Checkpoints and Borders

In the early 1980′s the Punt was in a sorry state. You could buy £1.35 punt for £1 sterling. At these times it was financially beneficial to stay at accommodation near to the border. Whenever you wanted to fill up with petrol or needed any bait or provisions you just nipped over the border and got it at “discounted” prices. During these times we frequented the Cosy Bar, in Belturbet. I ordered two pints of Guinness and gave Phil (who I will enlighten you on at a later stage) an English tenner. I received in exchange, two pints of Guinness and £10.20 in Irish. How about that? I think he just made it up as he went along because the change was never the same for two pints in succession.

The border had always been looked upon as an obstacle and treated with mild contempt, which incidentally is how most English visitors viewed it. There are many places where you can cross the so-called border without having to go through a British Army Checkpoint. Now, if the English anglers knew about them, then so must have all the local Irish. Therefore was it not a waste of time and British taxpayers money? But then it was political and it was symbolic.

Many farms were split in half when the partition was first instigated, but they still needed a thoroughfare, and even though many roads had craters blown in them, many others were reopened creating a passage from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland. Of course these roads were only to be used for access to farms and fields!

The first checkpoint I crossed was between Belturbet and Newtownbutler at Wattle Bridge. You drove over the bridge over the River Finn and 400 yards further on you came across a square breeze-block and brick building called a Sangar, which was surrounded by sandbags. This was the border checkpoint. Prior to being received at the checkpoint you encountered traffic lights, speed ramps and large concrete blocks causing you to slalom up to the checkpoint. A squaddie would come out, gun at the ready. Another soldier in the fortified hut had a muzzle trained on you as well.

You would be asked to produce documentation and information regarding your destination, how the fishing was going and which football team you supported. I always found the Paras okay and chatty, but the MP’s were a bit more intimidating in their methods. In normal life it would be construed as aggressive and rude.

Once the checkpoint was negotiated, you carried on your way, but occasionally you would come across an RUC patrol or a British Army Service Unit. This was quite a rarity but when it happened they usually popped out from the hedgerow which is a bit startling at first.

A group of us decided to go to the World Angling Championships at Belleek which necessitated crossing into Ulster. First of all an RUC patrol approached us. A female sergeant approached carrying a gun I would probably have had difficulty in lifting. She just enquired as to where we were heading and apologised with a nice smile for any inconvenience caused. She did it in a very practised, polite and efficient manner. Then knock me down with a feather, a British Army Unit stopped us five miles further up the road. Same questions, same attitude, same faux politeness.

At the World Angling Championships, there were competitors from 34 different nations. Security was  heightened, essential due to the large number of Germans, French, English and southern Irish making the trip over from the South to watch their national teams compete.

Countries as diverse as: Croatia, Slovenia, San Marino and Australia. For some strange reason Guernsey qualified as a country in its own right and fished next to Germany. Talk about the mouse that roared, Guernsey beat Germany over two days!

The border-posts were state of the art affairs complete with surveillance cameras and automatic barriers. The watchtowers were concrete structures similar in design to the Post Office Tower in London, surrounded by heavy gauge Twilweld mesh as protection against Mortar attack. Remote cameras let the computer literate squaddies scan your registration details. These were checked on their computers and any dodgy vehicles were summoned to the compound by a traffic light. Should you have tried to proceed any further, a heavy metal bollard would raise up into the road to confront you and should you for some reason have done the impossible and circumnavigated it, then the rake would pop and shred your tyres and stop you dead in your tracks.
I always thought that one day, at least one of these monstrosities would be a visitor’s centre like Athlone Castle is today, but they were demolished pretty quick once the Good Friday agreement had been signed and hardly a trace is left that they were ever there.

There was considerably less waiting time those days at the border compared to even as little as 5 years previous. The British Army and the RUC know all the main “players” anyway so they knew whom to stop and when. Occasionally the Gardai set up roadblocks near the border. The Gardai generally required some form of documentation and asked a few harmless questions such as, how is the fishing, where are you staying, when are you going home? You just answered “Not bad, Milltown, Saturday?” in that order and they let you go on your way.

There was a serious side to all this. It wasn’t a game. The bullets were real. The British Army never used blanks at any time. The British Army, the RUC and the Gardai were doing a job they had been trained to do and would shoot to kill if they had to. It was a serious high-risk job so they couldn’t get complacent. These people had to be treated with a lot of respect, they were trying to make the streets and roads safer places to travel on. I felt a teeny bit sorry for the Gardai. They had a job to do and were only trying to make an honest living after all.

Ever since the first police force was set up in Ireland, which was presided over by the British Government of the day, there has been general rancour towards any policing body in the country. There seems to be an antipathy towards laws and especially of the enforcing of them. The poor beleaguered Gardai has suffered the knock on effect of the barbarity and callousness of the police forces from the dark and not so distant past, which threw Irishman against Irishman. Irishmen dressed up in police uniforms, assisting the greedy landlords in their forced evictions, with British backing, still sticks in the craw of many an Irishman.

The Gardai is not seen as the village bobby with whom you can have a chat. From what I see, there is a palpable gulf between the man in the street and the Gardai. In 1985 in Ireland on market day, the hard worked farmer having had a skin-full would approach the Gardai with indifference, which never constituted a dragging in offence. The Gardai was more likely to politely ask the drinker to “Be careful as you go sir“.

In Britain today there appears to be a ever widening chasm opening between the copper and the everyday folk due to a recent catalogue of injustices, corruption and misuse of the police force by the Thatcher government who used it as if it was their own private security business. Successive governments have lost touch with the working man and resorted to using the police force to do their dirty work for them. The Irish mistrust is more deep-seated however. My encounters with the men in the Ulster coats with their flouro-yellow go faster stripes on their backs, have been low key affairs. “Get your drinks off please, it’s well past time now“, and “Take care driving home“, so I have few complaints. The fact that I could have carried on drinking until the next morning has very little to do with it.