Notes from the Border

For writ­ers, the truth of the Border is not that it was a place of se­cu­rity and unity, but one of di­vi­sion, crime and vi­o­lence

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY BRIAN McGILLOWAY

Di­vi­sion, crime and vi­o­lence: how writ­ers cover the bor­der­lands

Al­most my en­tire life I have lived in places marked by du­al­ity. I grew up in Derry or Lon­don­derry, a city bi­sected by the River Foyle, where your re­li­gion and po­lit­i­cal al­le­giance could be as­sumed from which name you gave the place.

We lived so close to the Border that the Sun­day af­ter­noons of our child­hood in­evitably in­volved cross-Border trips for, among other things, Chef brown sauce (avail­able to buy only in the Repub­lic but so much nicer than any other brands).

Such trips were book­ended by the Border cross­ing where our car would be searched and my fa­ther quizzed on the pur­pose of his trip by teenaged squad­dies, cradling au­to­matic ri­fles, ex­press­ing their in­credulity at a 40-mile round trip for a condi­ment.

Later I moved to Stra­bane, which sits to one side of the River Foyle, while Lif­ford sits across the wa­ter, sep­a­rated by a hun­dred yards of bridge through which the Border runs.

I re­mem­ber as a child cross­ing the Border check­point here too – the Camel’s Hump, as it was known. The jour­ney was mem­o­rable due in no small mea­sure to the huge Army hangar that squat­ted on the Border. There could be no doubt when you had crossed into the South.

As a re­sult, for me and for my gen­er­a­tion, the Border ex­isted as both a phys­i­cal and a psy­cho­log­i­cal con­struct.

One of the ab­sur­di­ties of our child­hood Sun­day drives into Inishowen was that the South was ac­tu­ally, ge­o­graph­i­cally, to the north and the North to the south due to the de­ci­sion in 1920 to leave Done­gal out of North­ern Ire­land de­spite its place in the prov­ince of Ul­ster.

All of this made some sort of sense to us when we were young. My own chil­dren, how­ever, strug­gle to grasp it be­cause, since the Good Fri­day agree­ment, the Border as a phys­i­cal en­tity no longer ex­ists. You can cross from Lif­ford to Stra­bane with­out ever en­coun­ter­ing a check­point now. In­deed, the only way to tell when you have left one coun­try and en­tered an­other is by the slight change in the qual­ity of the tar sur­fac­ing the roads and the fact that one ter­ri­tory uses mph on sig­nage and the other kmph. Cross­ing the bridge from Stra­bane to Lif­ford is as easy as cross­ing the bridge from the Waterside to the city­side in Derry – which per­haps ex­plains my own fas­ci­na­tion with bor­ders and why I choose to set my crime se­ries in the bor­der­lands of the Lif­ford/Stra­bane area.

The Border in the Devlin se­ries rep­re­sents var­i­ous things; the bor­der­lands are the grey area that most of us in­habit, the dis­tance

be­tween what we’d like to do and how we’d like to be, and what we ac­tu­ally do and who we ac­tu­ally are. And per­haps spurred on by no­tions of the Border as a fron­tier, el­e­ments of the Wild West have sur­faced more than once in the Devlin nov­els; in­deed Bleed a River Deep con­cerns a gold mine open­ing in Done­gal.

De­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ship

The Border also op­er­ates for me as a re­flec­tion of how things have changed po­lit­i­cally in the North. When I be­gan writ­ing the first book, I de­lib­er­ately set out not to write a po­lit­i­cal novel.

I did not be­lieve my­self a good enough writer to deal with the North di­rectly and, as a na­tion­al­ist who grew up in Derry, I had is­sues with us­ing an RUC char­ac­ter as my main ar­bi­tra­tor of jus­tice. So, I looked to the South, and to Garda Ben Devlin, as a way to al­low me to view the North at a re­move of sorts.

De­spite this, in each book I found el­e­ments of the Trou­bles ap­pear­ing. Bor­der­lands touches on “the dis­ap­peared”, Gal­lows Lane con­cerns men who use re­li­gion as a front for vi­o­lence, Bleed a River Deep con­cerns the smug­gling of peo­ple and laun­der­ing of fuel across the Border by in­di­vid­u­als des­per­ate to es­tab­lish crim­i­nal em­pires. The Ris­ing was about a dis­si­dent para­mil­i­tary group us­ing the pun­ish­ment shoot­ings of drug deal­ers as a way to gain trac­tion in a frac­tured com­mu­nity which did not trust the po­lice.

And in all the books, the de­vel­op­ing pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship be­tween Devlin and Jim Hendry re­flects some­thing of how I saw the de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween North and South im­pact­ing on the ground.

Devlin crosses the Border fre­quently into the North. Hav­ing spo­ken to of­fi­cers on both sides of the Border, that is not un­usual. One men­tioned his hap­pi­est mem­ory of cross-Border co-op­er­a­tion was when gar­daí vis­ited the RUC sta­tion at Christ­mas each year with crates of Guinness or when the RUC handed over poach­ers’ nets to their Garda coun­ter­parts to hand into the fish­eries au­thor­i­ties in order to claim the £5 re­ward per net, which then paid for a cross-Border steak din­ner.

It is telling then that, by 2009, my at­ten­tion as a writer moved from the Border and from crimes as­so­ci­ated with the vi­o­lence of the North. The last Devlin, The Name­less Dead , is about grief and those who sur­vive. I be­lieve my fas­ci­na­tion with the Border waned as the ob­ject it­self ap­peared to van­ish from sight.

This, to me, is a key con­cept. As part of the peace process here, mod­er­ate na­tion­al­ism in the North shelved its as­pi­ra­tion for Ir­ish unity in re­turn for an in­vis­i­ble Border – a ver­sion of

esse est per­cipi in ac­tion. So long as we couldn’t see it, we could pre­tend it wasn’t there. We were free to choose our own na­tional al­le­giances, whether Ir­ish, Bri­tish or North­ern Ir­ish. The ex­is­tence of the Border se­cured the union for those who felt Bri­tish, but its in­vis­i­bil­ity hinted at the po­ten­tial that that might one day change for those who felt Ir­ish. A tightrope bal­anc­ing act for those in the mid­dle ground had been found.

Dual­na­ture

There can be no doubt about the im­pact the Border has had on a gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers from ei­ther side of it. Even a cur­sory glance at other crime writ­ing shows that.

Other Border writ­ers, such as An­thony Quinn and Claire McGowan, have de­vel­oped full se­ries of nov­els ex­plor­ing the unique crim­i­nal­ity which is a fea­ture of Border life, whether peo­ple smug­gling in Quinn’s Border

An­gels, or the con­stant in­tru­sion of the past on the present across the Paula Maguire se­ries set in a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of McGowan’s home­town.

Border set­tings fea­ture promi­nently in Declan Hughes’s All The Dead Voices, which cen­tres around the present-day ef­fects of a botched as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on a judge near the Border in South Ar­magh dur­ing the Trou­bles. In one strik­ing pas­sage to­wards the end, fol­low­ing an act of ex­treme vi­o­lence, Hughes cap­tures the dual na­ture of the aes­thet­i­cally stun­ning Border area and the hor­ri­fy­ing events which oc­curred there:

“After the fire and the smoke, and the de­bris and body parts scat­tered about the fields, amid the sul­phur and burn­ing flesh, and the sav­age whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing of Ice, Red stared across the fields, the heart­break­ingly beau­ti­ful hills and fields of South Ar­magh. Was it then that he un­der­stood that only great and last­ing dis­hon­our and shame would be gained if they won the land back by this kind of slaugh­ter?”

The repub­li­can heartland fea­tures more ex­ten­sively in Stu­art Neville’s The Twelve, which reaches its cli­max in the Border strad­dling farm­land of Bull O’Kane – a prom­i­nent repub­li­can who shunned the po­lit­i­cal in pref­er­ence to the crim­i­nal. Within the book he is con­nected with fuel smug­gling, dog fight­ing and dodgy land ac­qui­si­tions through in­tim­i­da­tion; as well as be­ing im­pli­cated in nu­mer­ous mur­ders, of course. Many of the ac­tiv­i­ties of Bull O’Kane would not be out of place in Toby Harn­den’s Ban­dit Coun­try, a sem­i­nal work of non­fic­tion on the para­mil­i­tary cam­paign in South Ar­magh.

Smug­gling of peo­ple across the Border is a key plot el­e­ment of Adrian McKinty’s Fifty

Grand. How­ever, some­how fit­tingly for an Ir­ish writer no longer liv­ing in Ire­land, the Border in ques­tion is be­tween Mex­ico and the US rather than in Ire­land. Nev­er­the­less, in a vis­ceral, bru­tal open­ing scene, the Border cross­ing is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with ex­ploita­tion, vi­o­lence and ul­ti­mately death de­spite the fact that the ac­tual border it­self is an ab­stract: “We made it,” he said again. “I peered through the win­dow and won­dered how he could be so sure. It looked like fuck­ing Mars out there. A thin brown sand wor­ry­ing it­self over a bleached yel­low ground. Noth­ing alive, all the rocks weath­ered into dust.”

It seems clear to me why crime writ­ers might have been at­tracted to the darker el­e­ments of border set­tings – the de­mar­ca­tions of power, clashes of cul­tures, ju­ris­dic­tional con­flicts, crimes, mur­ders and var­i­ous forms of smug­gling all sit eas­ily in a crime nar­ra­tive.

I did won­der, though, how non-crime writ­ers who choose to write the area might rep­re­sent it. The truth of the mat­ter is, though, that the Border isn’t re­ally used in crime fic­tion any dif­fer­ently than it is in non-genre writ­ing. And, the more I read in other forms and gen­res, the more I be­came con­vinced that any book set on the Border must have an el­e­ment of crime about it for, in lit­er­a­ture at least, the two seem al­most syn­ony­mous.

Re­li­gious di­vi­sion

The di­vi­sions be­tween North and South, Protes­tant and Catholic, and the at­ten­dant vi­o­lence this bred would ap­pear to be the most ob­vi­ous trait of all Border fic­tion.

For years the Border has been the crack in the pave­ment through which peo­ple could dis­ap­pear to evade jus­tice. Those on both sides who wanted to carry out cross-Border raids ex­ploited ju­ris­dic­tional anom­alies be­tween the two po­lice forces on ei­ther side.

If ever some­thing would help re­in­force feel­ings of so­cial di­vi­sion and the tribal men­tal­ity of both re­li­gion and pol­i­tics in Ire­land, surely a Border cross­ing would do it. And this is re­flected in the lit­er­a­ture of the place. Eu­gene McCabe’s beau­ti­ful short story

Her­itage be­gins with Eric O’Neill re­call­ing how “a week ago he had watched a gun­fight be­tween Bri­tish sol­diers and gun­men across the river in the Repub­lic”. The story it­self in­volves Eric hav­ing to deal with a death threat against him and his grow­ing knowl­edge of his fa­ther’s in­volve­ment with a Catholic neigh­bour. McCabe’s strength in the piece, as in all his work, is his un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of re­la­tion­ships.

Most tragic of all is the un­re­quited na­ture of Eric’s re­la­tion­ship with Rachel, with his be­ing un­able to touch her be­cause his mother has brought him up to be­lieve it is morally wrong. Most ro­bust in de­fence of this moral­ity is his un­cle Ge­orge. He thinks noth­ing, how­ever, of killing two neigh­bours with farm­ing im­ple­ments in re­venge for the mur­der of fel­low UDR men.

The story per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the ab­sur­dity of the re­li­gious di­vi­sion, and of course the tragic con­se­quences of that ab­sur­dity. The seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion of re­li­gious ha­tred and the in­her­ent hypocrisy are il­lus­trated in one scene when Eric goes to church. After the ser­vice he stands in the church­yard with a friend, look­ing across the river which marks the Border to “the lime-washed Catholic church half a mile away . . . a full con­gre­ga­tion fun­nelling through the square porch sep­a­rat­ing their grave­yard. “Bees from a hive,” Eric said. “Wasps,” Joe said.” The close­ness of the two churches, and the pass­ing ref­er­ence to the grave­yard seem to sum up McCabe’s de­pic­tion of the area in one scene.

Colm Tóibín re­calls in Bad Blood, his re­portage piece on the sum­mer he walked the Border, how mur­der squads used the Border for cover. In one par­tic­u­larly strong sec­tion, he mir­rors McCabe to an ex­tent, plac­ing to­gether two mur­ders in one area, one that of a RUC of­fi­cer, the other an IRA vol­un­teer:

“One was a Catholic, the other a Protes­tant; one lived just south of the Border, the other just north of the Border; both died vi­o­lently of bul­let wounds in the same year, 1986, within a few miles of each other, one in April, one in July. Both had large fu­ner­als. It is pos­si­ble that the man who died in July had been present as the first one died; it is even pos­si­ble that the man who died in July was killed in reprisal for the first death; it is also pos­si­ble that nei­ther of these things is true; but it must be said that some peo­ple be­lieved them.”

In­ter­na­tional bound­aries

The RUC of­fi­cer John McVitty was mur­dered while work­ing in the fields with his 12-year-old son. Tóibín notes that the IRA had es­caped across the fields into the South after the shoot­ing. (This is just one of many in­ci­dents where Tóibín men­tions the Border be­ing used as an es­cape route – an­other de­tails the hor­rific mur­der of a de­liv­ery man who was shot 21 times in the grounds of a pri­mary school while the chil­dren were there.)

The sec­ond killing, that of Sea­mus McEl­wain, was al­legedly com­mit­ted by the RUC or SAS. Shot and wounded while he and an­other man, Sean Lynch, were cross­ing a field armed with ri­fles, he lay in a ditch and was ques­tioned by the SAS for 20 min­utes be­fore the RUC ar­rived. Tóibín tells us that McEl­wain “had been shot first in the legs, then left there and was later shot in the stom­ach and then in the heart”. Killings then were com­mit­ted not just

The ex­is­tence of the Border se­cured the union for those who felt Bri­tish, but its in­vis­i­bil­ity hinted at the po­ten­tial that that might one day change for those who felt Ir­ish. A tightrope bal­anc­ing act for those in the mid­dle ground had been found

And for all the talk of tech­nol­ogy and fric­tion­less bound­aries after Brexit, we should be in no doubt that, what­ever of the phys­i­cal struc­ture, the psy­cho­log­i­cal Border is al­ready hard­en­ing

by ter­ror­ists.

Nor was the traf­fic al­ways from South to North. Tóibín re­counts var­i­ous in­cur­sions over the Border, when, for ex­am­ple, former first min­is­ter Peter Robin­son led a group into Clon­tibret. Like­wise he men­tions Bri­tish in­cur­sions into the South.

This lat­ter idea is even used by Ian Rankin in his thriller Watchman, which fea­tures a scene where Spe­cial Branch of­fi­cers cross into the South on a raid, the Border’s func­tion here be­ing seem­ingly to cre­ate a sense of dis­lo­ca­tion, to por­tray for the reader, a man out of his depth. The epony­mous Watchman, Miles, finds him­self aghast at the re­al­i­sa­tion that his col­leagues in the RUC plan to ex­e­cute a sup­posed IRA cell, one of whom protests dur­ing the raid: “You’re way out of your ter­ri­tory. You bet­ter get the hell out of here. This is an in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent.”

Rankin makes much of the in­con­gruity of a group plan­ning mur­der com­plain­ing about their en­emy’s fail­ure to re­spect in­ter­na­tional bound­aries. Vin­cent Woods’s pow­er­ful drama At the

Black Pig’s Dyke, also uses the Border as a set­ting. Merg­ing the rit­u­al­is­tic killings of the Mum­mers, straw-clad men who moved from house to house per­form­ing sim­ple dra­mas at Christ­mas, with mod­ern-day ter­ror­ists en­forc­ing their crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties and in­dulging their per­sonal pro­cliv­i­ties and an­i­mosi­ties through mur­der, Woods paints a bleak pic­ture of Border Ire­land, the dyke of the ti­tle the Border, steeped in blood.

In one scene, the mum­mers sur­round Hugh Brolly who has been do­ing cross-Border runs for them smug­gling items. On his last run, sick­ened by the vi­o­lence of the events he has wit­nessed, Brolly had aban­doned the van and con­tacted the po­lice. The mum­mers taunt him with a va­ri­ety of names: “Traitor. Col­lab­o­ra­tor. In­former. Grasser, squealer. Dirty bas­tard. Dou­ble dealer. Ju­das fuckin’ Is­car­iot.” This fi­nal in­sult is seem­ingly the worst – as al­ways in Border lit­er­a­ture, the vi­o­lence is tied in­ex­orably with re­li­gious ref­er­ences.

One of Brolly’s tasks in the play is to smug­gle across the Border. In­evitably with cross-Border lit­er­a­ture, smug­gling and the fi­nan­cial dis­par­ity be­tween the two ter­ri­to­ries is a com­mon fea­ture.

Through­out his book, Tóibín cites peo­ple com­ment­ing on us­ing the Border to their ad­van­tage, agri­cul­tural grants in the North be­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more gen­er­ous in the mid ’80s.

“The lo­cals made a good liv­ing out of the smug­gling in­dus­try; those who were pre­pared to take the small risk in­volved in cart­ing farm ma­chin­ery, spare parts for cars, al­co­hol, to­bacco, and elec­tri­cal goods across the Border, or those who con­veyed an­i­mals across in the dead of night could make a lot of money with­out much work.” Unap­proved roads

Shane Con­naughton’s 1991 novel, The Run of

the Coun­try, is a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece about grow­ing up in a Border vil­lage with his Garda fa­ther in the 1950s and also de­tails Border smug­gling. Even here, though, the vi­o­lence to come is not far away; the book opens: “He could see the sol­diers com­ing, hear their shouts, and he saw the sun­light break­ing sil­ver on his fa­ther’s cap-badge. His fa­ther knew the ter­rain, and scoured it daily for armed repub­li­cans.”

Con­naughton writes about the same traits of Border lit­er­a­ture as the best crime writ­ers; re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance, po­lit­i­cal un­easi­ness, is­sues of land-own­er­ship, and, of course, unap­proved roads be­ing used by the lo­cals to evade Customs and po­lice and smug­gle goods – in this case Amer­i­can jeans, boots and but­ter among other essen­tials:

“The road they were on was a tightrope. Ca­van one minute. Fer­managh the next. Customs men lay in wait. Squad cars pa­trolled. His fa­ther’s eyes scoured the land for his pre­cise lo­ca­tion. A lark, a hare, a stone . . . ”

This use of land­marks is also a key fea­ture of Gar­rett Carr’s re­cent The Rule of the Land where he too walks the Border, fo­cus­ing on the fea­tures which de­mar­cate the bound­aries there.

Carr, in his open­ing chap­ter, notes that the Border he is see­ing to­day is “in a peace­ful yet frag­ile mo­ment” be­fore Brexit up­ends ev­ery­thing. In one per­sonal mo­ment, the red soil of a Border cross­ing brings to mind a mem­ory of his fa­ther buy­ing a car which has been parked up, hid­den, in a plan­ta­tion of trees in “ban­dit coun­try”. The clearly il­le­gal trans­ac­tion brings the older man some joy: “The Border had beaten him by be­ing there be­fore he was born,” Carr says, “but he claimed some vi­tal­ity for him­self by out­smart­ing it in small ways.” Even if that means sor­ties along unap­proved roads, strung like tightropes across the Border.

For me, the Border has al­ways been lim­i­nal, a point of tran­si­tion. The Good Fri­day agree­ment, in ways, al­lowed us to feel we had moved be­yond it a lit­tle, through it, that while it was still in ex­is­tence, it could not be per­ceived, a state of af­fairs mod­er­ates on both sides were happy to ac­cept in re­turn for peace.

It is telling then that the only peo­ple in the UK to have re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing with a hard border voted against see­ing its re­turn.

Trib­al­is­man­d­sec­tar­i­an­ism

And for all the talk of tech­nol­ogy and fric­tion­less bound­aries after Brexit, we should be in no doubt that, what­ever of the phys­i­cal struc­ture, the psy­cho­log­i­cal Border is al­ready hard­en­ing.

Trib­al­ism and sec­tar­i­an­ism are not far below the sur­face here, as shown by the im­pact on the UUP vote when Mike Nes­bitt sug­gested his sup­port­ers con­sider trans­fer­ring their vote to the SDLP, an olive branch which ar­guably cost him his po­si­tion and the party a num­ber of seats in an elec­tion which the Belfast Tele­graph called “a day of disas­ter” for the party. The march­ing sea­son this year has seen an in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of it with out­breaks of vi­o­lence by both sides in Belfast and Derry and the re­cip­ro­cal burn­ing of Tri­colours and Union Jacks on 11th Night and in­tern­ment bon­fires re­spec­tively. UVF flags hang from lamp­posts and IRA slo­gans are daubed once more on walls. If we look at who sup­ported Brexit in the North, we find fig­ures on the ex­tremes of both sides, pa­tiently wait­ing the re­cruit­ment drive which a Border, whether phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal, will bring.

The wounds of 30 years of vi­o­lence in North­ern Ire­land are cov­ered with the flim­si­est of new skin, but the hurt is still raw, even after 20 years of peace. For those wounds to heal at all, the coun­try needed time to ac­cli­ma­tise to peace.

I wrote my novel, Lit­tle Girl Lost, after hear­ing about a num­ber of in­ci­dents dur­ing the heavy win­ter of 2010 when lo­cal chil­dren were found wan­der­ing out­side in the snow in their night­clothes, sleep walk­ing though bliz­zard con­di­tions.

In a news re­port, the doc­tor who treated one such child com­mented that, for the first 40 min­utes or so after she was re­cov­ered and brought in­doors, the child made no sound. Then, sud­denly, she started scream­ing. The de­lay, the doc­tor said, was due to “post­poned pain”. The child’s body had been so numbed, it needed to ac­cli­ma­tise to nor­mal­ity be­fore it could regis­ter the pain it had been un­able to feel.

It was, for me, a metaphor for the North. After the Good Fri­day agree­ment, many of us were so numbed by the vi­o­lence of the past we were just glad to have sur­vived it.

Only as we, as a so­ci­ety, be­came ac­cli­ma­tised to nor­malcy did we be­gin to regis­ter the pain of our com­pro­mises: con­cerns about cul­tural ero­sion, the early re­lease of pris­on­ers, the block­ing of so­cial jus­tice is­sues through abuse of ve­toes, how to deal with legacy is­sues.

And, if as claimed, the vic­tor writes his­tory, what hap­pens when ev­ery side at­tempts to frame the end of vi­o­lence as their vic­tory? The ab­sence of a sin­gle clear vic­tor in the North means com­pet­ing ver­sions of his­tory, and dis­agree­ments over the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the past, flour­ished.

The re­cent ar­gu­ments about legacy is­sues as ev­i­denced by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment and DUP’s claims that the His­tor­i­cal En­quires Team was dis­pro­por­tion­ately in­ves­ti­gat­ing sol­diers re­flect that. (The DUP claimed 90 per cent of cases in­volved the army, while the BBC fig­ures sug­gest a fig­ure closer to 30 per cent).

Truth­com­mis­sion

It is here where writ­ers be­come most im­por­tant. In the ab­sence of a truth com­mis­sion in the North, it is up to writ­ers to tip­toe be­tween the con­flict­ing ver­sions of his­tory and to tell the truth of the past as we saw it, whether that means con­sid­er­ing the im­pact of the past on the present, or as Adrian McKinty is do­ing in his su­perla­tive Sean Duffy se­ries, re­vis­it­ing and re­liv­ing events of the past with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight.

And if writ­ers are in­deed our truth com­mis­sion, their truth of the Border is not that it was a place of se­cu­rity and unity, but one of di­vi­sion, crime and vi­o­lence. And yet, there are those now wish­ing to re­in­force that very Border again, psy­cho­log­i­cally if not phys­i­cally.

My great­est con­cern is that Brexit will force those of us who were pre­pared to move for­ward and shelf old al­le­giances and as­pi­ra­tions in the name of peace to look once more to the tribe, to re­treat back into our own com­mu­ni­ties be­cause the hard­en­ing of the Border in any sense re­quires a re­asser­tion of a sin­gle iden­tity.

The Good Fri­day agree­ment may not have been per­fect, its com­pro­mises dif­fi­cult to swal­low, but it walked the tightrope of the Border (a con­struct as­so­ci­ated with vi­o­lence, crim­i­nal­ity and di­vi­sion in the lit­er­ary psy­che of the coun­try) with some skill.

Brexit is the wil­ful cut­ting of that tightrope while the coun­try still bal­ances pre­car­i­ously in the mid­dle, with no safety net in place. I do be­lieve we could nav­i­gate the is­sues that cur­rently be­devil the North, given time, space and a sense of fair­ness and bal­ance.

That those who ad­vo­cate the re­turn of a Border at such a time are si­mul­ta­ne­ously ab­di­cat­ing any re­spon­si­bil­ity for the pos­si­ble con­se­quences is, to me, ut­terly rep­re­hen­si­ble.

And while those same peo­ple, es­pous­ing Brexit, have wil­fully ig­nored a plethora of is­sues, for many of us in North­ern Ire­land, the fragility of the tightrope we cur­rently cross is by far the most press­ing and po­ten­tially the most dan­ger­ous.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ISTOCK

Prom­ise of the new: the Hands Across the Di­vide mon­u­ment in Carlisle Square, Derry, by sculp­tor Mau­rice Har­ron.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: MCBRIDE/MIRRORPIX/GETTY IM­AGES; KEY­STONE FEA­TURES/GETTY IM­AGES

Left: Bri­tish army sol­diers blow up an ‘unap­proved road’ on the Border in Oc­to­ber 1971. Below: A mem­ber of the RUC stands guard at a customs post in Septem­ber 1961.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: CHARLES MCQUILLAN/GETTY IM­AGES

Above: Nov­el­ist Brian McGilloway: “In the ab­sence of a truth com­mis­sion in the North, it is up to writ­ers to tip­toe be­tween the con­flict­ing ver­sions of his­tory and to tell the truth of the past as we saw it.” Left: A sign call­ing for no border in Ire­land

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