The Border Region as a microcosm of opinion across the island of Ireland…

I have a particular fondness for the border town of Clones; it was a place I frequently visited during my 14 years running the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. It was in the news earlier this month for all the wrong reasons. Two lovely teenage girls (one of them the daughter of Syrian refugees) were killed in a road accident at a notorious local blackspot on their way to their school’s ‘debs’ ball.

Clones is a pretty place. Anyone who has sat in the Diamond on a summer’s day and looked out over the small green hillsides of County Monaghan stretching away to the south and east will attest to that. It is also a town that has picked itself up off the floor several times in its recent history. In the 19th century it had been the hub of the railway network in Ulster – ‘the Crewe of the North’ – with over 40 trains passing through every day on lines linking it with Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Dundalk, Sligo, Bundoran, Enniskillen, Armagh and points in-between. In the early 1920s, before the newly drawn border started to destroy its economy, Clones was described by the Boundary Commission as the most prosperous town in the region.

But then came the border, and Clones became a deserted and neglected frontier outpost, forgotten by the new government in faraway Dublin, cut off from its natural hinterland in Fermanagh, with most of its people crossing into Northern Ireland to work and shop. The final blow was the onset of the Northern ‘Troubles’ at the beginning of the 1970s: three of the four roads leading out of the town went into Northern Ireland and were cratered by the British Army; 45 businesses closed in the course of the conflict; the town was twice bombed.

“Clones became, in effect, a microcosm of the conflict, exhibiting in sharp relief the experience of the Southern Border communities as a whole: loss of hinterland; waves of economic decline; disinvestment by the state; the effects of physical violence and tension arising from the militarization of the surrounding area; the fractured social connections arising from the road closures; a Protestant exodus”, wrote the authors of a 2005 study of the Southern border region, The Emerald Curtain.1

But since 1998 it has bounced back. The EU-funded cross-border Clones-Erne East Partnership invested in several innovative projects: notably the Peace Link, a multi-disciplinary sports complex aiming to build better relationships between people in the Monaghan-Fermanagh cross-border region using sport as the medium. The Upper Lough Erne to Clones section of the Ulster Canal was re-opened. The extremely hard-working Clones Family Resource Centre, headed by local woman Angela Graham – a model of its kind – was set up to address poverty and social exclusion, running everything from family support and mediation services to baby and toddlers groups, from ‘peace dialogues’ to women’s groups, from a men’s shed to a ‘hens’ shed. There is even a Clones Film Festival, now 22 years old (put the date in your diary: the bank holiday weekend, 26th-29th October).

Now the Clones Family Resource Centre have published a fascinating little book called Our Shared Way of Life: Listening to Border People (written by that excellent journalist, Denzil McDaniel, former editor of the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen). It features the views of over 40 people from the border region on a range of issues including unionism, nationalism, religion, sport, history, politics, major contemporary issues, the ‘border question’, new communities and the future of Ireland and the region.

As the book itself points out, this represents a microcosm of views across the whole island of Ireland, although with a border region slant. It brings out the complexity of views in a region that is viewed as peripheral to – and usually forgotten by – the centres of power and influence in London, Dublin and Belfast. And despite what outsiders might think of an area that has been traditionally deeply – even fiercely – divided between ‘green’ and ‘orange’, these views are not always along the expected binary lines.

In a short article like this, I am going to have to be selective. One thing that struck me was the difference between unionist and nationalist views on the state of morale of the two communities. Elizabeth, a young Fermanagh Protestant with an Orangeman father who doesn’t know how she would vote in a Border poll (although since Brexit she has carried an Irish passport), said: “Nationalists seem much more savvy. At the election count parties like Sinn Fein had young nationalist women topping the poll. They were very well turned-out, although that may not seem that important. But they were all immaculately dressed, and all came from an educated background and showed real authority. By comparison, unionists looked pale, male and stale.” In the west of Northern Ireland some Ulster Unionist candidates had anti-gay and anti-GAA attitudes (much less so in the east). She believed many young people “see unionism as a hopeless case.”

In contrast, Brenda, a Fermanagh Catholic, talked about how hopeless and helpless her community used to feel in the past, but now they have “total access to expressing who you are.” “We were a community, Kinawley, very united in our Irishness and nationality. It was just such a massive cohesiveness of togetherness – even though that was outwardly suppressed, you had such a kind of strength.”

Brian, a Protestant from the Fermanagh border area, admitted to feeling “a little bit jealous, especially [of] the GAA, the way they have communities and their parishes. I think the Protestant communities, we don’t really have that relationship as much. They have great camaraderie between them, and I feel a bit envious of that at times.”

Gerard, a Catholic nationalist with a small ‘n’ from County Derry, said he knows border region Catholics who would call themselves conservative on the basis of their “economic view of the world” and were happy to be part of the UK. But Brexit and the behaviour of the British government and the DUP have meant they would now “countenance a united Ireland – they wouldn’t have done that before. Some are actually being active supporters of it now.” He is “shocked at the DUP’s lack of strategy. The Sinn Fein thing is always to prove the North doesn’t work as an entity. The DUP is doing it for them, and it’s the lack of strategic vision to see they they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”

However he doesn’t think much of Sinn Fein’s strategy either. “Sinn Fein go out and do these memorials to IRA people. Is that supposed to make any single Protestant feel any more likely to want to join a united Ireland – particularly now when they are becoming the biggest party down there [in the Republic]?

There were relatively few comments about the 1971-1997 IRA border campaign, which took such a toll on local members of the RUC and UDR. John, a Protestant from Monaghan now living in Fermanagh, believes the legacy of the conflict is one-sided against Protestants. “A lot of men were murdered and forgot about. We have to forget and move on, whereas a lot of communities [he obviously means the Catholic community] want answers and want justice. They want compensation and they want to blame someone; whereas I have to live every day and meet the man (at the shop) that perpetrated those deeds.”

Derek is an unusual Fermanagh man, christened in the Church of Ireland but now an atheist with “a disdain for all religions equally”. His uncle, who was in the UDR, was shot dead by the IRA before he was born, and he grew up the shadow of that murder. A businessman, he believes the Protocol gives Northern Ireland a great opportunity: “All I see is opportunity. Why are none of our political leaders shouting about this opportunity? If we have to deal with this bullshit that is Brexit that was forced upon us – let’s make some lemonade with the lemons we’ve been given.”

Michelle is an unusually empathetic Fermanagh woman: as a northern Catholic who has worked on both sides of the border, she said “the people I most identified with were the Southern Protestants. Somebody said I understand their situation because I experienced the same, being a minority community.”

Sarah, a Fermanagh teacher who calls herself a humanist (she says the Republic is “streets ahead” of the North in terms of womens’ and gay rights), described the views of young people: “They want to talk about anxiety, about mental health, about their sexuality. They want to talk about politics, about poverty and being more progressive in this society and more accepting. And the environment. Those are the things that matter to them.”

There are differing views from Northern Protestants about the prospect of Irish unity. Robert and Tom, both from south Armagh, said, respectively, that it is not being discussed in their community and it won’t happen “in my lifetime.”

On the other hand Dougie, also from south Armagh and a member of the Ulster Unionist party (who has been involved in high-level meetings with politicians in Dublin) said: “We’ve a lot of learning to do. People are implying that constitutional change is coming, but from a unionist/loyalist perspective they don’t want constitutional change. If you demonstrate to me that my children would be healthier, wealthier and better off, then I have an open mind. But nobody has done that.” He said nobody has addressed the question: “What do we do the day after a Border poll with the losing side?”

Pamela, a Protestant from the Fermanagh border who works in the Church of Ireland, says in her network people are talking more about the potential of a united Ireland. “Me personally, I have no fear of a united Ireland. I’ve worked cross-border all my life. But the fear is what becomes of the Protestant community in a united Ireland. How are they catered for? How are their traditions and cultures respected?

Pamela talked about the “cognitive dissonance” of community relations, particularly in farming communities. “People of one side who generalise and criticise the other’s political affiliation also see the value of friendships, human connections and working with each other on a daily basis.” There are probably more cross-border contacts now than at any time since partition, the book’s author believes.

Eddie, a former IRA man whose family moved from Belfast to the Clones area when he was in his early teens, believes “there’s no need for armed struggle” any more, even though he has “big problems” with the Sinn Fein leadership’s strategy in “legitimising the Six County state.” Having come into contact with Protestants for the first time, he said: “I have a lot more understanding of why the other tradition was fearful, and hopefully they understand why we were fearful as well.”

One of the most interesting things about Monaghan is that it is one of the counties with the largest proportions of immigrants (including refugees and asylum-seekers) in the whole island, and for the most part they seem to have settled in well. Amazingly, estimates in Clones put the proportion of such ‘new communities’ in that small town at a third to a half of the population. They have come from Ukraine, Syria, Brazil (to work in the local meat factory), Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and East Timor, among other countries. “I was very heartened by the fact that young Syrian lads were saying they loved Clones; they feel welcome,” said Shauna, who works for an organisation in Monaghan helping new communities. Largy College, the town’s secondary school, was the first School of Sanctuary – a school pledged to offer welcome and integration to immigrant children – in the Republic.

Immigration is a sign that a country is on the right tracks. Despite the rather ignorant populism of some of the remarks of border people about the Republic’s politicians, with unemployment at a level lower than at any time in its history (4%) and government coffers groaning with tax income (with a €65 billion budget surplus forecast over the next four years), that optimism seems well-founded. Our Shared Way of Life ends on a firmly upbeat note: “When asked directly about their hopes for the future, virtually everyone interviewed expressed optimism, even if some slightly tempered it with concern.” The return to the area of younger families and the influx of new communities leads to “a belief that the area’s people are ready to leave a difficult and dark past behind and grasp new opportunities.”

The Emerald Curtain: The Social Impact of the Irish Border, Brian Harvey, Assumpta Kelly, Sean McGearty, Sonya Murray, 2005.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.