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The surreal reality of life in 'the most militarised area of western Europe'

TheJournal.ie visited Dromintee GAA club to hear locals’ concerns of a hard Brexit.

ULSTER Demilitarisation Army helicopters dismantle the last remaining watch tower at Jonesborough in South Armagh, in 2006. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

WE REALLY DON’T know what’s going to happen. But there’s certainly a fear, and I think it’s a genuine fear … people over in England who have never been here or lived here think that there’ll be no problems. I think it’s very delicate at the moment.

The mood at Dromintee GAA club is good-humoured as the group of eight locals  – teachers, a farmer, a business owner, a lawyer, the club caretaker, an artist and an accountant – settle at a row of tables beside a wood-burning stove.

But as cameras and recorders are produced, the atmosphere soon becomes serious. The locals recount their memories of how, at the height of The Troubles, this part of South Armagh became one of the most fortified and observed areas of Western Europe.

Dromintee, a small village close to Jonesborough and to the west of Newry and Dundalk,  is about 2km from the border at its closest point.

Like elsewhere along the 500km boundary, people here are fearful the impact a hard Brexit will have on business, on their livelihoods and most of all, on their daily routines.

“The mountain you can see from here – that would be in the North and they had a permanent checkpoint on the top of that mountain,” Peter Toale, a retired school principal and former chairman of the club says. 

Caóilfíonn Murphy O’Hanlon, an artist, says it was “the most surreal place” to live when British Army militarisation was at its height. 

Because we’re in a ring dyke, the Ring of Gullion here, so it’s surrounded by mountains – so perfect lookout posts to look down to all over South Armagh really.

Says Toale: “They were constantly monitoring what was going on.”

The retired teacher recounts how, towards the end of the Troubles, documents emerged showing the British Army had been keeping track of everyone calling to the gates of the rural GAA club. 

The effect on daily life was stifling, he says. “If you were going to school in Newry you could be stopped three or four times. You could be sitting in a queue here for two miles.

The soldiers who were there were as nasty as they possibly could be. They just had their own conversation and let you sit there.

One of Murphy O’Hanlon’s sons is over at training in Dundalk, she says. She’s been across the border already tonight and will be making another seamless transition between the jurisdictions later. 

That wouldn’t have been possible when she was a teenager, towards the end of the conflict. 

“I know when I first learned to drive and I’d be staying with my granny maybe and had to leave her house and go home late on at night – maybe going to school the next morning at 17 or 18. 

“Driving, you’d see a red light in the middle of the road. You wouldn’t know who could be behind that red light or who was going to stop you – and it was that fear of ‘any identification there?’

“You’d go away and stand up the road, and you’re a girl on your own in your car with your licence taken off you. You’re told to switch off your engine, to switch off  your lights, and they could leave you sitting there for 15 minutes before they let you go. Or maybe not – ‘get out and open the boot!’ 

She adds: “You’d like to hope that wouldn’t happen now, in the dark, on your own at one o’clock in the morning. But to go back to that is terrifying.” 

The reimposition of a border could be “the start of it”,  says Murphy O’Hanlon. “It’s the opening of the gates for it to return and that’s the most terrifying part.”

That’s why I’m here tonight as a parent of four kids from 17 to 5. Our peace was very hard-fought for and very hard gained … and to shatter the stereotypes of this beautiful border that we live along. 

12 Artist Caóilfíonn Murphy O'Hanlon, retired head teacher Peter Toale and his son, Kevin, also a school principal. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Border posts

The first real restrictions of movement around in the area were in response to the IRA’s border campaign of the 1950s. Routines got back to normal as that campaign fizzled out – but even harsher restrictions and increased fortification was introduced as violence in the North spiralled out of control in the early 1970s.

South Armagh became one of the major battlegrounds between the IRA and the British Army, and the demilitarisation of the area was one of the key demands of the Sinn Féin leadership in negotiations leading to the establishment of a stable Northern Assembly. Britain removed the last of its armoured towers at Crossmaglen police station in February of 2007. 

In the intervening years the need for customs posts in the area ended, as the EU single market came into force in 1993. 

Asked to assess whether there was now a real risk of a threat to the peace process, businessman Declan Fearon says people in the area are likely to be dismissed as “scaremongers … and South Armagh scaremongers at that”. 

“The reality is that if you listen to people who are just going about their everyday lives here, I don’t think there’s anybody sitting here would say that it [a hard Brexit] won’t threaten it.

“This border was originally imposed in the late 40s and 50s as an economic border long before there were any Troubles here,” says Fearon, one of the local spokespeople from Border Communities Against Brexit, the group that organised the evening’s event. 

“With the onset of the Troubles the first thing to be attacked was the customs posts. They were the manifestation of what people in this area didn’t want – they didn’t want that border.  

“So from that the police came to protect the customs huts and the police were attacked, and the army came to attack them. And the helicopters came to protect the army, and you had the lookout posts, and we ended up with the most militarised area in western Europe for a period – you had an area where there was 23,000 people living and there were 3,000 British troops stationed here. 

“So we well know what it could go back to and the dangers of that, and it only takes a small spark like the reintroduction of whatever border manifests itself.”

Violence may not emerge overnight, Fearon says, “but if the European Union has to put a border on the southern side to check stuff it will very quickly be followed by reciprocation on the Northern side by the British government because they don’t want free movement of people they see as not being allowed into Britain. And then off we go again, the erection of border and customs posts, and maybe they close the roads.” 

Derry violence 

Several speakers tell of their fears that the hard-won peace they now enjoy will be disrupted. Many say the recent car bomb in Derry heightened those concerns. 

Says Justin Byrne, a barrister: “What we have now, when we say we have law and order, is a huge cooperation between the PSNI and the gardaí. They get together all the time. I work as a barrister, I do a lot of criminal law, and you’d see that.

“I think if there is a hard border that’s bound to change because we’re all within EU law, and now you’re going to have a difference.

We really don’t know what’s going to happen. But there’s certainly a fear, and I think it’s a genuine fear … people over in England who have never been here or lived here think that there’ll be no problems. I think it’s very delicate at the moment.

Creeve Keeran Observation Tower Dismantling South Armagh as seen from a British Army Linx helicopter in 2005. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Kevin Toale – Peter’s son and a head teacher at a school for people with special needs – says many of those involved in recent violence and unrest in Derry are too young to have known what life was like during The Troubles. 

He’s concerned the youth of today “could certainly become much like the youth of yesterday. That’s ultimately an unstable situation and an unhealthy situation that no-one at all would want to go back to, regardless of background, no-one wants to go back to it.” 

Asked to up sum of the mood of people in the area, several speakers say they agree that locals are angry. “There’s a fear of the unknown,” Toale says. His father nods in agreement, and says people are “worried and concerned”. 

Asked what he thinks will happen on 29 March, Kevin Toale says: 

“I would like to think that there is going to be a lifeline thrown from either side. Generally, when there is so much at risk, I would like to think … not that right will prevail but an ounce of common sense will prevail.

“It’s incredible to think of so-called intelligent people going to meetings and leaving things in a state of affairs like this.

It’s mind-boggling in fact.

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