LOUTH, IRELAND - JANUARY 26: The Border Communities against Brexit group hold an anti-Brexit protest on January 26, 2019 in Louth, Ireland. British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to return to Westminster with new proposals for the UK's withdrawal from the European Union early next week. The Border Communties against Brexit say the local community will not tolerate a hard border. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
The Belfast Agreement and joining the single market brought a boom in cross-border trade and a blurring of the lines between British, Irish, Northern Irish and European identities © Getty

As a foreign correspondent I’ve spent my life crossing borders, but none more regularly than the one dividing Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a demarcation that now threatens the Brexit deal.

I grew up in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s when the 500km border, which snakes across fields and divides communities, was notorious for terrorist incidents, smuggling and security checks. Every summer my family dashed across the border to Donegal — a welcome sanctuary from rioting that accompanied July’s Protestant parades — and there were shopping trips down South when taxes or currency swings made petrol or other goods cheaper.

As a child from the Protestant British community, taught not to fear the military presence, I enjoyed queueing at the crossing points. I tried to spot camouflaged soldiers or glimpse an army helicopter as it came in to land. It was like a James Bond movie. With no close family member losing their life in the Troubles, I didn’t link these outposts with the carnage that cost 3,500 lives.

A few years later, I chose to go to university in Dublin; the border became more sinister. I spent hours stranded on the Belfast to Dublin train as security forces cleared the line of suspect devices planted by the IRA. I nearly missed my graduation ceremony, which coincided with the Loyalist protests at Drumcree: my mum and I were forced to skirt roadblocks to cross the border.

By then, news reports of sectarian murders of people my age sickened my stomach, particularly since it was obvious that peace was what everyone wanted. The border was often the dumping ground for the mutilated bodies of victims.

The hard border remained in place in the mid-1990s but for me the psychological divisions that many northern Protestants harbour about the South had begun to dissolve. I made friends at college who were obviously from “down south” (few of them had ever ventured north). As a history student, I researched the Belfast Presbyterians behind the 1798 rebellion, who were passionate about Irish culture and had fought and died alongside Catholics for a united Ireland. Crossing the border became more than just a matter of geography. In the Republic, I learnt about my own history, which up to then had been an instruction in selective presentation.


The 1998 Belfast Agreement, the peace deal that ended three decades of violence, led to the dismantling of army watchtowers along the border. The customs posts had already disappeared: the UK and Ireland joined the EU single market in 1993. There followed a golden age in UK-Irish relations, a boom in cross-border trade and a blurring of the lines between British, Irish, Northern Irish and European identities.

I am a mix of all of these, rather than a “citizen of nowhere”, to quote UK prime minister Theresa May’s derogatory label for people who move between countries. I married a Catholic from the Irish Republic, lived in Dublin for several years and have spent the past decade reporting from Brussels and Australia. My children appreciate Irish, British, European, and now Australian culture. It’s a complex but beautiful blend.

When I returned home with my children for a holiday this month, we crossed the border several times, visiting friends and family all over the island. Life is very different for them after 20 years of peace. One of my Protestant cousins has also married a woman from the Republic and several more are dating Northern Irish Catholics. Belfast has become renowned for its nightlife, rather than violence. And the border has receded in people’s imagination.

That was until Brexit. The UK’s vote to leave the EU threatens stability in Northern Ireland, which voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. Borders in my hometown are synonymous with murder and division. No one wants them back.

Anyone who has any knowledge of Irish history knows a hard border would become an immediate terrorist target, a recruiting tool for dissident Republicans and a rallying call for paramilitaries. But for me the greatest danger from Brexit and the bitterness it is producing is the recreation of the psychological boundaries that have dissolved over two decades of peace on all parts of our islands.

jamie.smyth@ft.com

Letters in response to this column:

United Irishmen’s cause was independent republic / From Colin Armstrong, Belfast, UK

Brexit upheaval revives ancient hurt in Ireland / From Alison Hackett, Dublin, Ireland

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