Roscommon resident John O’Beirne knows a thing or two about the Irish border. As a potato inspector for the Department of Agriculture in 1963, John would regularly visit Northern Ireland in order to inspect the crop before it was exported from Derry.
Later on he would work closely with the authorities in Northern Ireland as they attempted to encourage cross-border cooperation in the 1980s. By then, things had changed dramatically in the North because of the Troubles.
“I was a young fellow during that period and I used to go down to dances in Dublin and come back at all hours of the morning. The customs would be closed of course when you’d come back so the following morning the first thing you’d have to do was to go down to the customs and get stamped out – otherwise you’d be in trouble because you had been stamped in!
“The other important thing you had to watch out for was that you had your white bulb working under your number plate. That white bulb was the most important thing they looked for so they could keep an eye on you! Back then there was no problem other than the hassle of going through customs,” he said.
Things had changed when John started his work with Northern Ireland’s agriculture department on the late 1980s.
“A survey was done to figure out how to get Catholics and Protestants together without the violence. There were three things: music, horses and fishing.
“There was a twelve-county cooperation between north and south and into that went money from the International Fund for Ireland,” he said.
John was a liaison officer for some of the equine schemes involved in the programme and had to travel across the border regularly.
“It was not nice. When I had to go up to Belfast to meet officials I wasn’t allowed to park my car. A porter there would park the car for you and any time you left the office for lunch or whatever, you signed out and you signed back in. Things were completely different in the late 1980s.
“I became a target of the paramilitaries, and when meeting officials I had to go to the Killyhevlin Hotel outside Fermanagh, but that was blown up. We moved then to Mahon’s in Irvinestown and there was a big bomb there too. It came to the stage where I would not travel. I was working officially for Teagasc but there was a secondment whereby I worked for the Department of Agriculture in the North,” he said.
John said the return of a hard border to Ireland would cause huge problems both in terms of sectarian tensions and the movement of goods and that he hoped both sides could come to some sort of agreement.