The Irish border gets a bad press. For nearly 30 years places like South Armagh, East Tyrone and West Fermanagh were bywords for murder and mayhem. The names of border region villages and towns are still redolent of terrible happenings: Kingsmill and Darkley and Loughgall and Omagh and Enniskillen.
Since the Troubles ended the image of the border region as portrayed in successive EU reports remains a largely negative one: high unemployment, declining agriculture, low skills, little higher education, peripheral to and marginalised by the centres of power. Even artistic portrayals – like Colm Toibin’s Walking along the Border or the recent Borderlines photography exhibition – are full of stark images of abandoned border crossings and army forts, broken down cottages, desolate back roads and bleak boglands.
But there is another border story, which is told largely by community and business people. It is a story of courage and vision, enterprise and entrepreneurship, community development and business dynamism. Last month’s Note was devoted to the hugely energetic small group of community leaders who have brought Clones back from the brink. I can think of many other heroes of the border region: community activists like Father Sean Nolan in Monaghan, David Hanna in Newry, Will Glendinning and Sabine McAllister in South Armagh, Brian Lennon in Armagh City, Gwen Lanigan in Carrickmacross, Elis Gray on the Leitrim-Fermanagh border, Ian McCracken in East Donegal, Pat Love and Tony Ferguson in Leitrim; and business people like Anne-Marie Slavin, Richard Sterling and Alan McClure in Derry, Feargal McCormack, Conor Patterson and Gerard O’Hare in Newry, Sean and Peter Quinn in Fermanagh and Cavan; and Martin McVicar in Monaghan. This is a subjective list of people whom I have personally met: there are hundreds more names one could add to this roll of honour.
The problem is that their work takes place in out of the way places in distant and unfashionable border locations. It is localised, uncoordinated and unpublicised, and important people in politics and the media in Dublin and Belfast know little about it.
Maybe it’s time to put the Irish border back on the map (if that’s not a complete oxymoron!). What I mean is a campaign to raise the profile of the Irish border region (in both jurisdictions) as a good place to live, to work, to invest, to relax and so on – a campaign to highlight the positives of the border region rather than the endlessly rehearsed negatives.
The campaign would focus on the peace and beauty of its surroundings, the resulting quality of its lifestyle, and, above all, on the excellence of its people. This often forgotten region, after all, has given us the families of both the Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister; the architect of the Irish peace process, John Hume; Ireland’s most successful businessmen, Sean Quinn, Martin Naughton and Eddie Haughey; and great poets and playwrights such as Paul Muldoon, Frank McGuinness and Brian Friel.
I do not underestimate the problems here. I know we are coming out of four centuries of hostility between the ancient sectarian antagonists, and nearly 40 years of inter-communal violence. I know that one half of border society wants rid of the border and the other sees it as the guarantor of its safety and identity. But maybe those who want to see it gone can be pragmatic enough to accept that it is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and those who need it to stay can understand that to make it less threatening through greater cross-border contact, dialogue and even mutual celebration can only be a good thing.
I think we in the Irish border region need a challenge to make us see the border which dominates so much of our thinking in an entirely new light: as an opportunity to improve our lives and those of our communities. Why don’t we set ourselves the target of making the Irish border the most dynamic border region in Europe by 2021, the centenary of its appearance? We could look for inspiration to the examples of the Dutch-German Euregios or the Upper Rhine Region between France and Germany, all of which were forged out of the extremely stony soil of hatred and recrimination following the Second World War, and which are now among the most prosperous and advanced regions in Europe.
I suggest that a group of prominent border people (some of them named above) could come together to form something which might be called The Society for the Promotion of the Irish Border Region. This new body, which would be well-placed to apply for EU cross-border INTERREG funding, would launch a series of campaigns – economic, cultural and touristic – to highlight the attractions of our region. The three cross-border local authority networks, the North West Cross Border Group, the Irish Central Border Area Network and the East Border Region Committee could become re-energised by leading the charge. Campaign slogans could include: ‘Border is Best’; ‘Border is Beautiful’; ‘Border means Business’; ‘Border People think outside the Box’; and ‘Making the Border the Heartbeat of the Island’.
Maybe the bad old politics of the ‘dreary steeples’ make all such talk pure pie in the sky. But we live in an age of marvellous happenings. If Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness can sit down in government together, it should not be beyond the wit of the talented people in the Irish border region to set aside their age-old quarrels for a few years to concentrate on the well-being of the place they collectively claim to love so well.