ROY HARPUR'S border farm in Northern Ireland is overlooked by what he says is 'the busiest heliport in Western Europe' - the British Army base on a mountain called Slieve Gullion. There is another Army post on Camlough Mountain not far away. This is the area of south Armagh known as 'bandit country'. Its 'capital' is Crossmaglen, a market town that once attracted notoriety as a cross- border cattle-smuggling centre ('. . . Crossmaglen / Where there are more rogues than honest men'). Since the current round of Troubles broke out more than 25 years ago, the town and the country around it have gained further notoriety as a hotbed of IRA gunmen, a staging post for terrorists operating from the Irish Republic, and as a death-trap for Brits.
It is not safe for the locals, either. On 6 May, for example, the IRA warned Crossmaglen residents that they risked becoming casualties by not hurrying to and from school with their children. The warnings, in letterbox leaflets, were linked to IRA threats of further assaults on the heavily fortified security base in Crossmaglen. A few days later, IRA men crossed from the Republic to launch yet another rocketattack on the security post at Newtownbutler on the Fermanagh border (no one was hurt).
Such incidents are repeated all along the 288 miles of the border, as are the towering security posts in whose shadow they occur: grim reminders of continuing efforts - local, national and international - to sedate a beast that has symbolised violent discord for most of the century. The Irish border, a dangerous, wriggling serpent with its head in one sea and its tail in another, was created jointly by man and nature. It twists across the island from its eastern origins in Carlingford Lough, flops through a second, freshwater lough - Lough Erne - in the Ulster-Ireland midlands and, having almost reached the Atlantic, turns sharply northward to plunge into Lough Foyle. It has been attacked, defended, penetrated, temporarily severed, bombed and blocked with monotonous regularity. It is both source and focus of intercommunal hatred, destruction and paranoia. But attempts to slay it, or to move it elsewhere, have failed.
Driving along it, you have to follow roads that are now in Northern Ireland and then in the Republic. But there are few occasions when the security posts are not visible, looming from the tops of rough mountains, or poking suddenly from lower verdure around barns and farmhouses. They represent the latest in electronic spying techniques. They look. They listen. Many local people on both sides of the border are convinced they can pick up conversations between the occupants of moving cars. Because they attempt to monitor terrorists, they are frequently attacked.
Even in those rare, blissful periods between terrorist atrocities, the security installations call for prudence. When the European Union banished customs posts from the border recently, the military posts became even more crucial - and alert.
For Protestants such as Roy Harpur, more or less isolated in their farmhouses, the idea that border security might one day be scaled down is a frightening one. He and his wife Elizabeth are both decent and forbearing, but they would not feel confident of their safety without military protection. Last October, he narrowly escaped death from an IRA bomb which destroyed the Gosford House Hotel in the village of Markethill, where he and other local farmers were meeting.
'The bomb was in a Volvo estate in the car park,' he said. 'We had 15 minutes to get out. We had to leave our own cars there. I was phoning home from a call-box down the road when the bomb went off. There was a crater where the Volvo had been.
'When I look back over 25 years, I can't remember half of the terrible things that have happened. I don't know what joy anyone could get out of it, irrespective of their feelings. In 1976, there was a lot of unrest here, and I got a call to get out of the house - it was a tit-for-tat for some Roman Catholic neighbours who had been threatened by loyalists. That Sunday, three Roman Catholics were murdered over the road. The next night (the local IRA) murdered 10 Protestants on their way home in a minibus.
'At a recent Presbyterian wedding,' says Harpur, 'I asked a guest from the South what people down there thought of us up here. He said 80 per cent weren't worried about what happens in Northern Ireland provided the trouble stays up here. Before Christmas I thought we were heading for some sort of settlement. But as a man said to me the other night, either the end of the world is approaching or this country is on the brink of a religious revival.'
Harpur seems as open-minded as one could expect a border farmer surrounded by danger to be. 'I always thought nothing could surpass the IRA in brutality, until I met a policeman recently,' he says. 'He described things that loyalist extremists do to their victims. It seemed unbelievable. I didn't think those calling themselves loyalists could behave like that.'
At the same time, he says, there is an 'unwritten rule' among Protestant farmers that they should avoid selling land to Catholics. To do so would be, in Protestant eyes, to cede part of Northern Ireland to the South. 'I wouldn't say I would never sell land to a Roman Catholic,' he says. 'But I wouldn't like to sell it to him. The decision isn't necessarily that of the man selling the farm. The pressure would come from those around him - fellow Protestants who would pull out all the stops to buy it themselves, rather than let it go to a Roman Catholic. It's one of those unspoken things around here: Protestants don't wish their land to go to Roman Catholics, and vice versa.'
I came across this 'rule' elsewhere. When Fred Elliott and his two brothers inherited their father's land at Belcoo in Fermanagh, one brother sold his third and went to live in Enniskillen. 'We bought part of his share and rented the rest of it from the company that owns it,' Elliott says. This avoided the risk that the land might go to a Catholic.
A sheep and cattle farmer, he is more 'balanced' in his views than most border Protestants. His wife Ena was born and raised in the Irish Republic, a Protestant from Sligo. 'People are getting further away from the churches,' he says. 'The majority around us are Catholics. We get on very well with them. If I wanted help with a sick calf in the middle of the night, it would be to them that I'd go, just as they'd come to me for help.'
Elliott has been a victim of both the IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. 'The IRA hijacked my car at the front gate, after hijacking a mobile shop to block a road. Nobody knew if there was a bomb in it or not. We were held at gunpoint in the house until it was dark. They then used the car to get away. It turned up in Ballinamore just over the border. The UVF hijacked the same car, put a bomb in it and made me drive down the road into the Republic. They'd timed the bomb to go off after I'd parked the car at the Garda (police) station.
'On the way there, the car hit a bump on the road, and I heard something rattling around in the boot. I knew something had been dislodged from the bomb, but I kept going, because they were holding my family hostage. When I got to the Garda station, I jumped out and yelled 'Bomb]' But it didn't go off. A bump in the road had dislodged the timing device. The Irish Army carried out a controlled explosion.'
He walks me to the front gate and talks about the pure spring water that fills his well from a grassy escarpment in front of the farmhouse. He also talks about peace. 'There's an awful lot to be said for it,' he says. 'I was at a funeral recently. A local man, Dessie Doherty, a Catholic, was shot dead in his sleep in Belfast. He was a British Telecom engineer and good at his job. His brothers farm in this locality, and I know them very well. The family mourning at the funeral was awful; dreadful altogether. The day after he was shot you would have known there was something wrong in this area. There was no work going on, quieter than a Sunday. All activity ceased. There was this sense of revulsion . . .' Elliott feels so strongly that Northern Irish politicians have let the community down that he now burns their literature as soon as it arrives.
Harry West, who lives on a hill overlooking Lower Lough Erne, was a minister in the Unionist government at Stormont (which was suspended in favour of direct Westminster rule in 1972). 'Many on the Protestant side have left their border farms because they were being shot at,' he says. 'A number moved to Scotland. I went up to see a family in Newtownbutler because I heard they were in trouble. Their farm backed on to a river which was the border at that point. Bullets had lodged in the wall at the back door. They came from a thicket on the other side of the river. It wasn't an isolated incident.'
West believes the border 'is creeping our way' as a result of the dismantling of customs posts. Security barriers have been moved 'further back from the border' - including, he says, the remote-control military post near Newtownbutler, which has been shifted northwards.
Nevertheless, he says, border skirmishes aside, south Fermanagh's Catholics and Protestants get on 'pretty well. We recognise we are in the minority in the county by about 8,000. We accept that and have learnt to live with it.' Over Christmas, he and his wife gave a party in their home, an attractive, nine-bedroom house which is approached by crossing the runway of a small airfield. 'We invited 60 or 70 people of all shades,' he says.
West is surprised when people express amazement at his open-house policy. 'When Roy Mason was (Labour) Secretary of State, I asked him to come down and stay the night. He and his wife and daughter arrived; there was a great gathering, and the crack was good. He got me into a corner and said, 'Would I be right in saying this is a mixed bunch?' 'Yes,' I said. 'It always is.' 'I would never have believed it,' he said. So I told him: 'There are some Roman Catholic people in this area who are as good loyalists as we Protestant people.' '
West is unenthusiastic about the British Government's hunt for a settlement. 'If Britain thought the thing through, they would see the dangers in all this. People will say it was terrorism that brought the Government to the negotiating table.'
Reticence and quietly arranged land deals make it hard to guess how many farmers have left border areas since the Troubles. Brian Donaldson, farming correspondent of a local newspaper, the Impartial Reporter, and a farmer himself, knows of 'a number of them who claim they have been intimidated in their own farmyards. Shots have been fired. There have been anonymous phone calls purporting to come from the IRA. One farmer sold up - to another (Protestant) farmer - because he couldn't put up with living on the border any more. The border was actually the hedge facing him when he drove from his farm on to the main road.'
Donaldson recalls the kidnapping, four years ago, of the Nelson family, who lived a mile from the Fermanagh border, near Roslea. 'The IRA took the two eldest sons and forced them to drive a tractor and trailer across the fields to an Army post. The trailer carried 3,500lbs of explosives. Luckily, it bogged down in the fields. The IRA fled. The farmers are under terrible pressure around here, but they have a resilience you won't find elsewhere. They hold themselves together with the Protestant wisdom handed down from the day their leaders stood firm to be British - and with the help of the Orange Order.'
Some Catholics manage to crack the defences. Stanley Tilson, an elderly Protestant farmer whose acres lie between the Newtownbutler military post and the Irish border, knows of Catholics who bought Protestant farms - but concedes that they are rare. Tilson's own property is at Wattle Bridge, an extraordinary place, even by border standards, where an Ulster salient projects into County Cavan and two fingers of Republican territory jut up into the North. Here, an Ulsterman finds himself surrounded by the fields of the Irish Republic. An Irish road - the A54 - is interrupted by Ulster Tarmac before becoming an Irish road again. Tilson's grandfather was born in Cavan before the border was drawn. When the border was established by the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 and ratified five years later, a sense of betrayal followed. 'Many unionists in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were bitter because their fellows in the other six counties of Ulster had abandoned them,' writes Liam de Paor in Unfinished Business. 'Many Catholic nationalists in those six counties felt they had been abandoned in the settlement made between Dublin and London. However, they at least . . . could console themselves with the hope that their exclusion would be brief.'
Since then bitterness has mellowed south of the border, but not in the North. Tilson has cousins in Cavan who have never complained of their treatment as Protestants. Yet Tilson, an Orangeman, 'would not be terribly happy if a settlement redrew the border and left me in the Republic.'
More than 150 years ago Thomas Davis, the Irish essayist of Welsh extraction, wrote of his hope that 'as the Orangemen become more enlightened, they will more and more value the love of their countrymen, be prouder of their country, and more conscious that their ambition, interest, and even security are identical with nationality.' John Hume's appeals to Protestants today appear to echo that sentiment. But there are few signs that Protestants - even those in border areas who are particularly vulnerable - are receptive to it.
Tilson acknowledges the Irish Republic's increased prosperity, modernity and secularity. He agrees that Europeanisation has reduced barriers between EU member countries. But in south-west Fermanagh, where Catholics outnumber Protestants by seven to three, he remains impervious to such developments.
Through the gloom, however, appear glimmers of hope. Joan Bullock is leading light in the South-west Fermanagh Development Organisation, a 'cross-community' rural co-operative in which Catholics and Protestants are represented equally, and which is based in the village of Teemore, a mile from her cottage in the tiny hamlet of Aghalane. 'It is improving the quality of relationships, after the divisions caused by the murders,' she says.
Two Catholic officials of the organisation agree. Sean Coll, a native of Belturbet in the Republic, says: 'My next-door neighbour was shot dead. The Troubles definitely affected the community, which is tightly knit on both sides of the border. So it was decided to form a committee to pursue social and economic regeneration. The development organisation came into being in 1989, with funding from the Northern Ireland Office. Its eight commercial units are already let.'
In an area where the average farm is 38 acres and subsidies average less than pounds 8,000 a year, farmers are in the doldrums. James McBarron, the co-operative's Catholic boss, says that 60 per cent of farmers there are in their sixties. 'Since the Troubles began, there has been a 50 per cent drop in the farming population, so our chief aim is to attract younger people back to the land,' he said. 'We go to each farm, assess its needs and put in place the resources required to improve the quality of produce over a seven-year period.'
In a society captivated by symbols, the latest symbol of rapprochement encourages an unusual degree of hope. Earlier this month, a couple of days after the IRA issued its leaflet warnings in Crossmaglen, the Erne-Shannon Waterway, an ambitious project linking the lakes of Fermanagh with the Republic's great river system, was finally opened after years of terrorist-inspired delays. Officials and local councillors from both sides of the border came together to welcome the setting up of a waterway holiday company, registered in both Belfast and Dublin. New locks (one in Northern Ireland, 15 in the Republic) are working smoothly, operated by coded plastic keys. Voyages of 'peace and tranquillity of nature which will take you back hundreds of years' are advertised.
Fred Elliott, whose Belcoo farm is reached by driving into the Republic and out again, welcomes the waterway. 'The Troubles have crucified the tourist industry,' he says. 'Tourists must eat. We can feed them. So we'll probably benefit in some way from the link-up.'
When dredging of the Woodford River and its canals was taking place, a few curmudgeons raised objections to the dumping of spoil on their land. Others wondered if the Erne-Shannon link might be a sinister portent of the outcome of London-Dublin initiatives for making peace with the IRA. Before the opening ceremony, a low-key affair to minimise the risk of disruption, Joan Bullock showed some anxiety. 'I hope nothing untoward will happen,' she said. And, for once, nothing untoward did.
LAST week's 'Living With It' (The Sunday Review) contained an error. The article said a land transaction made by Fred Elliott, a farmer in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, 'avoided the risk the land might go to a Catholic'. We wish to make clear at no time was Mr Elliott motivated by any such consideration. We apologise for any embarrassment this may have caused.
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