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It was 1986, in the time of “the Troubles.” We left Dublin, driving up through County Monaghan on the old N-2, the Ashbourne Road, to reach British-administered Northern Ireland. The road wound between high hedges, with dairy-farming land seen briefly as we passed a gate or some other gap in the hedgerow. There was no real warning when we reached our side of the border, I mean the Republic of Ireland side, there were no barricades, no flag, no red and white pole to be lifted when you were clear to go, nothing except a policeman standing beside a hut which had a mud-splashed sign stating that it was the Custaim agus Mal, the Customs and Excise. Some soldiers stood off to the side beside two green 4x4 SUVs, looking bored and not at all threatening, although they were armed.
I stopped and wound down my window. The police officer tipped the peak of his cap as he leaned down and rested one hand on the sill of the open car window and one hand on the roof. He wore what was at that time the typical uniform of the Garda, the police service of the Republic of Ireland, a navy greatcoat with his Garda number displayed on his epaulets and cap.
“How are you today?” he enquired.
“We’re grand thanks.”
“Where are you off to?”
“To Derry, for a wedding.”
“You’re on the right road, just follow the signs, it’s well signposted on the other side,” he advised, nodding his head up the road. He straightened up. “Have a lovely day,” he said.
I smiled and waved in salute as I moved off.
A corporal, who was the highest rank I saw among the soldiers, waved to us as we passed. He was armed with a Gustav submachine gun, which he held barrel-down. His men were armed with FN automatic rifles, likewise muzzle-down. They wore green combat uniforms, green flak jacket body armour, black berets and black military laced boots.
I had worn the same uniform and carried the same weapons when I went through the ranks from private to corporal in the Irish Army reserves. I had carried out the same duty throughout Leinster province, guarding electrical generating stations, railway junctions, army camps, anything the authorities considered at risk from bombers from the UVF, a paramilitary outfit from the North.
I had never been in the North before, so I was surprised to find that the British border station was a few more miles up the road. I supposed the road I was travelling now was Irish territory, I didn’t really know. But there was no doubt where I was once I reached the British station. Here there was a reinforced concrete bunker on high ground to the left, with loopholes and rifle slits pointing south, and a British flag fluttering from a flagpole. Parked along the road were two armoured Land Rovers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and three or four army armoured personnel carriers with maybe a dozen soldiers in groups around them. The British Army preferred camouflage uniforms, flak jackets and green canvas jungle boots. This particular regiment topped it off with their cute little Scottish caps, trimmed with black and white check with two navy or black ribbons fluttering behind.
There was a lot of firepower on the British side, yet there was no real sense of threat. The soldiers were relaxed, although if threatened I am sure they could have turned into a very effective fighting force in seconds. I wasn’t intimidated by them. In fact, Border Force and Special Branch in Heathrow Airport, with their black uniforms and concealed weapons, were far more intimidating than these guys.