Belfast Telegraph

Want to know what a hard border looks like? The 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis holds the key

Pol O Muiri doesn't remember anyone complaining when Northern Ireland had the quarantine lifted while restrictions applied elsewhere in the United Kingdom

Officials pour disinfectant at the port of Larne during the foot-and-mouth emergency
Officials pour disinfectant at the port of Larne during the foot-and-mouth emergency

A hard border? Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

I'm not talking, by the way, about the hard, militarised border that used to scar the countryside.

Yes, it was traumatic, but it was not the only hard border we have had to get used to.

In February/March 2001 there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in south Armagh, beside the-then not-just-as-hard border.

It was part of a foot-and-mouth outbreak that had begun in Britain in February of the same year. Overnight a hard border, a hard economic border, descended - one that the Republic of Ireland brought down like an iron curtain over the not-just-so-hard border.

Given the importance the beef and dairy industry played - and plays - in the Republic's economy, it was no surprise.

It did not want foot-and-mouth getting a toe-hold among southern herds.

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It acted swiftly and with the sort of methodical planning that one, well, associates with the Germans rather than the Irish.

The BBC news site of the time gives more than enough hints of what went on: "Irish premier Bertie Ahern tells the Irish Parliament that more than 1,000 police and soldiers are on duty at border crossings, ports and airports" and "Irish Defence Minister Michael Smyth criticises Northern Ireland border controls as not being rigorous enough to prevent foot-and-mouth spreading into the Irish Republic. He calls for a greater Royal Ulster Constabulary presence at the border."

Who, of course, would blame the Dublin Government for acting with such alacrity? Huge money and the livelihood of many people was at stake.

Of course, there was a knock-on effect for those crossing the border.

As a regular rail commuter at the time I well-remember the train being stopped just as we got to the border.

Rather elderly southerners would board to wake up us dozing northerners and check that we were not carrying contraband: milk and dairy products of any sort.

"Do you have any cheese sandwiches?" No, I had no cheese sandwiches. When we got to Dublin we were shepherded down the platform onto a long carpet that was covered in disinfectant before we were let loose among the herds of cattle that roamed around Dublin city centre (yes, you are right; there are no cattle in Dublin city centre).

It was a routine that carried on for as long as it carried on. We had no idea when it might end and we had no choice in it beginning. The train was stopped, the southerners boarded, armed with plastic bags, the carriages were swept for explosives ... no, I mean milk ... and we were let on our way. Those crossing in cars and lorries will have similar tales.

Of course, we commuters went mad about this delay. We regularly attacked the searchers with bottles of semi-skimmed, bricks of brie and chucked lumps of cheddar at our tormentors before razing the entire region to the ground.

Oh, no. Wait, we didn't.

We sat there and we co-operated. We all knew how dangerous the disease was and the need to minimise its effect. It was just one of those things that you had to put up with.

Further, we were a generation that had been regularly stopped and searched - on the street, in the car, on the way into town. It was nothing to us.

Honestly, when you have been stopped by a patrol of Royal Marines wanting to know your name and address, being stopped by some softy southerner asking about cheese sandwiches is nothing.

The stop, search and surrender your dairy products went on for as long as it went on.

The words "hard border" and "backstop" had not been invented. The policy would continue until the disease was stopped. The border was not hard, but we were; hardened by life and all that meant way back then.

However, the point is that the Government in the Republic acted immediately to protect its economy, to secure its side of the border with police and troops and complained that authorities in the north were too lax on their own border controls.

Dublin acted in its national interest without hesitation and no one thought that it should do otherwise.

Still, can anyone imagine the reaction were Theresa May to announce that, in the national interest of the UK, she was just going to follow the same plan as the Irish Government did in 2001? Surely, what is sauce for the Irish goose is also sauce for the British gander?

Of course, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Northern Ireland also had grave implications for the local economy, which was - and is - also heavily reliant on agriculture.

However, the EU found a way out of the mess for all concerned and, at the end of March 2001, the BBC reported: "The European Commission agrees that Northern Ireland can have regional status and will be able to begin exporting produce again within a week if the province proves it is successful in containing its one outbreak."

Was that a backstop that tore the UK apart?

Or just a sensible solution that recognised that farmers in Co Antrim could be treated differently to farmers in Essex, because of different circumstances?

I do not remember unionist politicians being particularly annoyed by the suggestion.

After all many farmers were - and are - from unionist backgrounds and their livelihoods were in danger, too.

As Brexit approaches, there is no doubt that issues around the border need to be addressed effectively.

The changes, whatever they may be after Brexit, will affect the lives and jobs of many.

That said, would it be too much to ask politicians and commentators to put a (back)stop to the hysteria?

Pol O Muiri is a writer and journalist

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