Thursday 2 February 2012

Size matters in Border rivalry

Salmond leap of faith
Borders are all the rage right now, with Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond planning to give his a 'big boost' in 2014 and Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness hoping to give his a 'big boot' in 2016.
Even if both get their way, during the intervening two years between referendums we might even have to shuffle aside from our position as the United Kingdom’s only international land frontier.
Here at the Frontier Post, that prospect has us hard at work measuring, calibrating, weighing and researching our potential rival across the water.
Preliminary comparisons show that it certainly has the jump on us, already being ‘The Border’ as far as most people over there are concerned. Ours is usually designated as the ‘Irish Border,’ as if it was solely our idea!
Knowing where you are
The Scottish Border also has the distinction of being signposted officially as the ‘Border’ on all road and rail crossings where crosses of St George for England and St Andrew's Saltire for Scotland pin the colours to the mast, along with coats of arms and other insignia. Travellers by rail or road can be left in little doubt where to get their photo taken with one foot in either country.
Signage on the right tracks
There is less tourist entertainment over here. Knowing when you’ve crossed our Border is a rather more subtle matter of noting speed signage (either miles or kilometres, not confusing the 60 and 100 limits), good guesswork and sensitivity to creases in the road surface (which reliably mark the jurisdiction of roadwork gangs).
Roadsign at 'Black Gap' between Tyrone and Donegal
It is a matter of relief to the Frontier Post, however, that some very remote – and even narrower – border crossings  are clearly marked on the ‘southern’ side with warnings in French and German to ‘drive on the left’. This is in the unlikely event of invasion by tourists, we suspect.
Motorists on some roads are also advised that Fermanagh welcomes them ‘naturally’, although these are usually located some distance inside the county line, so telling those in the know that they have crossed the Border, rather than that they are crossing it.
IRA monument in The Square, Crossmaglen, Co Armagh
In the nethermost reaches of Northern Ireland, it was once noted, you’ll know you’ve gone north into south Armagh (and the United Kingdom) when you see the tricolour, Ireland’s national flag, and other Republican standards all over the place!

Times past
Lackey Bridge near Clones, Co Monaghan in the 1980s
Our Border was so much more obvious in the past. Along with the permanent disappearance (as opposed to frequent 'temporary absence' for necessary repairs or reconstruction) of customs posts, the past decade or so has brought the removal of even more intrusive British Army checkpoints. They’ve gone along with their concrete/steel barricades, road craters and blasted bridges that once left no doubt about the Border’s whereabouts.
Hadrian's Wall was an international frontier
There were military fortifications on the Border across the water, too, but we have to go even further back for them. Back to when Scotland – or Caledonia as it was called before we invaded/colonised it in the 6th century inviting them to return the favour a thousand years later – had an international frontier with the Roman Empire. Hadrian’s Wall marked the Border then, but it was further south and it was superceded in any case by the Antonine Wall further north. Neither helps with the modern line.
In terms of Border delineation, we found that Hadrian’s Wall now ranks alongside our own Black Pig’s Dyke (which some regard as contemporaneous) in failing to delineate current border locations.
Margin of error
So it was back to the drawing board in the big Border face-off.
We conducted a detailed opinion poll in both Border locations (accurate to a margin of 1:5,000,000 for Scotland and 1:1,500,000 for here).
In the first, we found virtually no equivocation along their border in how people described themselves as English or Scots. That is a clear distinction of national identity notwithstanding common British citizenship.
Over here, however, the opinion poll was less certain. Designations such as Irish, British, Northern Irish, Ulster, northern or southern were matters of persistent disagreement. Most believe they don’t even make geographic sense much less reflect ethnic sensibility. 

Money or mouth
So the Scots win again by word of mouth but, in the big stakes they haven’t got a chance because our border is a monetary land frontier and today (2 February 2012) Scotland’s Finance Secretary John Swinney said they’ll be sticking with sterling (and Sterling, of course) after independence.
Yet our border’s elevation to this significant monetary status really only dates back to 1979 when Dublin broke the sterling link, a momentous event that is invariably ignored or forgotten by economic commentators speculating on where it ‘all went wrong’.
The eurozone and its land frontier with sterling
There is little to be forgotten about the current status (since 2001) of being the only land frontier between sterling and the eurozone. However, even that is belied in the car parks of the Quays and Buttercrane shopping centres in Newry and at other cross-Border ‘shopping meccas’ all the way up to Derry City.
Newry value for euro shoppers
These have become places of huge significance for people asserting their rights under the Treaty of Rome (Schengen, 1997) to ‘free movement of goods and people’. Against the deluded denunciations of some Dublin politicians who call them ‘unpatriotic’, these cross-Border shoppers assert their rights as trenchantly as the protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
That has to count, because Scotland has not experienced such tidal migration at least since the days when a two-year difference in the ‘age of consent’ drew couples up to Gretna Green’s nuptial forge.
Now the nub
Which brings us to the question of whether size really matters? We think it should because our Border is 360 kms (220 miles) long while their Border is a puny 154 km (96 miles). Theirs is even shorter than the Border between England and Wales which measures 257 km (160 miles). 
When it comes to local authority boundaries which double as the ‘international frontier’, we also have an impressive 12 (Donegal, Derry City, Strabane, Omagh, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan, Dungannon, Armagh, Louth, Newry & Mourne) to their five (Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, Cumbria, Durham and Northumberland). 

Debatable point
But what of the infamous Debatable Lands between England and Scotland, notwithstanding that everything on this side is disputed? They seem to have been agreed on the western front, with Dumfries revelling in an annual Guid Neichburris (good neighbours) festival that features horsemen galloping along the frontier to ensure the Sassanachs haven’t encroached.
No mistaking England's claim on Berwick signage
The only remaining contention arises with Berwick-upon-Tweed (pop. 11,665 in 2001 census), four kilometres south of the border and incorporated into Northumbria and England only in 1885. (We note the correspondence beween that resolution and the start of the Irish Home Rule crisis with Gladstone’s election victory that year.) 

Last refuge
If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then sport must be the last refuge of the patriot. 
One of the main arguments for transferring Berwick is that the town’s sports clubs compete north of the Border. In soccer, Berwick Rangers FC plays in the Scottish League and its rugby club is involved in SRFU’s Eastern’s Regional League Div. 1.
Over here, of course, rugby is organised on a provincial basis under the Irish Rugby Football Union. That means clubs on the ‘southern’ side of the border in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are affiliated to the Belfast-based Ulster Rugby Union. Cross-border provincial affiliation is also the case for golf, cricket, badminton, Gaelic games, motor sports, showjumping and almost every other sport we can think of here at the Frontier Post.  
The exception is soccer, of course, but Derry City is affiliated to the Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland (the breakaway) and not the original Irish Football Association based in Belfast.
Martin McGuinness flies the flag
Which brings us back to Derry city’s own Martin McGuinness and his desire to kick our Border into touch. If Berwick is ceded north, might the Brandywell and adjacent districts move south.
We’ll keep you posted on that and our ongoing research.


  1. I enjoyed reading this amusing and interesting post, Darach. Lots of good info, presented with sly humour. I've shared the link on Facebook and Twitter for my friends to see.

  2. Interesting! Lots of connections here, Darach. As the previous commentator says: 'sly humour'. It also exposes some flaws in the current Scotland/Devolution/Independence debate, in keeping with your writing style.

  3. Thanks Darach, Great stuff, interesting all the way through, any idea/guess/opinion on which way the coin will toss?

  4. Your insight is, as usual,

  5. Such a good read! Made me recall my confusion at the tricolour flying beside the road into Forkill when my sisters and I toured the rest of Ulster one year. Also recalled digging into purses to find those heavy "Queen things", as we called them, when our proffered euros were declined - a clear clue that we were again on the 'other' side of the border. Looking forward to future posts about the Scottish push.

  6. Great piece, Darach. Border posts and changing places, perspectives and perceptions. Excellent pictures.

  7. The Berwick football case is interesting. They were given special permission to play in the Scottish leagues as they are so far away from English clubs that the club always lost money due to travel costs. Of course, every time somebody has the bright idea of joining another league (e.g. Celtic/Rangers into the PL) they quote Berwick.

  8. Very Interesting! It begs the question...why should we be subjects when we are born sovereign. Nobody ever asked me if I agreed to be a subject and quite honestly who wants to subject to the bankster run tyrannies with a global monopoly on the issuing of private fiat currency…so much for the free market. Our current governments are media propagated brands. We don’t need permission to be sovereign..we already are…we are all born equal. If any sheriff crosses my border I’ll be looking for his visa! I’d better get my colours up quick!