Bridge protest divides border communities: An unofficial opening of a road link has led to hopes of economic growth and loyalist fears about security.

AS LIGHT faded, Sean Sweeney, 35, squinted north across the tiny shallow river flowing before a mess of displaced concrete and twisted girders.

Focusing beyond the remains of the Lackey Bridge - daubed with 'Britain's border, Ireland's torture' - the farmer pointed to the road on the other side which once linked Co Monaghan in the 'Free State' with Fermanagh, one of its six lost northern counties.

'There's a lot of bitterness out there,' he said. 'And who can blame them? An RUC man and a UDR man were killed just up that road.'

Terrorists are responsible for more than 100 murders on the Fermanagh border since 1969. Hundreds of crossings along the 220-mile border were closed more than two decades ago to keep communities safe.

Mr Sweeney appreciates their fear but last weekend he was one of 40 protesters, armed with spades and mechanical diggers, who reopened the Lackey Bridge crossing for the third time since the IRA's ceasefire. Although there were a few Sinn Fein supporters, he claims most of the protesters were ordinary people.

'Farmers have to travel 15 miles to visit fields just across the river and the border policy has never provided security. When those men died this road was actually closed. Shutting these roads just adds to the general bitterness.'

Half a mile away in Clones, in the Irish Republic, Donald MacDonald and Paddy Boylan, leaders of the local business community, are praying for the opening of the border. They say the economic future of their town depends on it.

'The border has slowly strangled Clones,' said Mr MacDonald in the coffee shop in his drapery store. 'There has been no chance of development in the border region with the security presence, violence, different currencies, different exchange controls and VAT and excise differentials. When history looks back on this policy it will judge it provocative, antagonistic and counter-productive. It was useless as a security measure and has only attracted violence to the area.'

Locals believe Dublin- based politicians have long treated the border towns, often IRA recruiting grounds, as pariahs.

Twenty local businesses have folded in the past few years, including a supermarket owned by the family of Clones's favourite son, the boxer Barry McGuigan.

For regeneration, the town looks north to Fermanagh, and its potential for tourism. A 20-minute drive across the border in Lisnaskea, Fermanagh's second largest town, that potential has also been recognised. Lisnaskea is more prosperous than Clones but years of cross- border violence have also stunted its growth. Eleven shops have closed in the past five years.

The two towns are in the early stages of developing a rare self-initiated joint strategy on tourism, encouraged by generous EC grants for cross-border initiatives. A permanent cessation of violence could triple tourism.

'Both towns face the same problems,' said June Jordan, the Protestant owner of the Ortine Hotel and prime mover in the joint border initiative. 'Both are run-down and need development.' But Mrs Jordan is less impatient about roads reopening. For a county bordered by the Republic on three sides and devastated by 25 years of atrocities, the closed border offers some sense of security. She lists the atrocities. The monthly bombings, the 19-year-old boy beaten by the IRA and forced to drive explosives to an Army checkpoint, the friend who never recovered after her son was shot before her eyes, the local farmers driven from their land by terrorist 'ethnic cleansing' and the bomb attack on the school bus which injured Catholic and Protestant children.

In Clones, Mr MacDonald and Mr Boylan believe the violence is finally over. Peter McAleer, a Sinn Fein councillor in Clones, says that Protestants have nothing to fear. Asked if Sinn Fein is hijacking the border road protests, he claims the organisation is simply 'showing leadership and trying to persuade youngsters there is an alternative to the armed struggle.'

But the Unionists of Lisnaskea are rattled. They say Sinn Fein is talking peace but encouraging people to take the law into their own hands. They see the action as at best insensitive and at worst a sinister attack on their security.

(Photograph omitted)

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