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Ireland's 'hard border' irony has a bitter taste



The word 'irony' is sometimes preceded by 'delicious' because the ironic point or situation lays bare a hitherto unlooked for juxtaposition or intention.

British soldiers man a checkpoint, Belfast, 1973.The Economist reports the delicious irony, for example, that in France — the accepted cynosure of gourmet taste — 'the French can't seem to get enough of their "McDos", as the icon of American capitalism is known locally. McDonald's is opening 30-40 new outlets a year in France ... more per head than most of its European neighbours ... '

What is delicious about this, of course, is not the burgers but the confronting leadership of France, of all countries, in the fast food stakes.

Indeed, as The Economist also reports with schadenfreudian pleasure, one José Bové placed himself at the ironic centre when, having declared resoundingly that 'the French people are with us in this fight against junk food', he was arrested and jailed for trashing one of France's 900 McDonald's restaurants.

But irony is not usually delicious. For now it is sour and wounding, for example, in Ireland, where British withdrawal from the European Union — Brexit — and the Irish Republic's firm intention to remain, raises the possibility of what pundits are calling a 'hard' border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The Irish have vivid memories of hard borders — not the ones protected and monitored by customs and officials as is being presently mooted when Brexit is completed, but invisible, notional dividing lines where your attempt to cross might see you roughed up, abused, aggressively searched or shot.

Such was the case on 18 October 44 years ago when, having accepted an invitation to speak at a conference in Derry — or Londonderry as the British call it — I arrived in Belfast. In the words of the only cabby of the five I phoned from Belfast's besieged Aldergrove Airport who agreed to drive me to the heavily fortified Dunadry Inn, this was 'the worst night in the worst week' since 'the Troubles' had resumed in 1968.


"The air might be 'different' in Donegal if you could get at it, but we seem to have brought the smoke and the smell of burning with us."


After three hair-raising days of conferencing, punctuated by gunfire, bombings, smoke endlessly drifting across scenes of ruin and destruction, Patrick, a postgraduate student, suggests an evening out. 'You might like to get out of the Province for a while and have a few drinks in a Donegal pub.' He looks at me quizzically. 'The air's different there, they say.'

I've been fairly certain during the past few days his sympathies are with the Provisional IRA, but that's not something you talked about. So it's arranged, and that evening we arrive at the border on our way to Donegal in the Republic.

The outing is a failure. We are for a start harassed and bullied at the border checkpoint, searched over and over, the car ransacked while people waiting in the growing queue jeer and catcall. White-faced and nervous, the British boy-soldiers go about their tasks under the eye of a tough, ascetic-looking officer with a public school accent full of steel and nails — the worst kind.

Some feelings are relieved, but the general situation not at all improved when Patrick, opening the car boot for the third time, mutters, 'Fucking Brits'. We then receive a curt, crisply articulated lecture on how easily we might be delayed for the entire night.

It is a relief finally to arrive in Donegal, but the pub session for once is depressing. The place is packed with people from Derry who, having just weathered one of the most turbulent weeks in six years of blood and death, can be excused their obsessions. The talk is exclusively of the crisis — bombings, gunfire, the random shot that crossed the city and killed a young boy standing at his bedroom window, 'the Brits breaking in the front door and running through the house', the burning of the prisons, and solutions, solutions, solutions.

There is some laughter and certainly plenty of noise, but no songs. Much Guinness is moved, but the atmosphere is tense, moods brittle and a shade hysterical. The air might be 'different' in Donegal if you could get at it, but we seem to have brought the smoke and the smell of burning with us.

Though there is no delay for us, the checkpoint back into Ulster later that night is a shambles. Bolstered by the drink, the returning Derry men make fools of the inexperienced troops. There are cars angled or temporarily abandoned with no semblance of a queue. People are all over the road singing rebel songs, horns are blown, lights flash on and off ... Some of this is moderately good natured, but there is a dangerous edge to it and it could become a riot in an instant.

These are some of the scenes that the concept of 'hard' border conjures up for many people in the Republic. For better or worse, they have fought and bled initially to eliminate but finally to soften the borders that have for so long and so destructively divided the island of Ireland. Now a quixotic decision in Britain threatens to restore a poisonous aspect of an evil past. It is certainly ironic, but that's far from the point.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer. Main image: British soldiers man a checkpoint, Belfast, 1973.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Ireland, France, McDonald's, Brexit



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Existing comments

Thank you Brian. My grandfather fought the black and tans with a longbow when the Brits released the scum from their gaols to fight the Irish. This force of Temporary Constables was recruited to assist the RIC during the Irish War of Independence. Yet another brainchild of Churchill, noted for using the Anzacs as canon fodder at Gallipoli. Ireland has groaned under the heel of British occupation, absentee landlords and crippling taxation since Cromwell swept through Ireland with his army during the Reformation - culminating in the massacre at Drogheda where 112 women and children were executed in the Cathedral, And countless priests and catholis who refused to swear the infamous oath of apostasy in the holy name of Anglicanism. I was in Belfast in 1979 and the soldiers tore the film out of my camera at gunpoint because I took some photos of their pillboxes. The Northern border is illusory as is their claim to Northern Ireland. Princess' Margaret's claim that the Irish are pigs epitomises the enduring British attitude to a nation unjustly invaded by superior force. During the 1850 famine Britain turned back US aid. One million people died from starvation. Praise the Lord. Mighty mighty England.

Francis Armstrong | 08 May 2018  

Re a quixotic decision: I should like to remind readers that a majority of Northern Irish (55.8%) and Scottish (62%) voters voted against Brexit. A majority of the Welsh (52%) deserted the Celtic cause and voted in favour but not by much. And so the artificially United Kingdom continues to be dominated by perfidious Albion led by a Prime Minister who ironically (?) was against Brexit.

Uncle Pat | 08 May 2018  

Sharply perceived, Brian, and reminiscent of Engels's words to Marx that the greatest success of the British attempt to subjugate Ireland was the division of the working class on a sectarian basis.

John | 08 May 2018  

“Now a quixotic decision in Britain threatens to restore a poisonous aspect of an evil past.” Only for those determined to make an analogy out of poetic exaggeration. The ‘hardness’ applies only to the economics of trade. The physical and psychological toll on Eirean and Northern Irish travellers of the border itself should be no harder than that on locals on both sides traversing the longest undefended border in the world, that between Canada and the US.

Roy Chen Yee | 09 May 2018  

And of all those of my English friends who earnestly defend the Brexit decision, not one of them had heretofore considered the implications for the border in Ireland. So much for Great Britain, more like little england.

Ginger Meggs | 09 May 2018  

Francis. Although my grandfather had his thumb shot off when he, his brothers and father were caught releasing their cows impounded for refusing to pay the tithe to the Anglican Church of Ireland, not everything the British did was diabolically wrong. Let us not forget that the Great Queen Victoria did donate 5 pounds sterling for the "relief of starvation in the Irish people" during the great famine. It was seemingly quite immaterial that at the same time her government took sufficient produce from Ireland to feed the Irish population 11 times over `during the famine years.

john frawley | 09 May 2018  

Congratulations, Brian. This article is a very important reminder of the problems that were caused by the centuries of British imperialism in Ireland. When finally Churchill saw that Ireland had to be free, he had to ensure that part of the country would remain in British hands. It was just an example of how the British ruling class was determined to cling tenaciously to its dying Empire. I think it would be an amazing quirk of history if Brexit contributed to there being a united, free and independent Ireland!. One might consider what this could mean for Scotland. Could this be a factor that leads to the Scots demanding their freedom? If we do see a fully independent Ireland and Scotland, what will this mean for the Union Jack (commonly known in Ireland as the Butcher's Apron given the long period of harsh British rule)? This could also have implications for the Australian flag as well. Will we replace the Union Jack with the flag of St George or will replace it with an Aboriginal symbol?

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 09 May 2018  

John Frawley Thank you. The irony in that comment shows that the whole concept of Royalty should have gone the same way as France during the terror. Yet it persists and our screens boast of a new crop of royals who did nothing to earn their expected adulation. And this woman and her questionable son Charles remain our head and future head of State? One would have to ask whether Abbott suffered from temporary insanity when He knighted her insufferable Greek husband. How he won a rhodes scholarship is a complete and utter mystery.

francis Armstrong | 09 May 2018  

Argument by analogy is problematic Roy. There is no way in which an undisputed border between two independent states can be compared with a disputed border dividing what one side believes to be a whole state. It’s a long time since the US - Canadian border was defended, it’s only yesterday that the one separating Ulster from the rest of Ireland was policed by heavily armed military. History is relevant to the present.

Ginger Meggs | 11 May 2018  

Ginger Meggs: “There is no way in which an undisputed border between two independent states can be compared with a disputed border dividing what one side believes to be a whole state.” When Northern and Eirean Irish have to put up with the rigmarole of stopping at border posts, in the same way as Americans and Canadians, what they will be crossing is an EU border. It will follow the same line as the nation-state border between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland but, in the mind of the travellers, having to stop your car will be caused by a difference in EU membership, not by a difference in national allegiance.

Roy Chen Yee | 12 May 2018  

What you are missing Roy is that the Eire-Ulster border is not universally accepted as a border between nation-states. This is an example of where state borders do not reflect national borders.

Ginger Megs | 18 May 2018  

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