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The Troubles and borderland life

. . . living in a cul-de-sac is not a healthy thing to do . . . Because basically when I left my house there was only one way you went, you only ever went up the road. Unless you were delivering cattle or something. You didn’t do anything else, because there was nothing there. But a hole. But I mean that is crazy when you think about it, isn’t it, you just go somewhere and then there’s a massive hole … I think that's probably worse than a wall."
Stephen Byrne, Sligo, Co. Sligo.

The closure of most border roads during the Troubles dramatically impacted on the everyday lives of people living near the border. For people whose journeys to work, church, school, to shop, or to visit family or friends were affected by road closures, almost every aspect of daily life was made difficult by the border. Accounts of borderland life in this period are dominated by stories of people struggling to deal with road closures: farmers whose farms straddled the border constructing makeshift crossing points to get to their cattle, or making very long journeys by road to get to fields a mile away across the border; people trying to find routes to avoid delays at check points to try to get to their jobs across the border in time; people trying to attend their church across the border by driving to the border, walking carefully across cratered or blocked roads and being met on the other side and ferried to the church by car by other members of the congregation. Those living on roads that ended at a crater at the border experienced not only the serious inconvenience of no longer being able to travel in that direction but the strangeness of being isolated and restricted in this way. For some people, living right on the border meant having to somehow get children to school since school buses wouldn’t travel to the border, and living in a ‘no-man’s land’ where even the security forces rarely ventured.

Well, in fact, I stopped going the main road, I mean I haven’t been on the main road to [work] – you know, I only used it for the first couple of years, and then I discovered that you could go up by Forkhill . . . And that checkpoint, I'd forgotten about it, on the main road there, it was scary, it was closed in and there was just the lookout point up on the hill. And they were always changing it, too. One month it was this route, and then they lifted all the concrete bollards and there was some other route the next month, and these signs up, 'No Stopping Under Any Consideration'."
Anonymous interviewees, Co. Down
You never knew where you were going to find the road blocked. Or who blocked it . . . But it was like everything else, you, you got up and you got to your work every day. I never missed my work over it. You know. But I never knew how I was going to get, d'you know? And when I taught . . . that happened nearly every day . . . If there wasn’t a checkpoint, there was a road block. And if the checkpoint wasn’t maybe a mile and a half long . . . And if you turned round and went another route, you’d be followed, or you’d be looked upon, why did you go back."
Anonymous interviewee, Co. Down

However, the Troubles in the borderlands were not only a matter of road closures and checkpoints. Life along in borderlands was shaped by the presence of the army and by paramilitary violence. While tension, fear and violence characterised everyday life for many in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, areas along the border experienced the greatest number of bombings, deaths and injuries apart from parts of Belfast. Shootings and bombings suspected to have been carried out by loyalist paramilitary groups also occurred in the border counties of Ireland; in the towns of Clones, Monaghan, Swanlinbar and Belturbet.

The attempt to seal the border depended on a very heavy military presence along the border in Northern Ireland. Army patrols and checkpoints responded to IRA violence in the borderlands and provoked attack. Army checkpoints, RUC police stations and army and RUC patrols were targeted by the IRA. Members of the RUC or UDR were targeted in shootings. Catholics that were judged by the IRA as being collaboration with the security forces, and Protestants with no connection to the security forces were also murdered.

For some the appearance of heavily armed and camouflaged soldiers in the otherwise quiet and often sparsely populated countryside of the borderlands became routine and taken-for-granted, and for some a reassuring presence. For others, seeing soldiers on lanes, fields and around farms was a frightening and intimidating experience. In some of the isolated parts of west Co. Fermanagh and west Co. Tyrone, Catholic young men and teenagers suspected to be involved in republican organisations were subject to repeated intimidation and harassment by security forces. The shooting of civilians by soldiers at checkpoints also contributed to loss of life in the borderlands and anger and anxiety about the heavy military presence. Many who were not directly in contact with the security forces lived with a sense of being under constant surveillance especially in the areas of south Armagh and Tyrone where British army watchtowers were built on along the hills near the border and where the sight and sound of army helicopters were part of everyday life. Farmers in these areas report on cases of the death and injury of farm animals frightened by helicopters flying low or landing near them.

As in other parts of Northern Ireland, violent incidents and the fear and suspicion they created deeply damaged previously warm or at best politely friendly relationships between Catholics and Protestants in the borderlands. Patterns of collective support amongst communities of small farmers, Protestant and Catholic – helping at harvest, sharing machinery, helping in times of need – were destroyed. The strangeness of local URD men formally asking their neighbours their names and address as a requirement of their duties estranged people from each other. The occurrence of violent attacks intensified fear and distrust. As members of the UDR became IRA targets, Protestants living along the border in predominately Catholic areas felt increasingly vulnerable, sometimes moving away and sometimes staying and living with constant fear and the aftermath of attacks on themselves, their family and friends. The degree to which Protestant families were deliberately forced to leave the borderlands as part of an IRA strategy of ‘ethnic cleansing’, moved away from poor rural areas as other migrants did, or gradually ‘drifted north’ as younger generations set up homes further away from the border, is fiercely disputed.

The tensions created by the Troubles in the borderlands were not only between Catholics and Protestants. Protestant farming families who moved over the border into Northern Ireland for safety were not always welcomed and there are accounts of some returning. Those seeking refuge from some of the most violent parts of Belfast in the early 1970s and over the course of the Troubles by moving to the border counties in Ireland were often looked upon with suspicion. Fear of violence spilling over from Northern Ireland led some in the border counties of the south to blame the nationalist community north of the border. 'On-the-runs' – members of republican paramilitary groups evading capture by crossing into Ireland – were often more feared and resented than welcomed. People in the borderlands have also felt unfairly associated with violence by others, either through the affect of a whole locality being labelled as an IRA area as in what became know as the 'bandit country' of south Armagh, or by those who assumed that a person’s religion was a straightforward indicator of their political sympathies. While the border dramatically in response to the cease fires of the mid 1990s, for those that lived through the Troubles along the border in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the experiences of the Troubles in the borderlands in Ireland and Northern Ireland has left an underlying legacy of division, grief, anger and mistrust that people say does not surface directly in their dealings with each other but will take a long time to completely dispel.