ALISON O'CONNOR: Belfast is so very near yet still seems as far away as ever

I’d like to see another border poll. This time the question to be asked of inhabitants north and south is how often, if ever, they have visited the other side of the border.

 I can’t speak for the traffic coming southwards but I am always amazed at the number of people I encounter who have never ever crossed the border northwards and have zero interest in ever doing so.

This crossed my mind as I relaxed into my comfortable seat on the Enterprise train to Belfast last week, listening to the woman in charge of the trolley asking passengers if they wished to pay in euro or sterling for their cup of tea or coffee.

The journey only takes two hours and is a wonderful way to travel between the two cities. As ever though, when I arrived in Belfast, there were the opposing feelings of only having travelled a short distance over land, but yet feeling an entire world away from home.

Trips to Belfast usually involve the car and that particular feeling of alienation always hits the moment I cross the border. No matter how ridiculous I tell myself I’m being.

It would have been far more understandable to have felt it when I was sent up there as a young journalist, in the mid to late 1990s — before and after the Good Friday agreement and on one occasion in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing, but even a family trip will still bring it on.

That’s exactly what was happening last week as myself and my daughter headed north for a night to visit the amazing W5 science and discovery centre, and a few other Belfast attractions. When you’re on the train the exact moment you cross the border isn’t obvious; rather you notice when your mobile phone server changes over. My daughter was asking if we were “in Northern Ireland yet”.

I started to feel slightly uncomfortable about what questions she might loudly ask (as children always do when you least want them to) if, for instance, we were to pass a neighbourhood that favoured the flying of the union flag.

As if happens we didn’t, although we subsequently saw a number of them in Belfast on the way to one of the places we were visiting.

This time when I saw them, I simply sat back in the taxi and observed, but I still had flashbacks to previous occasions when I was working, or even the last time we visited as a family, when a wrong turn was taken in the car and we ended up in a neighbourhood strewn in union flags with pavements and lampposts painted in red, white, and blue stripes.

It induced major panic in me whenever it happened 20 years ago (fearless reporter that I was) and still would today. I never know whether it is the most ridiculous overreaction or a legitimate fight or flight response.

Upon my return to Dublin last week, I asked a friend from the North, somewhat embarrassed, which reaction was the correct one. Slightly defensively (and I understand why), he said you’d have to be incredibly unlucky and end up in a “seriously rough Loyalist neighbourhood” for your southern registration plates and accent to land you in trouble.

All I could think as he spoke was that would be just my luck. He added that it was the same as ending up in a particularly rough part of Dublin. I disagreed. I might find myself in trouble then, but it would not be for my car plates, or my accent or my religion.

He also spoke about how much has changed; about how when he goes home his train stop is Portadown, and when you drive down Garaghy Rd now there is nothing visible to give away the fact that it was once one of the most notorious roads in the world.

RoboThespian, an interactive life-sized robot who can move, speak, educate,interact, and entertain, at the W5 centre in Belfast. Picture: Justin Kernoghan
RoboThespian, an interactive life-sized robot who can move, speak, educate,

interact, and entertain, at the W5 centre in Belfast. Picture: Justin Kernoghan

He came to Dublin many years ago to attend university. He is well used to my sort of reaction from people who grew up down south, a group which he and his Northern friends, now based in Dublin, wryly refer to as “the Mexicans”.

“When I first arrived, the Troubles were ongoing and I could understand people being scared, as it was deadly serious. I guess it’s a sort of sad resignation that you guys think of us as so alien, because we are not,” he says.

“I feel as Irish as anyone. I grew up watching the Late Late on a Friday night and reading the Irish papers. Yet I’ve been made to feel un-Irish. I’ve been told, even by people in work, ‘oh but you’re not Irish, you’re from the North. Yet I also accept that I am different.”

He talked of people from the North increasingly identifying as “Northern Irish” rather than Irish or British.

Then there was the perspective from a Cork friend who had only been over the Border once, on a work trip to Belfast earlier this year.

She never went to the North before because “it just seemed kind of grim and there were other places to go” and had to ask her husband if she would need her passport for her first trip.

“It’s quite the moment, isn’t it, when you cross the border and the Irish drops off the signs and the roadway colours change, and then there is the flags. I think that regardless of how anti-IRA you might be, seeing the Union Jack makes you grit your teeth. It’s so inflammatory.”

While in Belfast, she gave a lift to a Northern work colleague, and they chatted about its history. The colleague pointed down a road and said: “For instance, you wouldn’t want to be going down there with your C reg.”

My friend laughed, but just an hour later, when returning home, found she had taken a wrong turn and was in what felt like a very wrong place.

“It was the first time I realised I was somewhere I wasn’t safe and I couldn’t do anything about it — I couldn’t change my Cork plates or my accent. I just kept driving. I will go back up but it’s interesting that on the way home we were starving but didn’t stop for a sandwich until we crossed the border again.”

The North did not vote for Brexit and yet it looks set to be hugely affected by it. On one hand, there is all the talk of borders (reinforcing the divide) but on the other, we are led to believe it has increased the prospects of a united Ireland.

Irish unity is the motherhood and apple pie of opinion poll questions, that is until you might tell people that it’s happening soon and that there will be a financial cost. There is the further complication that even if the North has voted for a united Ireland, there would remain a megaload of unionists who would rather choke than be ruled by a Dublin government.

As it happens my daughter and I had a lovely visit. W5 is probably the best children’s attraction on the entire island, and we haven’t even got to the Titanic Centre yet. We also had a fantastic visit to Aunt Sandra’s Candy Factory on Castlereagh Rd, where we got to see sweet-making as it used to be, and did some serious damage to our teeth.

We will go North ourselves again but I never see that “odd” feeling disappearing.

It’s quite the moment when you cross the border and the Irish drops off the signs — and then there is the flags


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