Ian Acheson

The dangerous myth of the ‘bad border’ in Northern Ireland 

The dangerous myth of the 'bad border' in Northern Ireland 
Text settings

The Irish border is awash with journalists and pundits from Great Britain, scratching their heads in wet frontier fields patrolled by incurious Friesians. No border bridge has been left unmolested by visiting television crews in search of a sombre framing shot. The former ‘Killing Fields’ outside Enniskillen were my home until I left for university in England at 18. I don’t decry the honest attempts of blow-in journalists to explain the conundrum of what Churchill wearily dismissed as the ‘dull and dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ – it’s a bit of a head melter all right. But the blaring singularity of the ‘bad border’ narrative we hear far too much of is both ignorant and dangerous.

The Brexit border discourse in Great Britain, with few exceptions, cleaves to an overwhelmingly nationalist/catastrophist perspective. If a journalist from Martian TV landed in Derry or Newry, they would probably leave with the idea that there is no border in Ireland at all, save for the new one perfidious Albion seems dead set on imposing on a thwarted, helpless population. To some extent this is a victory for Sinn Fein and its relentless revisionism of contemporary Irish history. Left with a 1998 settlement that required it to abandon support for terror and accept the political reality of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, the only way to reconcile this defeat with its death cult delusion was to pretend that the border was constitutionally, as well as visibly, gone. When your prize for 40 years of blood and sacrifice is not the promised 32 county socialist utopia but control over planning and bins, you’re going to need some stronger snake oil.

Another little heard but still potent border story lies beneath these layers of agitprop – one hidden dimension of Northern Ireland’s long legacy of hatred and hurt. When journalists arrive on the border in search of local colour, the people they encounter in those locales are invariably hostile to the very idea of the UK frontier, let alone what a no-deal exit might do to it. This tends to skew the media perspective somewhat, leavened only by some occasionally neutral business people and the very odd Unionist voice. Sometimes very odd indeed.

The fact that Unionism on the frontier is usually missing from the Brexit story is in large part due to a ruthless and cynical IRA campaign that attacked vulnerable and isolated Protestant communities there and decimated them. Professor Henry Patterson in his book, Ireland’s Violent Frontier, views this campaign in the 1970s to mid-90s as a form of targeted ethnic cleansing, designed to force Britain to negotiate with Sinn Fein. This onslaught against a community of people – often settled in border regions for longer than white people have been in North America – resulted in the British Government establishing permanent border army posts to try to halt the slaughter. Ironically, these often besieged bases are now referred to with pompous piety as the ‘hard borders of the past.’ Their point was to save lives not process poultry checks. You won’t find that nugget of indigestible truth in most of the contemporary BS.

The IRA's tactics meant that border Protestants, already a fearful minority, were driven from their farms and villages on the frontier to the relative safety of towns further away. This retreat, often in the face of indescribably cruel and intimate violence resulted in a permanent ‘greening’ of the border – a demographic shift that inevitably colours most of the contemporary media output. The few remaining Protestants are understandably loathe to attract attention to themselves with any view that might challenge the strident orthodoxy of the ‘bad’ border many of them suffered grievously in defending during the darkest days of the Troubles.

This is not to say that these airbrushed people yearn for the days when the British Army were desperately needed to police a violent and lawless border region. Quite the contrary. A continuing invisible border on the ground is universally desired and desirable outside the fevered imagination of a few Loyalist ultras.

Twenty years of semi skimmed peace have replaced the full fat anarchy of the Troubles. The infrastructure of conflict has been all but completely erased, thank God. I frequently visit my Fermanagh homeland where my psyche was forged and probably damaged at a time when the Troubles ran red hot. Still, you’re never far from water in Fermanagh and my childhood memories are studded with glorious weekend trips to the seaside towns of Mullaghmore and Rossnowlagh on Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

Describing those cross-border journeys in the 1980s to my own grown children as we retrace my steps is surreal. There’s no trace of the massive military infrastructure on the quiet country road that leads to the beach. The queues of traffic and the exotic accents of squaddies from Yorkshire, Strathclyde, Devon are distant memories. The ominous security architecture that looked more at home in some Afghan hotspot than squatting between two friendly and culturally intertwined nations, is razed to the ground. The difference between your own seamless and friendly encounter with the state compared with the experience of others not of your traditions a few cars behind, is an unhappy memory. Who in their right mind would wish a return to those times?

But the simplistic piety of those saying ‘no return’ to a hard border, replete with shroud waving over renewed terrorism repeated ad infinitum by the GB media risks painting the whole Unionist community, Leavers and Remainers alike, into a dangerous corner where they are forced into a false choice between their own constitutional security and peace. Indeed the Good Friday Agreement was designed primarily to paper over these very cracks. While many Unionists voted for Remain, rightly seeing Brexit as the anvil on which their UK future might well be broken, they did not vote to be co-opted into Sinn Fein’s long-term project to destroy British identity in Northern Ireland. This matters. Loyalist paramilitaries, long distracted by the lucrative business of wrecking their own working class ghettos with drugs and organised crime, are beginning to pay attention to the bigger picture. The perception of a British identity eroded by Brussels and Dublin beyond an already thin tolerance doesn’t allow for the fact that their own Government and fellow citizens landed them at this juncture. No matter. While security correspondents obsess over a resurgent republican threat in the former Badlands, these people are also stirring. But their experience and their threat doesn’t really feature in reports from South Down and South Armagh or Derry’s hinterland where prowling hacks from Sky News, the Today programme et al wait to pounce.

Northern Ireland defies the physics of soundbite news gathering. Identity is a two way street laced with landmines. The distance between polarities is always surprisingly small on the map but the chasm of unreconciled hurt and grief is enormous and no more so than on the frayed edges of Britain’s rule in Ireland. Any hopeful future will be helped by reporting that acknowledges this uncomfortable diversity. It is not assisted by the indecent excitement of some elements of our media, talking up civil disobedience and violent insurgency along Europe’s latest go-to fault line. We are beginning to see the dark prophesy of all this attention. The answer to the border is to put it back to sleep. It should never have been woken up.