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Crossing the border

Life along the border was not only affected by the reorganisation and separation of the functions of the governments on either side. It was also profoundly shaped by the ways in which the border affected people’s ability to move freely across it in their daily life. Because of the historical relationship between Britain and Ireland the migration of people between the two countries has not been subject to immigration controls. However, though the Irish border has not been policed in terms of immigration, the ability of people to travel back and forth to family, friends, and work across the border has been deeply affected by the regulation of travel across it.

As with most political borders there is no continuous barrier along the Irish border stopping people from passing from one jurisdiction to another. People have always been able to cross the border where it runs through fields, forested areas or open country. Yet the use of roads on foot, bicycle, cart and later motor vehicles was and is obviously most convenient for most people. In practical terms, therefore, regulating movement across the border has been a matter of controlling travel by road and by car.

This regulation of cross border road travel was initially bound up with official attempts to control the movement of goods from one jurisdiction into the other from the early 1920s, and subsequently with attempts by the UK and Northern Irish security forces to control the movement of paramilitaries across the border.

Both had significant but different affects on borderland life. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s crossing the border meant being subject to both customs and army or police checkpoints. For those living near the border a short local journey could mean several stops for inspection.

I have an – a memory, very distinct memory, of going to hire – in real hard times, trying to, to, to buy in a couple of trees from somebody that was felling them, and this was going to keep, eh, reduce the fuel bill and keep the family warmer for the winter, but having to hire, em, a chainsaw, which I didn’t have, from a fella named Maurice Allen at Kanturk [?] which is a post office, which is basically if you look at it, about two miles from Clones on the Newtownbutler road. And I had to go through a Gard – a Garda checkpoint at the Creighton corner, which is on the, on the Newtownbutler road in Clones. I had to go through a customs post then, on the southern side. Then I had to go through a joint Garda and army checkpoint, just before I crossed the border, to be met by a foot patrol of the British army, who were out on manoeuvres. Then I had to go through an RUC checkpoint less than a half mile up the road, to go through the permanent army British checkpoint at Kanturk . . . that was six stops, to go to a fella to hire a chainsaw, and I had to go through the six of them on the way back in. And those were the kind of things that in the end of it all, scraped away at people’s tolerance." Donald McDonald, Omagh, Co. Tyrone