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Brexit and the border: problems of the past haunt Ireland’s uncertain future

On 23 June 2016 a majority of people in England and Wales voted to Leave the European Union. A majority of Scottish voters opted to Remain and, so too, did a clear majority of voters in Northern Ireland. These results have produced uncertainty about the future direction of relationships across these islands.

Irish concerns played a very small part during the referendum debate and, since then, much of the related commentary has focused on its possible implications for the peace process. British-Irish relations and human rights legislation, both framed within a European context, provide much of the architecture for the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent accords. EU funding has promoted community relations on the ground, and the practical invisibility of the border up to now has helped to make partition feel less provocative to its opponents. Obviously there are possible consequences to any unravelling of those things, but Brexit will not automatically lead to the return of watchtowers or army patrols. What it might mean in the immediate term can be better understood, less through the prism of the recent Troubles (although the memory of those times remains strong), than the fifty-year period until 1972, after which, both Britain and Ireland joined the European Economic Community.

The Irish border was created and confirmed by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. That followed a protracted political dispute and shorter military conflict over the constitutional relationship between Ireland and Britain. Its shape and location reflected the inheritance of the past and the balance of social and political forces on and between both islands. Following true to the old county lines, in place but of no great significance since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it sliced through houses, parishes, and at least one village; cutting towns from their hinterlands and homesteads from their farms. Initially it was expected that the worst of these glitches would be ironed out by the Irish Boundary Commission provided for in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Although it was established in 1924, that commission collapsed in failure a year later, leaving these anomalies behind.

Cars queue at Belleek border crossing. Museum Services, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. Used with permission.
Cars queue at Belleek border crossing by  Museum Services, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. Used with permission.

By that time, the economic border had already taken shape, with the advent of a customs barrier on April Fool’s day 1923. Significantly in the current context, this was not directly desired by either party, but arose indirectly in consequence of the anti-partitionist Irish Free State government’s desire for fiscal sovereignty. John Simms of Lifford, County Donegal complained to the Irish Boundary Commissioners of ‘the performances going on’ at the bridge separating that town from its near neighbour, Strabane in County Tyrone. Legally passing the border meant inconvenience; delay, long detours in places, and frustration at the hands of an often inflexible officialdom. For those carrying goods, even non-dutiable commodities had to be recorded ‘for statistical purposes.’

In sharp contrast to most contemporary boundaries, the Irish border in this period was primarily a regiment of things. Whereas – with very few exceptions – efforts to arrest the passage of living human bodies were virtually unknown (dead bodies could be more complicated), anything that might adorn them – jewellery, watches, consumer products, and even certain types of clothing such as fur coats or uniforms – was potentially subject to restriction.

Not only were local shops and services effected. Imported goods brought into one jurisdiction on journey to the other were held in bond until the duty was paid. Derry tea trader Neill McLoone explained how the flow of his most global of merchandize was regularly brought to a standstill:

If we get an order for 3 chests of tea from Co. Sligo or Cavan, – we have this tea in bond in Derry – we have to go to the customs authorities here. The bonded warehouse only opens 2 days in the week, and if we want to get an order on a Friday, we cannot get it out of bond until the following Tuesday. If we do not get it out in sufficient time to make it to the border, we then have to wait till Wednesday.

That people were free to cross the Irish border, did not mean that movement itself was not impeded. Although some 180 roads cross the border, of these, just sixteen crossings were ‘approved’ – equipped with customs facilities, and the only routes by which dutiable goods could legally be brought over. From 1925 this included motor vehicles, with car owners required to deposit a bond and acquire a three-part ‘triptyque’ pass to be stamped in and out during daylight hours (after dark the customs men remained on duty – not to enable cars to pass but to stop them).

In addition to these sixteen approved crossings, there also existed a handful of ‘concession’ roads. These linked either two places in the South or two places in the North, but passed through the other territory on the way. The ‘concession’ allowed through traffic to transit South-to-South or North-to-North without restriction, but not to travel South-to-North or North-to-South.

The most direct legal route from Cullaville, South Armagh, to nearby Castleblaney, County Monaghan in the early 1960s, and alternative ‘unapproved’ crossings. Map by Peter Leary, used with permission.
The most direct legal route from Cullaville, South Armagh, to nearby Castleblaney, County Monaghan in the early 1960s, and alternative ‘unapproved’ crossings. Map by Peter Leary, used with permission.

On the concession road between Dundalk and Castleblaney, for example, residents of the South Armagh village of Cullaville who wished to travel to Castleblaney were compelled ‘to set off in the opposite direction . . . making a legal detour of close on thirty miles.’ Having entered the South via an approved crossing – and had their passes duly stamped – they had then to ‘get back on to the concession route and motor past their own doors without stopping, because motor traffic using the concession route [was not permitted to] stop on it anywhere along its length in Northern Ireland’ (Irish News, 3 Aug. 1963). It was, as one American wartime observer put it, ‘one of the worst examples of frontier bureaucracy in existence.’

How much of all of this is likely to return will depend on the Brexit negotiations. It certainly has the potential to destabilise the wider situation. Long before the recent Troubles, republicans regularly targeted customs stations for destruction as one locally-popular act, through which, ‘the border’ might symbolically be erased (Irish Independent, 19 Aug. 1937). Past experience suggests that bringing the border back as a ‘hard’ reality of everyday life will generate opportunities – not least for smugglers, cockfight enthusiasts, and anyone hoping to evade the authorities in either state or make a career in the customs services. But it may leave many others having to make the most of challenging circumstances.

Headline image credit: River Mourne, Strabane, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland looking upstream from the Mourne River Bridge by Ardfern. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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