Belfast Telegraph

Hard border must never return- Irish minister recalls how towns 'engulfed' by fear during Troubles

Heather Humphries
Heather Humphries
The scene of the Monaghan bomb in 1974
A border crossing in 1987
Senator Billy Fox, who was shot dead in 1974

By Cormac McQuinn

Irish minister Heather Humphreys has spoken for the first time of her personal experience of the old hard border with Northern Ireland and why it must not return post- Brexit.

Amid fears that the UK will crash out of the European Union without a deal - threatening jobs, prosperity and even the possibility of renewed violence - Ms Humphreys laid out in stark terms why there must be no reinstatement of the border of the past.

Ms Humphreys also said she believes there will be a united Ireland at some point in the future, but branded Sinn Fein's call for a border poll in the event of a no-deal Brexit "inflammatory".

Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal with the EU is hanging by a thread due to Westminster opposition to the so-called backstop provision to avoid a hard border.

Ms Humphreys, a Fine Gael Cavan-Monaghan TD, grew up in the border region and knows the impact of the old customs and security checkpoints, as well as the fear that engulfed communities on both sides during the Troubles.

The business, enterprise and innovation minister recalled how crossing the border in her childhood meant visiting relatives and getting treats like Milky Bars and Maltesers that couldn't be bought in the Republic. It was a more innocent time of butter smuggling and bikes being bought in Northern Ireland and cycled across the border to avoid customs tariffs.

"Then of course the Troubles started and I remember distinctly going with my father to see the customs posts that were burned out," she said. "They were the first things to go... and it was a big thing at the time."

She said checks on the border became more burdensome for people going about their daily business. Travelling "a few miles up the road to Newtownbutler" could see waits of anything up to an hour, depending on the traffic.

She said the border during the years of violence affected communities, towns had their hinterlands cut off, and businesses declined and closed.

Ms Humphreys added: "There was a certain fear in communities as well that the Troubles would spread and what was happening in Northern Ireland would be replicated south of the border."

On occasions this happened.

Ms Humphreys said one of her childhood friends lost her father in the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings, for which loyalist paramilitaries later claimed responsibility.

Earlier that same year, the IRA had murdered Fine Gael senator Billy Fox.

Ms Humphreys said: "I remember my father coming in and saying: 'Billy Fox was shot. He's been shot dead'."

She said it sent "shock-waves right across the community".

She said there were instances of violence in the Republic but it was "obviously not to the same extent as what happened in Northern Ireland".

Ms Humphreys represented the Irish government at Armistice Day Commemorations last year in Enniskillen, the scene of the horrific IRA bombing on the same day in 1987. She said the atrocity "really would sicken you to the bottom of your stomach".

She said she had a similar feeling when, as culture minister, she visited a museum in Belfast for centenary commemorations surrounding the Home Rule Bill and wandered into an exhibition on the Troubles.

"It brings it back to you, the awfulness of it and the loss of life and families torn apart. It was a terrible time."

Ms Humphreys did not predict a return to the full-scale violence of the Troubles in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

But she said that peace is "fragile" and "there are those who will seek at some point to pull it down". She has accompanied EU politicians - including outgoing Belgian prime minister Charles Michel - to the border to show them first hand the free movement and lack of physical infrastructure.

She said at the moment the only way you know you have crossed the border is that the road signs change from kilometres to miles and your mobile phone changes network.

"There's nobody stopping you, they're not asking you where you're coming from, where you're going, what's your name, checking your car, opening the boot. We don't have that any more. That's gone."

Ms Humphreys said visiting dignitaries were told by a former senior PSNI officer how border infrastructure is the first thing that is targeted for violence.

How it "starts with the border symbol... and then it can escalate" to include attacks on security guards or police brought in to protect cameras or electronic equipment.

She said: "We have to ensure that we don't have a hard border," adding: "We have to work harder and more closely with everybody."

She conceded that it was a "worrying time" but said people in border communities are resilient and she is working with businesses to find solutions to potential Brexit difficulties.

What of Sinn Fein's call for a border poll in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

"That's inflammatory language. I don't think that serves any purpose. What we need to do is find ways to work together."

She added: "I'd like to see the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland."

In November, Ms Humphreys, a Presbyterian, reached out to unionists in a newspaper column, seeking to reassure them that efforts to avoid a post-Brexit hard border will not affect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the UK.

She says she believes there will be a united Ireland "at some stage in the future" but that it will be a choice for the people of Northern Ireland at that point.

Ms Humphreys said: "What I want to see is a united people. I want to see stronger relations built between us and Northern Ireland."

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