The Hard Border

The contentious issue of the Irish border is not a new one. In secret documents uncovered at the National Archives at Kew, one page in particular highlights measures that were considered and dismissed by military planners.

  1. A ‘cordon sanitaire’ a mile or so wide along the Border. Illegal for those without permits (limited largely to actual residents) to enter it, apart from a very few roads leading to authorised Border crossings.
  2. An identity car system in Border areas, and/or others of especial sensitivity. (Has been several times thoroughly looked into).
  3. Blanket search of a limited hard Republican area (eg Ardoyne, Turf Lodge or Short Strand). Area to be put under curfew for some hours, entry and egress prevented, and every building searched for men and materials. (Parallels 1970 blanket search of Lower Falls).
  4. Personal and/or vehicle curfews, in specified areas, for extended periods of time. (Needs adequate manpower to enforce).
  5. Physical barriers of any kind along Border.
  6. ‘Citizen’s Radio’ in sensitive areas, both for protection and giving information to Security Forces. (Danger of PIRA intervention).

Controlling Access

With attacks on Security Forces (SF) increasing on the north of the border, action was taken to restrict movement in this border region. In the past, PIRA members would retreat south following an attack, knowing that the British SF or police were not able to pursue.

The 330 mile border between Northern Ireland the Republic was crossed by 297 roads and tracks. Of these, only 15 were approved crossing places and a further 20 were permitted to be used as a concession to locals. The establishment of what would now have been a hard border was no mean feat. With minimal Royal Engineer support to Northern Ireland in 1969 at the start of Operation Banner, the permanent staff of 74 Engineer Regiment (Volunteers) undertook reconnaissance of all border crossing points. This was again undertaken in August and September 1969 when 3 Field Squadron conducted a further survey. Right from the start, the border was going to prove a tricky problem to solve.

In August 1970 it was decided that the strict control of border crossings would be enforced, and as a result 53 selected crossings were spiked and closed to regular traffic. However, by October 1970, mainly due to difficulties in policing the closures, the border was effectively open again.

The Royal Engineers were tasked with closing or destroying the many hundreds of non-approved crossing points in an attempt to restrict PIRA movement. In the early days, there were a variety of methods for doing this to varying effect:

  • Mark 1 system consisting of asymmetric tripods welded from 4 3/4 inch x 1 1/4 inch steel beams concreted into the road (known as spiking). No policy to have standing guards so locals removed them and continued to cross. 
  • Mark 2 system made up of 40 gallon drums filled with concrete with steel tubes through the centre, and extending 5 feet below the road surface. 
  • Mark 3 system of 15 hundredweight concrete blocks. 
  • Mark 4, a steel wire stop cast into the blocks and connected to a steel beam concreted into a trench across the road. 
A closed border crossing in County Armagh. The Irish border is indicated by the green line, the road can clearly be seen approaching from the north before it comes to an abrupt halt. The old route of the road can also be seen continuing south. © Google Earth 2019

In April 1971 the Engineer in Chief decided that a detailed study of the border should be undertaken to investigate all aspects of its control including the use of new surveillance devices. Using a civilian hire car and under the guise of friends on a fishing holiday, the small Royal Engineer survey team examined every crossing point along the 330 mile border and assessed the requirements for control. The estimate for total surveillance was 24 Battalions – up to 12,000 soldiers (estimating 500 per Battalion). An alternative had to be sought.

By September 1971, Operation Ashburton was initiated to close the border crossings. 33 Field Squadron Royal Engineers from their camp at Long Kesh, supported by 9 Independent Parachute Squadron, erected barriers and used explosive cratering charges and rooting to close the roads. As a result of Op Ashburton 75 roads were kept closed. Due to both the long distances to travel and the deteriorating security situation, helicopters were used to deploy the engineers and their protection parties and for the transport of explosives from the Ammunition Depot at Ballykinlar.

they could use booby traps, bombs and ambush troops in the relative safety of the open countryside and flee across the border

The change of tactics by the PIRA in 1973 brought the fight to the border regions

The PIRA tactics in 1972 had been urban rioting in Belfast and Londonderry but in 1973 this was replaced by shootings against the Security Forces. In these situations, the PIRA were at a disadvantage against the now well trained and accustomed troops and so moved their activities to rural and border areas where they could use booby traps, bombs and ambush troops in the relative safety of the open countryside and flee across the border.

It was inevitable that maintaining security around the border was going to be difficult, and in the historic diaries of the Royal Engineers, details of the continuing work were recorded:

In 30 October 1973 an unofficial crossing at Corriagunt Bridge was closed. This involved the use of a Puma helicopter to airlift a prefabricated Braithwaite tank (Editor comment: a Braithwaite tank was a modular, steel section tank primarily for water storage and supply) which was filled with concrete. The surrounding road on the NI side of the border was cratered for 200 metres of its length. 

Two soldiers of an unknown regiment stand in front of a border crossing consisting of concrete filled Braithwaite tanks. Source unknown

15 November 1973, 33 Field Squadron carried out a number of road closures near Castlederg. With helicopter support once again, they placed concrete blocks on several unapproved crossings. 

A selection of concrete obstacles similar to the types used for border closures. The smaller blocks proved unsuccessful because locals could often simply remove the blocks and continue to use the crossing.

Permanent border closures were of limited effect and impossible to police, until finally a combination of official crossings on main roads, increased army border patrols, permanent random Vehicle Check Points (VCPs) as well as the construction of ‘watchtowers’ on prominent high points along the County Armagh border, an element of perceived control was maintained. These did however frequently prove to be the target of PIRA attacks (see Derryard Attack).