovered a deep level of anxiety among Border communities.

“The concerns that we heard were just about learning from our history, not in any way condoning or justifying the violence response - just people with a very deep and profound knowledge of the society expressing their anxiety and fears about what might happen if we were to see the re-emergence of a hard border."

On the risk of a return to violence, Prof Harvey argues "You don’t even have to think about it in terms of armed groups - although it is clear in our work in relation to that that dissident republicans do see a hard Brexit as an opportunity.

“I think it’s ordinary people in these Border areas who live complicated lives, facilitated by the membership of the EU, who would be protesting against the disruption that would be the inevitable consequence of a hard brexit.

"What starts as civil disobedience, what starts as people protesting - who knows where that all ends up in a society like Northern Ireland,” he warns. “In the 1960s, very few people saw what was coming next.”

For the moment, Prof Harvey reflects on the deep foreboding amongst Border communities that the Brexit deliberations have brought.

“There is an element of re-traumatisation in the Border conversation – for people in communities who have lived through the conflict, this is all bringing back terrible and desperate memories.”

A small abandoned single-room border shack stands beside a road and field with bales of hay and mountains visible in the background. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

While Brexit negotiations on the Border continue in Brussels, Belfast, Dublin and Westminster, it is the reality of ordinary people living on the Border that appears to be lost.

And no matter what the political establishment decides, any hard Border imposed by the EU or UK may simply not be tolerated by local people on the ground.

A survey of Border incidents during the Troubles reveals how locals relentlessly returned to the rural roads and rivers of the Border area and rebuilt what had been cratered, demolished and destroyed.

One report counted 12 foiled Border reopening attempts in 16 days, including 20 people who tried to fill in a road crater with plants, eight of whom were arrested, 40 people with two tractors cutting trees who were stopped by the RUC and another 20 who tried to fill in a stream with gravel which then had to be removed by security forces.

“There is little point in closing a [Border crossing] if the local population will merely bypass it...” the British army admitted to themselves in their 1989 report on the Border.

As one local newspaper reporting on the local reopening of Munnily Bridge put it “Nothing seems to frustrate local people so much as the close of Border roads, a fact of life the Brits seem to have missed.”

Those "boundaries of political sentiment" Guardian journalist John Cole first commented on in 1969, that have had so much lip service paid to them in the past two years, may prove not just "certain to be inaccurate" but ultimately, impossible to enforce.