Today
Wed 16 October 2019
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Poet and playwright Frank McGuinness recalls the UK-Eire border of his youth in Donegal, and fears for our future under the cruel arrogance of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.


I was born in Buncrana, a town beside the Border, reared in its shadow, our big city, Derry, 14 miles away.

It stood divided, Catholic and Protestant sides, within itself, and we in Donegal were divided from it by a small stretch of land no more than 50 yards, with two rather wretched custom houses manned by bored men in uniforms of not too impressive regalia, trying to do their job of stopping butter and cheese, clothes and curtain fabrics passing illegally between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Free State of Eire.

One defender of the economic realm was possessed by a particular mania to stop chicken being unlawfully consumed. An eminently, respectably dressed woman put a stop to his gallop when he challenged the contents of her sandwich, she loudly impersonating a clucking hen, the whole bus joining in, the lady having patiently explained to no avail it was the remains of her lunch brought home from work.

Northern Ireland Customs Preventative Officer Thomas Bradley checks a car to see if there have been any replacements, or a new engine installed, in July 1949

That was the type of daily idiocy travellers faced in those dark days, now threatening to return to torment us. Or will it?

Clever ways can be radically devised to defy red tape and lunatic restrictions on free movement. But I do hope we will not, on either side, resort to the tactics that left one of those wretched customs houses standing for years as a ruin, bombed to oblivion and then its ghostly shell dismantled again and again, an act of hatred perpetuated by those who considered it a valid target for demolition purposes long after it served no practical function in the partition of the island.

I never ceased to register a slight spasm of fear passing it on the road, a ghostly reminder that war stirred always in the hinterland, threatening to erupt and do what all wars do – change our lives for the worst.


The long fight to stop these conditions prevailing in Ireland North and South now meet their sternest challenge in the contemptuous madness shown by those mismanaging Brexit.

They believe most profoundly in borders, in division, in their country and my country at each other’s throats, wangling, dealing, corrupting all goodwill that had managed to secure something more than a semblance of a truce to end the sickening conflict that disfigured for too long relations between us.

I was born in 1953, grew up shaped by The Troubles, and the one consequence of that historical reality is that I know men and women of violence when I see them.

The customs post on the southern side of the Irish border with Ulster, at Swanlinbar, County Cavan, in 1974

Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and their allies in all parts of the UK, conform to the cruelty that arrogance always embodies. Bring back the border, you bring back bloodshed.

On their heads and on our heads be it. They will feel that as profoundly as they ignored it before and during the accursed referendum. The signs of a return to murderous bigotry are there, and have been there, for the past three years for all to see. And I cannot say how much I hope I am wrong, for this time no security blanket will save us.

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