Opinion Comment

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Fergal Keane: 'Precious prize of peace that must be saved'

On the road from Belfast to Dublin in 1989, something lifted inside when you passed the Border
On the road from Belfast to Dublin in 1989, something lifted inside when you passed the Border

Fergal Keane

The Border, as I first saw it, hardly existed at all. I was packed into a bus heading north surrounded by teenage girls from St Paul's School in Greenhills, Dublin. My mother taught English there and on this occasion sought to advance her pupils' understanding of the island on which they lived.

It was the early spring of 1968 or thereabouts, before the first civil rights marches and the onset of disaster. I was seven years old and an easy mark for giggling girls looking for a boy to tease.

I knew nothing of the politics of the time. I cannot remember the North being talked about at home before the Troubles began.

Two years earlier, unknown to me, there had been a foreshadowing of disaster to come. While down south we were commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the UVF murdered two innocent Catholics, John Scullion and Peter Ward, and Matilda Gould, a Protestant pensioner killed in error.

Of that first trip in 1968, I remember very little apart from a customs stop, the red post boxes, a Union Jack fluttering on a cricket pavilion somewhere in Co Down and a visit to a model soldier shop in Belfast. On the way back we stopped near Warrenpoint to take the sea air and - odd little boy that I was - I hunted for crabs and small fish under the rocks while the girls giggled some more.

That was my first trip north. There wouldn't be another for more than a decade. The bigots and the killers shrank our island and turned us away from each other. Southerners made hops to Newry for shopping and petrol but Northern Ireland was for most an unfathomable and hostile place.

In the early 1980s I made a couple of trips to see Munster play Ulster at Ravenhill. I went up from Limerick with the legendary publican and Young Munster club man Charlie St George. But we didn't stay over. We'd drink a couple of pints in The Crown and head back on the train south.

And then in the middle of that decade I took myself off to live in Belfast. The usual suspects were still killing and terrorising. That was when I made an intimate acquaintance with the Border - the sentry towers of South Armagh, the choppers skimming across the fields and decanting troops and policemen, the craters and barricades on unapproved roads, the winter nights returning north when we would be signalled by green and red lights, stop and go, at the fortified entrance to Middletown, the sangar at Aughnacloy from where a soldier shot Aidan McAnespie in 1988, the sudden appearance of special forces soldiers with blackened faces on a little road near Cullaville, hands signalling us to stop, weapons at the ready.

In those days you crossed the Border south and exhaled. Something lifted inside. Going back up was always a tightening. Sometimes, when the IRA was active, you sat in the queue wondering: will they hit them now with mortars while we are sitting here?

That stuff has gone. I don't believe it is coming back anytime soon. Precisely because enough people are still alive today remember how awful it was. And they can see how much better life is now. For our leaders to warn of the dangers of political violence returning in the event of a hard border is a mistake. It gives the republican dissidents - the presumed source of any future violence - a stature they don't deserve. The real argument against a hard border should be based on hope not fear. Tell us about what that open road from Belfast to Dublin can help us build. Speak about the island of shared ambition and enterprise.

While you are at it Leo and Micheal and Mary Lou and Arlene and Teresa and Jeremy, tell us what you plan to do about the hardest borders of all - the peace lines you see dividing communities in north and west Belfast and in Derry, and the other invisible lines running through towns and villages across the North, the borders between neighbours living in the same place and whose leaders cannot find a way to share power again.

The Brexit saga has deepened divides on the island. There is no doubt about that. It has also consumed all of the oxygen. Think back to the immense energy devoted to brokering the Good Friday Agreement and try to imagine such focus and determination now.

But simply avoiding a hard border cannot be enough. I don't worry that the dissidents are about to stage a successful insurgency, border or no border. But neither do I believe that peace is an eternal given in the North. More than three and a half thousand people died on the way to power-sharing and the hope of co-existence.

My nightmare is that we are in one of those long periods of relative quiet with no private armies and the absence of killing but where the underlying enmities continue to fester. They will do that as long as the power- sharing executive sits idle.

Maybe not in the next decade but in another decade or two the killing could start again. When the lived truth of the Troubles has faded and fresh narratives of victimhood have been forged on each side, young men steeped in warped myths may come forward to kill once more. And if that happens the entire political class of these islands will stand indicted. Remember now what was, just how bloody awful it became and how great the prize that must be saved.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

Sunday Independent

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