Saturday, February 9, 2013

Aboard the "Partition Express" (1948)

This is a pretty long article by the then UK Labour MP, Norman Smith, who was elected in 1945 and held his seat for 10 years. It's worth reading in its entirety, for a number of reasons. First off it describes the customs arrangements the north and south had at the time and the old railway that linked Bundoran to Belfast and Dublin. Also worth noting is Smith's attitude to the Irish language and socialism's prospects in Ireland. He points out some of the short comings of Northern Ireland that would come to a head 20 years later. Smith also neatly predicts the formation of the European Economic Community a decade before it was to come into being and 25 years before Ireland, north and south, would join. This article appeared in the (Melbourne) Argus, December 11th, 1948. The original article also included an image of the border town of Pettigo but it of too low a quality to include here.

Aboard the "Partition Express": This journey by an Irish Train Which Crosses the Border Five Times, Is Symbolic of the Problem of Partition Between the North and South.

Its real name is "The Bundoran Express," for it conveys travellers between Dublin and the popular County Donegal seaside resort. It is a very fine train by any Irish railway standards; and a through carriage labelled "Bclfast-Bundoran" connects with it at Clones. When you leave Bundoran the Belfast-bound coach is cordoned off from the Dublin part of the train. Customs men, with harps on their caps, examine our luggage and put it into a sealed compartment after satisfying themselves that we are not trying to export butter, ham, cigarettes, or other forbidden things. Then we are locked in. Off goes the train.

The Bundoran-Belfast coach crosses the border no fewer than five times on its journey - thrice from Eire into "the North" (as they call Northern Ireland all over the island), and twice from the North into Eire. So the Great Northern(Ireland) Railway Company arranges for the intermediate stages of the trip to be non-stop while the train is in Northern Ireland, even at the cost of passing through sizable places like Belleek or Newtown Butler, as well as Enniskillen, the largest town for nearly a hundred miles in these parts. Only when the border has been crossed from Eire into Northern Ireland for the third and last time does the train call at intermediate stations of "the North."

First crossing after leaving Bundoran is a little west of Belleek, famous for its pottery.Then for a few miles we are in the North and consequently non-stop. Later we cross from Fermanagh back into Donegal a mile or two before we stop at Pettigo.A little way east of Pettigo we are again in County Fermanagh, as is evident from occasional Union Jacks fluttering defiantly from loyal cottages. On we rattle for more than an hour until, in Eire once again, we stop at Clones for the operation of detaching our coach, which is coupled to the front of a Belfast-bound train that started its journey at Cavan, somewhere in mid-Eire.

Leaving the Bundoran Express to continue southwards towards Dublin, we now head north-east for Belfast, soon stopping at Monaghan for Eireann Customs men to search everyone's luggage except ours, which is still in the sealed compartment. It takes time; but eventually we get away again, and make our fifth crossing of the border at Tynan, just inside County Armagh, and, therefore, in a country where the Customs men wear crowns and not harps on their caps. These servants of HM Customs begin by searching the baggage of all the good people who had been searched at Monaghan by the Eireann men. Then they approach our locked carriage. Do any of us wish to leave the train before Belfast? Yes, one or two want to get out at Lisburn or Portadown! Very well! The sealed compartment must be unsealed for the removal of these people's baggage, which is duly searched at Tynan. The compartment is sealed again, and off goes the train once more.

At long last we come to a standstill alongside the roped-off arrival platform at Belfast - roped off, that is, for- our carriage only. HM Custom men search our baggage, and finally we find ourselves, free again, on the streets of the northern capital. From the time the first Customs formalities start at Bundoran until the last ones end at Belfast is exactly six hours. It is certain that, if there were no border, a good hour and a half could be knocked off the trip. And now a new anti-partition campaign is in full swing throughout Eire. Mr de Valera stumps the big cities of Great Britain. The claimant demand for "a united Ireland" begins all over again, and in an atmosphere heated by the Dublin Government's decision to cut the last formal link binding Eire to the Commonwealth.

The truth is that very many people in the North would fight before agreeing to be ruled from Dublin. That is the inescapable fact. There are three main reasons for this. First is that the North, predominantly Protestant, regards the overwhelmingly Catholic South with a sullen suspicion, which has been deepened by the Eire Government's frenzied efforts to revive the almost extinct Irish language. Second, while Eire, since it became a Free State, has done all in its power to cut the British connection, Northern Ireland is devoted to the Crown.And third, Belfast business men share with most of the city's workers the conviction that the British connection adds to their coffers.

The neutrality question is nowadays more important than the religious. While Britain stood alone against Hitler, Eire-stood aloof. And she remained aloof to the end. The average northerner does not believe, any more than you or I believe, that it didn't matter a hoot whether Hitler conquered Britain or not. It is no answer to say that very many Eireann citizens joined the British Forces. What signifies is the governmental attitude. As for the economic bond between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, Belfast knows that the Glasgow and Belfast establishments of Messrs Harland and Wolff could no more be separated from each other than two eggs could be parted out of an omelette. Most Belfast people shudder at the thought of a Customs barrier such as a united Ireland would interpose between Ulster and Great Britain. "Britain," they argue, "is a better market for us than Eire, because Britain's population is about 15 times Eire's."

There is, of course, something to be said on the other side. The southern Irish maintain that the Northern Ireland Government rigs electoral boundaries most unscrupulously to the detriment of Catholic minorities, and even indulges in repressive practice. But the decisive factor in the controversy is the unalterable objection of a big majority in the North to any ending of partition.

I believe it would have been practicable in 1886, 1893, or 1912, when Liberal Governments in London sought to enact Home Rule, to enact a Dominion of Ireland,united as between North and South and no less loyal to the British connection than Australia, for instance, is loyal. But the opportunity passed. For since those days an exaggerated, and probably unreasonable, Irish national sentiment has been kindled by the consequences of the "Easter Week" rebellion in 1916, when the South, acting on the maxim that "England's extremity is Ireland's opportunity," took advantage of the Kaiser's war to rise in armed revolt. In the bloody struggle that ensued the savagery of the so-called Irish Republican Army (a sort of Irish counterpart to Palestine's Irgun)was even excelled, if possible, by the brutality of the "Black and Tans," who had the task of reprisals.

It has been said that if both Eire and the North could elect Labour Governments, the two could come together, on the basis of a common devotion to Socialism. This superficial view ignores the truth that there is no more conservative and anti-Socialist country in Europe than Eire. World events may soon compel the formation of a Western Union, embracing the non-Communist nations of Europe in one defence, currency, and Customs amalgamation. Then Ireland will at last be united, though that is hardly the same as the "United Ireland" of the present campaign against partition.

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