The beautiful landscape conceals remnants of the old partition separating the two Irelands that sparked bitter conflict.
After establishing the Irish Free State in 1922, border checkpoints were set up cutting through towns and damaging some local economies. Known as the “hard” border, it remained through three decades of conflict known as The Troubles, a guerilla war fought between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists starting in the 1960s. Attempting to limit the violence, the British military set up checkpoints along the border. There were nearly 50,000 casualties, including more than 3,500 people killed in the conflict. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the conflict and led to the removal of border infrastructure that separated the two Irelands.
The result is what I saw, a “soft” border I travelled across up to 10 to 20 times a day without checkpoints or showing a passport. There are about 270 roads that crisscross the border, and you can’t always tell exactly where the border is. Sometimes it’s subtle and as simple as a change in the type of asphalt on the road. Mostly the border is an in-person postcard of beauty where no one is carrying a gun or trying to hurt anyone.
The future of this hard-won peace on the island is closely watched – and guarded. In 2019, there were attacks on police, the killing of a journalist and a bomb detonated. This past August, the largest security sweep since The Troubles took place, resulting in terrorism-related arrests.
And in the lead up to Britain’s formal withdrawal from the European Union in January, there was high anxiety over how to keep the Irish border open during the transition period – and to avoid a return to the hard border with checkpoints, border controls and security. There were growing worries that London and Brussels will fail to reach a trade deal before Dec. 31 – imperiling billions of dollars in trade and potentially cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of Britain.
On Tuesday, however, British and European Union leaders reached an agreement in principle on how trade to and from Northern Ireland would work, regardless of whether there is an overarching deal. The agreement covers border-control posts and the supply of medicine, BBC reported, but details weren’t revealed.
It’s difficult to not fear the return of sectarian violence and the era of divisions between North and South. I grew up in an immigrant-dominated neighbourhood of Toronto, all the parents, including mine who are Italian, were children during the Second World War. All my friend’s parents who were Irish left because they did not want their children experiencing the violence. Throughout the 1980s I recall news both in the media and from friend’s families back in Ireland of violence that divided this landscape. When I was in Ireland, no one asked if I was Catholic or Protestant; all the people I spoke to on both sides cared about jobs and maintaining peace, which felt like a soft reunification of Ireland. For now, the beauty of nature rules the border, which is mostly covered by trees, grass and rivers and hopefully never again by fences, walls and soldiers.
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