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“What are you going to Lontonderry for?”
“For a wedding.”
“Where did you cross the border at?”
“And were you stopped by the army?” He snarled as he leaned closer to look across at my wife in the passenger seat. I was acutely aware that guns can go off spontaneously. I was nervous, almost enough to ask him to point his weaapon somewhere else, but I did not consider it prudent to raise an objection at this moment.
“Yes, by a Scots regiment. They were very polite and friendly,” I offered.
“Were they now?” he said to no one in particular as he straightened up, pointed his weapon at me again and then, in a sweeping gesture towards the Land Rovers and the road beyond, he said “Go on.”
“Thank you.” I tried not to sound submissive. A sigh of relief issued from the two of us, as I rolled up the window and we moved off.
The Land Rovers were parked at angles, so I had to slalom through them, under the watchful and intimidating eyes of the heavily armed RUC men using their vehicles as cover.
We passed through the towns of Omagh and Strabane, finally approaching Derry on the road that ran alongside the River Foyle. There was a surrealistic sense to driving through Northern Ireland in those days. The Republicans, who want to join with the Republic of Ireland, identified their areas by flying the tricolour green, white and orange flag of the Republic of Ireland and painting their kerb stones and lampposts in those colors too. The Loyalists, who want to stay united to England, liked to fly the Union Jack and decorate their areas with red, white and blue.
Our friend the bridegroom lived in a steadfastly Republican area of Derry, although I had no idea whether his family were involved in the fighting in any way. The bridge over which we drove into the Republican side was bedecked in the appropriate colours, half Loyalist then half Republican. Had the opposing sides measured the bridge and come to a genial agreement as to where halfway was?
We called at the groom’s house first then went in convoy to the church. After the ceremony, we crossed the river again (back into Loyalist territory) and drove to a hotel somewhere that didn’t seem to have any affiliation to either side. During the champagne reception and the meal and the speeches, we had at our table a cousin of our friend, a somewhat shy yet affable young man, with whom we chatted pleasantly until the party started and we lost sight of him. There was much drinking and singing of rebel songs. We took our leave early, making our goodbyes to the bridegroom and the families, blaming our early departure on the long drive home that loomed ahead of us.
We crossed the border this time just ten miles west of Derry and returned via County Donegal, which added over an hour to our journey back to Dublin but kept us within the Republic of Ireland so we would avoid any nasty UDR/RUC surprise checkpoints.
I had a telephone call from my friend the bridegroom a short time after the wedding to tell me that his cousin, the affable young man who was our dinner partner at the reception, had been killed whilst planting a bomb. He had been a member of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army.
Just ten years ago when we drove to Belfast, we found that the border had become non-existent. There were no skulking patrols to stop and intimidate us. Apart from the murals from the days of the Troubles, which are now tourist attractions, Northern Ireland looked just like the South.
But as I type these words in September 2019, Britain is tearing itself apart due to Brexit. If England leaves the European Union, taking Northern Ireland with it, what will that mean for the border?
Enough blood has been spilled. Reintroducing a hard border may empower and facilitate terrorist factions on both sides of the sectarian and political divide. If there is even the smallest chance of going back to the dark days of the Troubles, all because of political intransigence and arrogance, then any future blood will be on the hands of those politicians responsible for the backsliding.