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Ireland’s invisible frontier

Irish border: A 'No hard Border' poster is seen below a road sign on the Irish side of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland near Bridgend on 16 October 2019. REUTERS/Phil Noble
A 'No hard Border' poster is seen below a road sign on the Irish side of the Irish border near Bridgend on 16 October 2019. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Cathal Henry grew up in Newry, a small city near the border with the Republic of Ireland. ‘Growing up near the border in the 1990s, experiencing armed checkpoints felt normal,’ he says. ‘It’s only since they disappeared that it became apparent how abnormal they really were.’ 

During the 30-year conflict known as The Troubles, checkpoints and watchtowers peppered the 500-kilometre border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the independent Republic of Ireland.

The separation line was carved across the island a century ago, as most of Ireland successfully won independence from Britain. It cuts through rivers, streams, fields and roads (in a similar fashion to the ruler-straight, post-colonial borders that neatly divide Algeria and Mali, Namibia and Angola, and countless other nations). Many farms straddle the two jurisdictions, and some homes sit right on top of it – with the kitchen in one place and the living room in the other.

‘I had school friends who had to travel in along roads that zig-zagged repeatedly over the border, so they dealt with this daily,’ Cathal tells me.

Things have moved on since then. In the years following the Good Friday Agreement peace accords in the late 1990s, border infrastructure was gradually dismantled and the division between the two jurisdictions has since become ‘usefully blurred’. Newry has prospered as a retail centre located between Dublin and Belfast, the first stop on various cross-border rail and bus services.

For most of the tens of thousands of people who pass over it every day – to buy goods, go to work, holiday, or move in search of a better life – crossing the Irish border is now a painless exercise. The only giveaway may be a road sign switching from miles to kilometres, or the ping from a mobile phone changing networks.

So it’s no surprise that since a narrow 2016 referendum result in favour of the UK leaving the European Union, there has been considerable fear and anxiety about the return of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland.

Yet for many on our island, the reality of the Irish border never disappeared.

Who can cross?

The current ‘invisibility’ of the post-conflict Irish border hides certain realities. It’s still an international boundary between two states. The six counties of the northeast are in a different jurisdiction from the 26 of the south, with different laws and different parliaments. So, many migrants are already unable to cross the line legally.

‘The border has always presented challenges for asylum-seekers in Ireland,’ says Lucky Khambule, from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI). It’s particularly acute for those living close to the Irish border, who are forced to take circuitous, financially ruinous routes to Dublin for appointments.

Falling foul of the border can come at a high price. Every year, among the hundreds held at Larne detention centre in Northern Ireland, are people who live in the South and have crossed the border into the North, mistakenly believing that ‘freedom of movement’ applied equally to them.

A group of volunteers, who offer support to those held at Northern Ireland’s only immigration detention centre, located on Hope Street, say they regularly meet people who were not even aware they were crossing an international frontier when they were picked up.

For migrants in Ireland, the ‘friendly neighbourhood image of the post-conflict border’ does not apply, explains Bernadette McAliskey, who runs a migrant support organization in Dungannon, County Tyrone.

The ‘hard border’ in Ireland that is being so firmly and vociferously opposed as unacceptable, is in fact already in place – for some people. The Gardaí (Irish police) and immigration officials have been stopping cross-border buses, cars, and trains on the land border for the past 15 years.

Singled out

But how you experience this border depends on how you look. Irish and British nationals are not required to carry their passports, while others are. In practice, this means that those from religious and ethnic-minority backgrounds, who don’t satisfy the police’s impression of what Irish people ‘look or sound like’ during these checks, are put in the perverse situation of having to carry passports to prove they don’t have to.

Human rights bodies in both jurisdictions have long been critical of these operations, repeatedly questioning their legality and the visible racial profiling that occurs.

Anna (not her real name), who holds dual UK-Greek nationality, has first-hand experience of similar phenomena on Ireland’s sea border. She gets anxious while travelling at the best of times, and remembers how the weather was particularly bad one winter’s day in late 2016 on the ferry crossing from Northern Ireland to Scotland, as she returned home after a weekend visiting her partner’s family.

At Belfast harbour, Anna noticed that police officers at the ferry port were asking certain people for ID. People who looked white Irish or white British were waved through, but she was pulled aside by police officers.

‘They didn’t address their questions to me, which was quite jarring,’ she recalls. ‘They were addressing them to my partner [who is white Northern Irish], asking “Is this the lady’s name?”. And I said “Yeah, that’s my name! Is this OK?” And they were like, “Well we are going to need to ask you some more questions.”’ They asked for her travel documents, destination, what she had been up to in Belfast, and so on. The situation was tense. She noted there were no questions for her partner.

After they were allowed to board, Anna says she looked back to see a clear pattern – only passengers who were visibly from ethnic-minority backgrounds were being stopped. The white Irish/British were waved through.

‘It felt very much that only certain people were “suspect”,’ she says.

Perhaps due to the post-conflict sensitivity of British forces performing checks on the land border, immigration and police officers have for years conducted checks on people crossing the sea border at the ports of Belfast and Larne, and many more miles across the sea at ports in Liverpool and Cairnryan, Scotland.

The dividing line between physical territories poses problems. But those migrants in Northern Ireland may face a different border that presents an even bigger problem: as in the rest of the UK, immigration control is increasingly policed in-country.

Known as the ‘hostile environment’, this approach to enforcement was entrenched by a set of policies introduced by Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, which force health professionals, teachers, employers and landlords to check the immigration status of their patients, pupils, staff and tenants.

With increased checks on the Irish border seen as politically undesirable, it may be that these in-country checks increase instead. They risk turning Northern Ireland – where one in five farm workers is an EU migrant – into ‘one big border’, as one civil-rights group put it.

A report by a UK-government advisory group recently hinted at such a scenario. It stated that post-Brexit immigration controls on European citizens would not require border infrastructure as ‘rights to work are checked in the workplace’.

The prospect has alarmed a parliamentary oversight committee, which in March 2018 stressed ‘residents of Northern Ireland should not be subject to more onerous documentary checks to determine entitlement to stay and to access public services and the labour market than anywhere else in the UK’.

‘There’s a real risk,’ concurs Colin Harvey, professor of law at Queen’s University Belfast and an expert on the issue, ‘that things are going to get worse post-Brexit’.


‘Brexit has changed everything,’ according to an open letter signed by 1,000 public figures from Ireland (North, South and diaspora) published last November. ‘The constitutional, political, social and economic status quo on the island of Ireland is now in flux.’

Ironically, one proposal to deal with the effects of Brexit is to eliminate the Irish border completely. At the moment, the topic of Irish reunification is provoking conversations across the country on a scale not seen in decades – if ever.

According to recent polls, a majority of people – North and South – now support a united Ireland.4 A majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, and some who would previously have been opposed to a united Ireland see it as a way back into the European Union.

Yet this widespread resistance to a hard border for ‘us’ is not fully taking into account the extent of the checks that are happening now, and their impact on migrants and citizens of colour. Anna describes this oversight as a ‘massive blindspot’ during the Brexit debates.

This challenge is felt by Nomaxabiso Maye, a campaigner for reproductive justice for migrant and ethnic-minority women in Ireland. ‘We are most likely to be unemployed, we are most likely to be homeless. All the other social issues that are out there – we are affected 10 times more than Irish nationals,’ she says. Yet she feels that when mainstream issues are discussed and debated – like Brexit, the Irish border – the voices of those most affected and most marginalized are omitted.

People move, and cross borders in the process. That is a fact of life, not least in Ireland with our long histories of emigration, and today, when around 30,000 people cross the ‘frictionless’ Irish border each day.

Right now, there is a uniform resistance to threats of implementing a hard border, with signs on highways calling for ‘no borders in Ireland’. At a political moment largely driven by arguments to close borders, this has symbolic value and real meaning for border communities, on whom the impact of a hard border would be devastating.

Yet for ‘no borders in Ireland’ to have real meaning for everyone who shares this island, its proponents need to understand how – and for whom – the border exists today.

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