I’ve walked the Irish border – Brexiters are trampling on fragile territory | Garrett Carr

The good health of the frontier is rooted in the Good Friday agreement, and threatened by the contempt of those who don’t understand its emotional landscape

Before the Brexit referendum I began walking Ireland’s border. At the start I thought of the border as just a line but after a few dozen miles it began to become its own place, a narrow country with one language and two currencies. When the UK voted to leave the European Union, the ground seemed to contract under my feet, shrinking to just the line on the map once again.

The border landscape is almost entirely rural; farms, bogs and forest. The line itself is invisible, although usually following a feature, often a hedgerow or stream. I found many unofficial crossing places, wooden footbridges and new paths, and I felt north and south were getting to know each other again. There were also major road bridges that were so fresh they weren’t yet on Ordnance Survey maps. “For years and years I lived in a cul-de-sac,” a woman told me at her front gate, “but the new bridge was put up and I can go either way now.” The Good Friday agreement is 20 years old, and the bridge across the Blackwater river, only a few hundred feet from her house, was then eight years old. She could remember when it was opened. “It was bizarre really,” she said, “I’d dander over and meet people I hadn’t seen in years.”

Ireland’s border has been associated with crime, be it smuggling or terrorism. I can report my most dangerous encounter was with a goat. I still thought I sensed a heavy atmosphere of burnt-out aggression in some locations, and there is a definite discretion among borderland people. Discretion was important for a long time on the border. Everybody knew somebody who was probably involved in something. It was impossible not to. In conversation the meaning of a pause was understood, the sentences that faded before closing. Take into account too the fear of violence, sometimes close, sometimes in the middle distance, but always hovering. Discretion was about survival.

Halfway into my journey I arranged to meet a friend in a border-town cafe; he was driving up from Dublin. At our table, with other customers around, I was appalled by his unguarded statements and his loud voice – things that had never bothered me before. I realised that I had become acclimatised to the borderland’s restraint and political sensitivity.

Please note: it is sensitivity as opposed to secrecy. There are people carrying secrets certainly – I’m sure I met some – but for most the evasiveness comes from a lifetime of avoiding sore points. One evening I walked into a bar sited directly on the line of the border. I could pay for my pint in pounds or euros. A sign above the counter read “Please do not discuss politics”. Along the border two neighbours could be friends for 30 years and never once discuss how they vote. They know better. You might think this is a shortfall in their relationship; something for ever held back that means they are not truly friends. You might have a point.

This highlights one of the great treasures of the Good Friday agreement; it moved the conversations on. You did not have to pick one of two sides any more. Most people moved towards areas of consensus, the value of peace and an open border. “Sure there is no border any more,” one farmer told me. Strictly speaking this was untrue, and he was actually pointing towards the border at the time, where it ran with a river along the bottom of his field, but it was true enough that he could make the claim with confidence. The border is not there if your identity prefers it absent. On the other hand, if your identity depends on the border, then it is there for you.

This is a truly extraordinary arrangement to have arrived at, one that could not have been wholly designed in legislation or a peace accord. It took a massive act of group willing for the arrangement to slot together, and it takes ongoing willingness to keep it together. Any sort of border controls will hit it hard. It is delicate; it requires discretion. It probably will for another generation or two.

The good health of today’s border is rooted in the Good Friday agreement. So it is distressing to hear the agreement dismissed as a mere impediment to Brexit. The citizens of the borderland are used to being peripheral, or completely ignored, by the mainstream, but attacks on the Good Friday agreement and attempts to compare the border with boundaries of London districts are something else completely, something more like contempt. The average borderland farmer could do a better job at negotiating both the legal contracts and the social contracts required for an evolving frontier than any team the current British cabinet has produced. He or she would understand that the emotional landscape must also be factored in – while also knowing that you cannot let your negotiations sink into flag-waving and talk of vassal states.

My journey ended at Lough Foyle, a large estuary at the border’s north-western end, on a fine summer’s day, and the water was as flat as glass when I canoed out towards the open sea. For the whole journey it had been my principle to stick as close to the borderline as possible, but here I was free to drift. If you look at a map of the lough you’ll notice it has no borderline. The exact coordinates of the frontier are not set, nor are there plans to set them.

Most nations claim ownership of a certain amount of territory beyond their shores and so Lough Foyle, where Ireland north and south face each other closely, could easily be a subject of dispute. Instead a cross-border office has been created to manage the lough, one of six north-south bodies initiated by the Good Friday agreement. So the border is in the water somewhere – but, for the moment at least, everyone has better things to talk about.

• Garrett Carr is the author of The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border


Garrett Carr

The GuardianTramp

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