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A note on the history of violence at the border,
and the possibility of violence following Brexit

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Text: Martin Melaugh [3 August 2018]
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A note on the history of violence at the border, and the possibility of violence following Brexit

Martin Melaugh (3 Aug 2018)
(minor updates: 22 Oct 2018, 29 Dec 2018)


If, for whatever reason, the UK leaves the single market and the customs union and there is no new customs agreement between the UK and the EU, then there is a real possibility that some form of monitoring of traffic flows will take place close to the border. Some people have said that a return to a hard border could lead to violence (see for example the warning by Lady Sylvia Hermon in the House of Commons on 26 April 2018, and George Mitchell on 3 March 2018). How likely it is that violence would occur and could it spark a return to wide scale communal conflict?

There is no doubt, as has been pointed out by the DUP and supporters of Brexit, that the current border in Ireland is a political, social and economic reality. Two sovereign states exist on either side of it. Two different currencies are used. Social, political, and economic policy is different. However, due to the Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and the EU customs union and single market, the free movement of people, goods and services is allowed across the border. Currently it is referred to as 'a frictionless border'. While locals know where the border lies, many visitors to Ireland often cross the border without initially noticing the changes in things like the road surface and the traffic signs, which indicate a movement from one jurisdiction to another.

It is also worth repeating that all the major actors in the Brexit negotiations – the British government, the EU negotiating team, and the Irish government together with the other EU member states – have stated publicly on many occasions that they do not want to see a return to the hard border of the past. All of the political parties in Northern Ireland have also stated that they are opposed to any hard border. Most people implicitly assume that the 'hard' border refers to both the security apparatus that existed from the early 1970s to the 2000s and also the customs infrastructure up to 1993. If, regardless of the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the border remains as it is currently, in other words both frictionless and without visible security or customs infrastructure, then there is little prospect of violence at the border.

Crossing points and border crossings

The land border is approximately 500 kilometres (310 miles) long and has 208 crossing points (The Irish Times, 26 April 2018). This number refers to public roads and a mapping exercise carried out by the Irish Army, working with gardai, found almost another 100 crossing points (including country lanes, private roads, rights of way across private lands, and other unmarked access points) (, 29 December 2018).

It has been estimated that 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1.85 million cars cross the border every month (The Irish Times, 16 August 2017). In addition, around 30,000 people cross the border daily (presumably by car, bus, train, pushbike, on foot, etc.). There are significant numbers of people who live on one side of the border and work on the other. Many others cross the border for social or family reasons and a lesser number who own property on both sides of the border. In addition to this type of movement of people, there are also many crossings involving goods and services. While new border checks would result in delays to trade and also increase costs, it is unlikely that the business sector would be the source of sustained public protest. However, if the general public, or more particularly the nationalist segment, were to find there were daily checks and delays in place of the current free passage, then resentment would be inevitable with a possibility of organised opposition to, and civil disobedience at, the border. If this were to occur then there is a prospect that one or more republican dissident groups would seek to achieve political relevance by attacking the new manifestations of the post-Brexit border.

Some examples of violence at the border

While there are limitations in the usefulness of historical lessons when trying to forecast what will happen in the future, nevertheless it is worth recall some of the opposition to, and attacks on, the physical expressions of the border during the Troubles (1969-2005) and during earlier periods of conflict. These few examples are intended to highlight what form the violence took at the border. Some readers may be unaware of the history or forgotten certain aspects of it.

"Blowing up customs huts had always been a favourite I.R.A. tactic and a number had gone up in 1937 in protest against a visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth."
(Coogan, 1987 edition; p 175).

In 1938 the IRA carried out a bombing campaign against customs posts. A number of customs huts were destroyed by bombs placed in attaché cases that were then delivered by a bus parcel system to the posts to await collection by non-existent people. These bombs were timed to explode at night when the post was unoccupied. However, on one occasion three IRA members were killed at a farm cottage when preparing a bomb.

On 11 November 1956, Clann na Gael and IRA members carried out a series of attacks on installations along the border. A number of customs huts were burnt as part of this operation.

While the IRA did engage in 'The Border Campaign' (codenamed 'Operation Harvest'; 12 December 1956 – 26 February 1962) prior to the outbreak of the Troubles, most of the targets were in border towns and villages. However, there were a number of attacks on customs posts and border infrastructure including roads and bridges. The Border Campaign was to result in the deaths of six members of the police (Royal Ulster Constabulary; RUC) and eleven members of the IRA. The campaign was very sporadic but between 15 and 17 July 1958 it flared up and a number of custom posts were destroyed in IRA attacks. One of the largest posts, at Killen on the main road from Belfast to Dundalk, was demolished. On 24 August 1958 the RUC shot dead an IRA member close to a customs post at Mullan in County Fermanagh. The RUC said they had ordered him to halt but he had fled towards the border. The IRA insisted he was unarmed at the time he was shot.

During the recent period of Troubles (and the IRA's armed campaign 1969-2005) the customs and security infrastructure along the border was the subject of many attacks by Republican paramilitaries. In addition they were also, from the earliest years of the conflict, the subject of political protest.

Photo by Eamon Melaugh The photograph on the right (CAIN, Melaugh Photographs, 1970) shows a republican demonstration at an Irish customs post (on the Donegal side of the border) in 1970. A group of about 50 demonstrators walked the four miles from the Bogside to the border to stage the protest and then walked back again to Derry. The protest was against the actions of an Irish government minister but the border post provided a focal point for the protesters.

The greatest loss of life in an attack on a customs post happened on 22 August 1972. Nine people died in a premature bomb explosion at the Customs Clearance Office, outside Newry, County Down. Four customs officials and two lorry drivers were killed, as were three members of the IRA who were in the act of planting the bomb when it exploded accidentally (death button). While it is likely that the intention of those planting the bomb was to give a warning, the outcome was the death of four customs officials and two other civilians (both lorry drivers) who happened to be present on customs business, and the total destruction of the customs building. Even accepting that there was no intention of killing civilian staff and members of the public in this attack, the use of primed bombs in such circumstances always carries substantial risk to those in the immediate vicinity. Earlier, on 27 November 1971, two customs officials were shot dead when the IRA fired on a British Army patrol which arrived to investigate a bomb attack on Killeen Customs Post near Newry (death button). In two other, separate, incidents, two part-time members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) were shot dead while leaving customs posts where they worked (death button).

On 13 December 1989 the IRA attacked a British Army permanent vehicle checkpoint complex close to the border at Derryard, north of Rossela, County Fermanagh. The IRA killed two British soldiers and injured a further two (death button).

On 24 October 1990 the IRA adopted a highly controversial tactic in its attacks on British Army security infrastructure along the border. In a series of attacks it forced three civilians to drive vehicles containing bombs to British Army check points at border locations near Derry, Newry, and Omagh. The three men were selected because they worked for, or supplied services to, the security forces. Two of the bombs exploded killing six soldiers in total and one of the drivers (death button). It was clear that the IRA's objective was to kill as many British soldiers on the day as possible and it considered the civilian drivers as expendable (the tactic was referred to in the media at the time as 'suicide bombing by proxy').

Location of the border infrastructure

A key determinant of the likelihood and extent of violence post-Brexit is which administration, British or Irish, will be responsible for imposing any new border checks. If the border infrastructure appears on the northern side of the border line then the possibility of violence is likely to be higher. If it becomes the remit of the Irish government, as part of its responsibilities as an EU member, to manage the flow of people and trade across the border, this is likely to have different implications. The potential for republican paramilitary violence against border infrastructure situated within the Republic of Ireland, is likely to be less than if it is in the north.

Possible scenarios that lead to violence

Given the long history of civilian / political / paramilitary opposition to the existence of the border and to the physical infrastructure at the border, it is likely that any new physical infrastructure, say custom posts or even cameras being used in conjunction with number plate recognition software, will attract at least civilian protest but also protest organised by one or more political parties or one or more of the republican political groups. It is highly probably that protestors who travel to a border installation would try to remove the infrastructure or render it inactive. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and an architect of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, was clear about his opinion of any new infrastructure at the border: 'There is not going to be a physical border across Ireland because if you tried to put it there you wouldn't have to wait for terrorism to take it down, people would just physically pull it down - the ordinary people' (BBC News, 10 April 2018). The relevant authorities might respond to such actions by replacing or repairing the facilities, at least at the beginning of the protests. However, at some point a decision might be taken to protect or guard the infrastructure. Physical confrontations between protestors and security staff might then become inevitable, with all the dangers they entail.

Another scenario is that one or more republican paramilitary groups decide to respond to popular opposition to the border infrastructure, by attacking the installations with bomb or bullet. One of the problems that has faced certain republican paramilitary groups in the past is a lack of even tacit support amongst the Nationalist population. At times there has been no focus for public protest and the paramilitary groups have lacked both relevance and credibility. However, any widespread public opposition to the border is likely to act as an impetus to paramilitary groups to become involved as a means of garnering at least tacit support. If groups of civilian protestors were removing or damaging new border infrastructure, then paramilitary groups would not be long in following suit. Certainly current dissident groups, or any group which forms in the future, would seek to justify such violence within the context of historical actions against border infrastructure.

People and groups who have raised the potential for confrontations and violence at the location of any border structures have been accused of 'scare mongering' by those in favour of Brexit. However, even George Hamilton, the Chief Constable of the PSNI, has expressed concern at the risk of violence at the border:  'The last thing we would want is any infrastructure around the border because there is something symbolic about it and it becomes a target for violent dissident republicans' (The Guardian, 7 February 2018).

At the time of writing it is still unclear whether the UK will leave the EU based on an agreement that would maintain a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.

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