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Making the peace dividend pay

While rural Protestants have suffered violence and intimidation, the border region’s mainly Catholic population has had to endure political and economic marginalization. By Laura Haydon.
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The bloody legacy of political violence has overshadowed the other blight of Ireland’s border regions: poverty. The line drawn across Ireland in 1925 severed farm communities from their market towns, smothered time-honored patterns of trade and disrupted vital economic links.

In the green and rolling pastures of southeastern Fermanagh, around the Catholic village of Rosslea, people who had always gravitated to the nearby town of Monaghan were forced to travel the long distance to Enniskillen to do business.

Here, as elsewhere along the border, the predominantly Catholic population found its parishes, villages and farmland cut in half. Family and community networks were disrupted by the frontier and towns were cut off from their natural hinterlands. The border region’s remoteness from the seats of power on the island compounded the ensuing economic problems.

“If you imagine nations with power and wealth concentrated at the apex, then the troughs that lie between them — the border areas — do tend to be areas of poverty and neglect,” explains Paddy Logue, an administrator for the European Union Special Support Program for the border regions. While the Republic of Ireland’s stirring economy has brought joblessness down below 4 percent nationwide, it remains more than twice that along the border.

The situation is mirrored just across the border in Northern Ireland, where the peace dividend has failed to bring male unemployment below 12 percent in the frontier town of Strabane. To alleviate the situation, the European Union has given more than $2.3 billion in grants to the region, and Logue believes the benefits are already visible.

“With the EU special fund supporting community projects, assisting the retail sector and tackling general community relations, there is now a buzz about the border that there never was for 30 years. And it is palpable — you can actually feel it as well as see it,” says Logue.

With the advent of peace, the impediments to movement across the frontier have been swept away. In the town of Strabane, the British army checkpoint has been transformed into a stainless steel-and-copper sculpture symbolizing a new beginning.

Despite the improved situation, Catholics in Rosslea and, indeed, all along the border, remain angry about the past. For almost 30 years, long stretches of the frontier were impassable. The British army had erected barriers on dozens of minor roads, blown up bridges and built huge fortresses.

Tony McPhillips, a local council member with a construction business in Rosslea, is angry about the suffering inflicted on his community by the border roadblocks and an oppressive military presence.

“I wouldn’t be involved in political struggle if I didn’t believe that I do see a time when British rule will be ended here in the Six Counties (of Northern Ireland),” McPhillips says.