A cycle tour of the NI Border/North-South Frontier/Squiggly line…

Andy McMurray is an Alliance Councillor in Newry, Mourne and Down Council.

I like cycling. I like spending nights under canvas. I am 12th generation Planter. I like to get between a Point A and a Point B without really knowing what lies in between.

The squiggly line which runs across Ulster turned 100 this year. Since its inception it has managed to predominate the political discussion here. However, it is not the year’s only salient milestone. This year I turned 40. Given the potential for a midlife/existential crisis in both our timelines I thought I would spend a bit of time checking the other out.

For many who are politically minded this squiggly line is their raison d’etre. But how much can you know about something/someone if you don’t journey along with it/them?

I set myself the goal to travel along and as close, as is practicably possible, to the squiggly line. In time-honoured Alliance fashion, I am genuinely neutral on the border question. That said, I think it is quite legitimate to be neutral on the constitutional question, while at the same time doing all I can to understand it both as an abstract construct and a physical entity. Which I think this journey encompasses. For many their political ideology is arrived at due not to their position on a left/right spectrum regarding economic and/or social issues, rather it decided by their aspirational relationship – whether to dismantle or ensure it remains – with the border. While at the same time it has, and continues to, affect the relationships between people and communities that live in its shadow. Given the relatively wee* geographical size of this country/corner of the island, the shadow extends from the summit of Slieve Beagh (arguably the squiggly line’s most central high point) to all shores of the island. This, for me, is neatly encapsulated in the Irish saying: ‘ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine – it is in the shelter of each other that the people live’ From the moment I came across this saying (kudos to Padraig O’Tuama) it has always struck as a profound statement in how we interact with each other within our society. It was a consistently repeated mantra in my head as I planned the route and then as I meandered along the back roads of Ulster (and occasionally Leitrim). Whether it’s a Union of People or a Shared Island: you can’t lead what you don’t understand. And you can’t understand what you haven’t experienced.

My route, within reason, stayed as close as was practicably possible to the border, while avoiding main roads and trying to pick up some of the smaller gravel tracks here and there. Point A was to be the County Bridge at the Southern end of Fathom Forest between Armagh and Louth. My end at Point B which was to be the fairly nondescript road junction outside Muff on the County Donegal/Londonderry/Derry border, which also, as it happened, turned out to be the only place where the road on the border crossing remains blocked (see photo below).

 

Chat was had with the occasional person along the way and, perhaps given the novelty of living so close to the border has long since passed, most were just glad to have an ease of travel within their locale which was missing when a more fortified squiggly line was in operation. Indeed, the only tangible piece of advice in relation to the practicalities of the modern-day border came in the shape of a local shopkeeper from a North-South frontier village telling me that I wouldn’t thank her for refilling my water bottle from her tap as even she wouldn’t drink it. However, if I went up the road a bit to a garage where the outside tap is serviced by mains water from the North it would be much more palatable. Make of that what you will if/should a future border poll ever take place.

But what of the shelter we create for each other within this society? Doesn’t matter where you are, we have a thing about expressing our constitutional aspirations very publicly. I don’t dig semi-permanent overt signs (flags, placards, etc) of political allegiances. Never have. Given our troubled history I don’t think it a particularly cool thing to do. Much, quite rightly, is made of how perceived territory is marked out. A minority of it garners media attention. Most, for whatever reasons, goes noticed – but not commented on. I undertook a very rudimental tally of the markings out of the territory along the way (national flags, commemorative flags, political placards, memorials/shrines to terrorists/volunteers *delete as appropriate to reader sensibility*) Of one side I lost count. Of the other side I counted two. The colours and constitutional affiliation are, in my view, irrelevant to be mentioned here. For me the question is this: Are the symbols of political allegiances by which you overtly publicly express creating any shelter for others in our society? The simple answer is that they don’t, nor are they intending to, create any semblance of shelter. Indeed, ‘…an excess of reverential piety or defiant righteousness does little to help healing.’ (Ferriter, 27/8/21, Irish Times)

Of course, the bigger matter is that the Stormont Executive hasn’t released the now long written report into Flags and Emblems.

The answers for our society’s future lies within our different communities. But how best to ask the questions?

More often than not the squiggly line is merely a ditch between two fields (at times it is more grandiose, such as when the River Derg or the Cuilcagh/Binn Chuilceagh ridge takes up the mantle) Our solutions to the issue of territorial demarcation will not be found by shouting at each other from across a ditch. Rather, it will be having difficult conversations and showing leadership within our respected own communities first. Given I have a foot in both camps, I guess I’ll need to be doing a lot of listening and questioning over the next wee while.

I’m up for that.

Anyhow, here’s a picture of something that does provide shelter for the other without ambiguity. Well, perhaps it doesn’t if you have a phobia of chicks and cockerels or a misplaced aversion to rural graffiti art (kudos to Sliabh Beagh Arts)

Postscript: *wee* I propose that anyone who wishes to use the term ‘Our wee country’ should really reflect on the misnomer of what they are saying. Not from any constitutional faux pas, but rather having spent 4 days negotiating the NI Border/North-South Frontier/Squiggly line under my own steam and unsupported (apart from my long-suffering wife) I can assure you that it certainly doesn’t bloody well feel wee to get round it!