The border between the Repubic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is currently the subject of much commentary throughout the European Union and the United States of America arising from ‘Brexit’, the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the EU. Prior to this decision. this part of Ireland aroused little interest from visitors to Ireland, bar some amusement when tours crossed the border from time to time. Although an international frontier, the absence of immigration and customs checks up to now, made it an invisible maginot line, only the very observant noticed the change in speed limit signs (kilometers to miles per hour) or slight changes in road markings. However, all that has now changed. Since the UK decision to leave the EU, I have found enormous interest from visitors on the issue of the Irish border,and where possible I have availed of the opportunity to show visitors just what a difficulty it will be to impose a new regime on this frontier once it becomes the only land boundary between the EU and the UK.
The Irish border is over 300 miles in length. Imposed in the 1920’s after the creation of two jurisdictions in Ireland, it is not a natural division facilitated by mountain or other significant natural boundaries. In fact quiet the opposite. It cut off towns and villages from their natural hinterland, divided villages, landholdings and even houses!. It is based on the old county boundaries of Ireland, divisions never created to accommodate different national jurisdictions. There are over 200 road crossings on this border, it cuts through many farms. It split natural communities and neighborhoods. All of this mattered little once the EU single market was created, The UK and Republic of Ireland being members of the EU.
Politically the border area became contentious during what are described as the ‘troubles’. Terrorists most certainly used this border to their advantage. During that awful period the border areas became heavily policed from either side – a necessity because of terrorism, The subsequent stabilizing of the political situation in Northern Ireland calmed this contentious divide.
Now a new challenge faces border communities. While not a ‘life or death’ issue, the prospect of a newly controlled frontier is causing huge apprehension to the many tens of thousands of people from either side who cross the border on a daily basis for social, business and educational purposes. Restricting this activity is a nightmare to those involved.
There are a number of locations along this border which highlight to the visitor the consequences of any change to the current arrangements along this frontier –
(1) Pettigo on the Donegal/Fermanagh Border.
Pettigo is a small village with a population of approx 600 people. It is a typical small Irish village set in a rural area where everybody knows one another. The village is divided in the middle by the River Tarmon, a small connecting bridge links either side of the village – that bridge is photographed above. Problem is, the narrow river is the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The photo was taken from the UK side but every building you see is in a different country!. This village exists with two different currencies, school systems, telephone systems, governments. police forces, postal systems etc. it has adapted because no physical barrier exists. Therefore the locals can conduct business and social interaction with a bit of give and take. However, nobody wants a ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ at either side of this bridge!…the picture highlights how difficult this would be.
(2) Beleek on the Donegal/Fermanagh Border.
South of Pettigo lies the village of Beleek, famous for the production of high class pottery named after the village. For the most part, the village is on the Northern Ireland side of the border, the population is approx 850 people. But the River Erne wraps itself around a good portion of Beleek, and again the river is the border.
The photo of the Beleek Pottery complex, which adjoins the River Erne and is in Northern Ireland, was taken from the RepubIc of Ireland side of the bridge. The border, not being a straight line, throws up the unusual. As one approaches the point where this photo was taken from the Co. Donegal side, you briefly cross into a Northern Ireland and cross out of it again. The local petrol (gas) station is behind where this photograph was taken and is in the Republic of Ireland, but the adjoining public road to this station is in Northern Ireland!. Imagine trying to impose a customs frontier in these circumstances!.
(3) Bridgend on the Co.Donegal/ Derry-Londonderry Border.
Derry/Londonderry is Northern Ireland’s second city. However, the boundary of the city on its west side adjoins Co. Donegal, a different country, but the natural hinterland of the city. Although small, the suburbs of the city are extending as each year passes, and it has now visibly extended over the border into nearby Co. Donegal.
One example of this extension is the area known as Bridgeend, located a few miles from the city centre. However its in Donegal. A cursory glance at the cafes and restaurants in Bridgend at any time will reveal most of its customers are coming from Derry/Londonderry, who regard this area as a suburb of their city. In fact the petrol stations in Bridgend display their prices in Sterling, the currency of the UK.
The ‘border’ at Bridgend ( photographed below) is marked by a sign indicating you are entering Northern Ireland, but apart from that it would be a stretch to spot the difference. Bridgend is now a suburb of Derry/Londonderry, a re-imposed controlled frontier will in effect deprive the city of one of its suburbs.
More mind boggling examples are aplenty elsewhere. If you are driving from Dublin to Belfast, a well known good halting point for a bit of food is the Carrickarnon Hotel near the border but located in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland. It’s a great spot for food. Coming from a Dublin on the N1 motorway, you exit at Junction. 20 for this hotel. On the ramp exiting the the motorway you actually cross the border into Northern Ireland. Coming off the ramp and turning right towards the nearby hotel, you re-enter the Republic of Ireland!. The subtle changes in road markings lasting approx 100 yards would only be spotted by a very eagle eyed traveler.
As I write all of this part of the island of Ireland is the subject of high wire negotiations between the UK and EU, and the eyes of the world is on those discussions. If you haven’t heard of this issue yet, believe me you will hear all about it soon!. Politics is ‘the art of the posdible’, solving this problem will test that assertion to the limit!.
Classic Ireland Guided Tours conducts private multi day tours to all parts of the Irish Border. All group sizes from one to fifty visitors can be catered for. For more information email: firstname.lastname@example.org