In 2017, poet and writer Kapka Kassabova published a moving account of the impact of the border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece under the title Border: A Journey to the edge of Europe. Furtiveness, suspicion and surveillance coexisted with the great natural beauty of the landscape. The impact of the Cold War and its legacy was underlined by those she met on her travels, their memories deep with knowledge of those who sought to traverse boundaries and those who policed them. When crossing the border, she wrote, “you developed a permanent border-like feeling inside you, like indigestion”.
Crossing borders can also be liberating. Some of those who experienced violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland felt great relief when arriving over the border into the Republic, seeing the south as a sanctuary where they did not have to look over their shoulders. Others living close to the Border, on both sides, were in disputed zones, a distinct border people, carrying the weight of various aspects of partition that included over 200 border crossings on this small island.
Assessing the impact of the Troubles and the Border is becoming more rather than less complicated as the years pass. While many of us in the Republic are accustomed to thinking about the Troubles as having been “up there”, the reality was more nuanced. As reported earlier this week, an assessment by the Commission for Victims and Survivors in Northern Ireland has suggested one in 10 people in the Republic could define themselves a victim of the Troubles; 4 per cent of those in the Republic have been bereaved because of a Troubles-related incident and 7 per cent say their mental health has been affected. Seven per cent also say they have been present at, or witnessed, a Troubles-related incident.
The report is a reminder that for some in the Republic the violence was much more than a distant and grim backdrop. We should not be surprised at this given the scale of what happened between 1969 and the mid-1990s. True, there were those in the Republic who felt removed from and even immune from the scale of what was happening, or ignored it. Civil rights activist Michael Farrell suggested this was “a sort of defence mechanism” while he also highlighted gulfs of understanding between Northern and Southern nationalists.
Solidarity coexisted with hostility, fear and shame, and confused and contradictory views were apparent, as was disengagement, especially as the conflict endured
But emotional responses to certain tragedies, most obviously Bloody Sunday in January 1972, were also apparent. While the devastating Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May 1974 brought the Troubles centre stage in the Republic, relatives of the 33 people killed that day felt the horror was quickly forgotten and their needs cruelly unmet.
Solidarity coexisted with hostility, fear and shame, and confused and contradictory views were apparent, as was disengagement, especially as the conflict endured. Sympathy for refugees coming over the border also waned. The overall impact in the Republic can be difficult to measure, but it has been neglected. An exception to that inattention was provided by Brian Hanley in his 2018 book, The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland 1968-79: Boiling Volcano? While other historians had stressed how low the consciousness was – as early as 1975 John A Murphy asserted the Troubles “had amazingly little impact on the South” – Hanley underlined the divisions it generated in the Republic in trade unions, county councils, sporting events and religious congregations, rival views generating “intense and long-lasting fissures”.
Despite the British government’s insistence on the need to ‘draw a line’ under the Troubles, no such line can exist
More than 100 people were killed in the Republic during the Troubles and hundreds were injured, while for those in some Border areas the conflict had to be navigated as part of daily life. This is the first time the Commission for Victims has collated data on how the Troubles affected the Republic. The findings do not need to be oversold. Overall, the Republic experienced but a fraction of the suffering of the North, and compartmentalisation abounded.
‘Sacrifice the periphery’
The report comes as the British government’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill becomes law, shutting down meaningful confrontation with unresolved deaths, serious injuries and miscarriages of justice. Other lines written by Kassabova seem relevant to this development: “the belief that the centre of power can issue orders from a distance with impunity and sacrifice the periphery; that what is out of mainstream sight is out of mind.”
Despite the British government’s insistence on the need to “draw a line” under the Troubles, no such line can exist. During the commemoration of the revolutionary decade 1913-23, we were served with numerous reminders of the long reach of trauma across generations and the rawness that lived on. Síobhra Aiken got the title of her book on the legacy of the Civil War, Spiritual Wounds, from the revolutionary veteran Desmond Ryan, who maintained: “The deepest wounds are spiritual wounds.” His words are even more applicable to the legacy of the Troubles.