All Along The Watchtowers

new internationalist
issue 255 - May 1994

All along the watchtowers
Throughout Europe frontiers are coming down.
Yet, as Liz Curtis discovered, the border between
the two Irelands has never been so aggressively fortified –
to the cost of local people on either side.*

*for the location of the places named in this article see the map on the facts page.

The border between the North and South of Ireland must be one of the strangest and most alienating stretches of land in western Europe.

At its eastern end, along the edge of South Armagh, a double line of ugly watchtowers protrudes from the pretty little mountains. The towers, as well as barracks, helicopters and British Army foot patrols, use an array of high-tech surveillance equipment. Locals believe this may be causing people to develop cancer and cattle to abort.

Sean and Marian Donnelly and their family live in an intolerable situation. Their bungalow is a few hundred metres from the border in South Armagh, near the cottage where Sean was born. Like many small farmers in this poor, hilly region, they make a living by combining different activities. They have about 40 cattle in the fields behind them, run a small shop in the village, and frame pictures in a shed in the yard.

In 1985 the British Army took over the top of the hill behind them and built a watchtower. Next to it in one of the Donnellys’ fields the Army put up a pole with a red light on it which shines into their house day and night. ‘It’s terrible,’ Sean says, over and over again.

Emissions from the installations have burnt a row of trees beside their house. Marian shows me pictures of calves which were stillborn or had abnormalities, they suspect because of radiation. When the cattle are calving and Sean needs to go out and check them at night, he has to phone through to the barracks in Crossmaglen, and they then inform the watchtower.

‘You’re in an open prison here,’ says Marian. ‘You’re watched all the time. It’s an awful feeling, because you’re not relaxed in your own home.’

Only one or two soldiers are on the lookout platform at any one time, but perhaps 30 or 40 are needed to service them – cooks, radio operators and so on. These men are housed in a bunker beneath the watchtower, and are supplied by helicopters, which land three or four times a day, making a tremendous noise and blowing dust everywhere.

Three helicopters always come together: one lands while the other two clatter above, keeping watch. Chinooks – the huge machines used by the Americans in Vietnam – are used to bring in heavy equipment: these have twice taken the roof off the Donnellys’ shed. Helicopters have landed among their cattle, frightening them and causing them to abort. Also, helicopters patrolling the border frequently swoop low over the house both night and day.

The Donnellys have built a fence resembling a stockade round their yard because soldiers kept running through it. Soldiers have held their children at gunpoint, intimidated elderly visitors, and used the lawn and back doorstep as a toilet. The Donnellys’ complaints to the authorities have no effect. ‘It’s terrible to live here, honest to God,’ says Sean.

The Donnellys are victims of history. Till 1920 there was no border here. Then, in a piece of crisis management presented as a temporary measure, the British Government drew a line round the six north-eastern counties of Ireland.

South Armagh, solidly nationalist, found itself within a unionist statelet. The border trailed along the old county boundaries along rivers and streams through houses and fields, splitting communities, separating farmers from their cattle and people from their relatives, shops and pubs.

Crossmaglen is scarcely more than a main square and a crossroads, yet it is overlooked by three watchtowers and a barracks bristling with masts stands on one side of the square. The IRA has attacked the barracks on countless occasions, using home-made mortars fired from the back of tractors, so the surveillance equipment seems to have had little effect – except to anger and alarm the locals.

First to protest were farmers near the watchtower at Glasdrumman, one of those overlooking Crossmaglen. They became seriously concerned when unprecedented numbers of cattle aborted, sheep died, and dead rabbits, mice and rats were found in ditches. Soon people seemed affected too.

Mary Allen, a popular local doctor, has helped to form the Campaign Against Radiation Emissions. She explains that in an area of about 15 kilometres radius, with a small population, brain haemorrhages and cases of leukaemia have been occurring in the last few years at a much higher rate than the national average.

The campaigners are pressing for a small-scale survey to be done of the immediate area around Crossmaglen, including the neighbouring district over the border. The Ministry of Defence has refused to provide details of the equipment and the local health board has failed to respond to repeated requests. So campaigners are trying to collect information themselves.

Where the main road from Belfast to Dublin crosses the border at Cloghogue there is an extraordinary panoply of security. Two watchtowers stand on the hill, with a covered steel walkway leading to the checkpoint below. There is a closed bay where cars can be brought for searching. Cameras are everywhere, on telegraph poles and attached to the fortress.

Buried in the road are ‘automatic bollards’, a recent innovation which swiftly became notorious. If cars don’t stop at the red light, thick metal posts shoot up out of the road. Last year, the bollards caused several serious accidents. In July Yvonne Smith was driving back across the border after visiting a friend in Dundalk when bollards shot up accidentally under her car. She had to be treated in hospital for neck and back injuries and the car was wrecked. Another woman was hurt in a similar accident ten days later. Then, in August, bollards tore into a bus carrying members of a Gaelic Athletic Association club to a match. Three were hospitalized, including an 11-year-old boy.

Local residents describe life near the checkpoint as ‘nerve-racking’. They say the checkpoint endangers their lives because it attracts the IRA – two soldiers have been killed there. The local school has had to move, and the shop has gone.

There are plenty of other roads in the area without checkpoints, so the one at Cloghogue seems pointless. It is there – as with so many of the ‘security’ measures along the border – to make a political point: to reassure unionists of Britain’s commitment to rule Northern Ireland.

The British Army has been blowing up cross-border roads and bridges since the 1970s. In South Armagh they long ago gave up and all the roads are open. ‘In the early 1970s there was a continual battle,’ recalls Jim McAllister, a Sinn Fein councillor for the area. ‘The British Army blew up the roads, they cut trenches in them, they installed massive steel and concrete barriers. But the local people just refused to take that and kept reopening them as quick as they closed them. Not just in their own little area – people went from area to area to help refill them.’

The locals’ persistence and a high level of IRA activity – which forces the British Army to travel by helicopter and makes it very dangerous for them to keep coming back to the same place – saw to it that the roads were left alone. Now heavy surveillance is used instead.

But along the borders of Fermanagh and Tyrone, where there is less IRA activity, many roads remain closed. Unionists are in a minority in both these counties. Their politicians constantly pressurize the British authorities to keep the roads closed. Two years ago a Democratic Unionist from Fermanagh called for all border roads to be sealed and mined, except main trade routes which he said should have checkpoints.

Altogether 50 of the 59 roads linking Fermanagh with counties in the South have been cratered or blocked by the British Army, as have many roads on Tyrone’s borders with Donegal and Monaghan. These road closures have torn the heart out of communities, seriously disrupted farmers and devastated economic and social life. Local people have protested by reopening the roads themselves – though they have not been able to keep them open.

Lackey Bridge, amid green hills two kilometres from the southern town of Clones, is the best known of the contested crossings. Last July I watched as farmers worked with impressive speed to reopen the road, as they have some 30 times in the last four years.

First they put pipes in the river, to carry the water flow. Next a digger tore huge lumps out of the bank and deposited them in the river. Then a bulldozer smoothed down the new causeway, and a tractor-load of gravel gave the finishing touch. But a week later British soldiers were back: they dug up the road and extended the concrete barrier.

All three roads from Clones into the North are closed. The effects on the town have been severe, as two-thirds of its hinterland is across the border. Donald MacDonald runs a dress shop in the town, and is secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. He used to employ nine sales assistants in the shop, but now there is only himself and his mother. They have turned the menswear department into a café: ‘People say it’s an improvement,’ he says wrily. He says that the road closures have cost many jobs and forced many long-established businesses to close.

Eighty kilometres to the north-west, at the top end of Lough Erne, is the village of Garrison, on the Fermanagh-Leitrim border. It has about 300 people, mainly nationalists, and stands on what was a main road to Sligo till the British Army blocked it in 1973.

The road runs along the beautiful windswept waters of Lough Melvin – once much visited for its fishing – past a newly-built craft shop that closed after a few months. Tourists haven’t come this way for a long time. One kilometre before the border the road becomes a lane, with gaping ponds full of weeds where the Army has cratered it. The old bridge at Dooard which marks the border is blocked by massive lumps of concrete with rusty girders protruding from them. Each time local people have found ways of surmounting or getting round the blocks, the British Army have brought more.

The direct journey across the bridge is only 100 metres. But with the bridge closed, if you want to travel to the far side of it, you have to drive 19 kilometres along the border to the crossing at Belcoo and Blacklion, then 19 kilometres back down the other side. The journey back involves doing the 38-kilometre drive again.

Tony Keown runs an electrical repair shop in Garrison. He describes the closure of Dooard Bridge as ‘a complete disaster’, and says, ‘It’s isolated this whole community. The majority of young people in this town wouldn’t be able to name any person two miles up the road. The social life of this area has been torn to pieces.’

He explains that when someone from the other side of the border wants him to fix a TV, ‘I have to arrange for somebody to come down to the bridge at a particular time and collect me. I park on this side of the bridge and walk across.’ The vet has the same problem.

Bridget Flanagan and her sister Carmel live in Kiltyclogher on the other side of the border, likewise devastated by road closures. Their parents live in Garrison, three kilometres away but now a 77-kilometre round trip. ‘It’s an absolute disgrace,’ Carmel says. ‘All the borders are opening in Europe, but we can’t even cross to visit our families.’

Last year, customs barriers came down in the European Union and with them the customs posts along the Anglo-Irish border. Yet the Anglo-Irish border is stronger and more militarized than at any time in its history. The Irish Government has co-operated in this process, policing the southern side and turning a blind eye to the proliferation of watchtowers, fortified checkpoints and cratered roads.

And those who are concerned that Europe is dismantling its internal borders only to strengthen its defences against the people of the Third World will be chilled to learn that people from the Spanish Ministry of the Interior have been here to study the towers and to learn ways of fortifying their coastline against immigration from Africa.

Liz Curtis is a writer and civil-liberties campaigner. Her latest book, The Cause of Ireland, will be published shortly by Beyond the Pale (Belfast).

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page