A veteran republican friend of mine sighed sadly to me recently and said: “You know I’ve worked for Irish unity all my life and now it looks as though the supreme irony is that the Border will be removed by cross-border shopping!”
My friend was concerned at the prospect that the loss to the Irish Exchequer, caused by the flood northwards of bargain hunters from the 26 Counties, coming on top of the present catastrophic state of the public finances, would collapse the Irish economy and force the Republic back into the United Kingdom.
Hopefully his vision will prove to be unduly apocalyptic but the point he makes is unquestionably serious. It’s not just revenue which is being lost but jobs. From Newry to Derry shops are thronged with southern shoppers. But in Dundalk, for example, a few miles from Newry the biggest supermarket, SuperQuinn, has closed down. The Republic’s retail trade is suffering badly. The Irish liquor trade reckons that its sales are down 46% on the same period last year.
Part of this fall of course lies in the fact that the worst wounds are self-inflicted. Some Irish publicans have lowered their prices to meet the recession. Others however continue to advertise their descent from The Un-Repentant Thief. One of my local watering holes for instance charges eight euro fifty cent for a glass of wine.
But, apart from the rip off tendencies of Irish pubs, shops and supermarkets, on the overall retail front (and that of exports) things got worse this week. The Federal Reserve’s announcement about pump priming the US economy with trillions of tax dollars, while welcome in an overall global economy context, means that the pound has weakened still further against the euro thereby creating yet more incentive for shoppers to head north.
The Irish Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan has estimated that since Budget time last October when the British lowered their VAT (Value Added Tax) rate to 15% and the Republic’s increased by a half per cent to 21.5%, that this, coupled with the fall in sterling, meant that the Republic has lost Euro 700 millions in revenue. Over a full year this is heading for Euro 1,500 millions.
It is feared that the further, drastic, emergency budget which the nation is anticipating with dread on April 7th, can be expected to worsen, not improve this situation.
Since the Border was first drawn it has created an industry for smugglers .My mother’s father had a brother whose farm was discovered to be straddling the newly created Border when Partition was took effect back in the 1920s, I remember as a child hearing family members discuss how this circumstance was taken advantage of by “Uncle Harry” to grow rich.
One image, amongst many, which abided with me was how at Christmas time my great Uncle metamorphosed “Six County” turkeys into “Free State” turkeys by the simple expedient of opening a gate on his farm from one field into another.
Over the years the Border remained a constant source of illicit income. The then head of the Irish Special Branch told me once, during the early sixties when I was researching the first edition of my IRA book,: “If you see anyone suddenly getting rich in Dublin, buying hotels and so on, you can be sure the money comes from smuggling.”
At different time, the ebb and flow of trade meant that different product became more valuable on each side of the Border. Nylon stockings, cattle, tea, sugar, razor blades, alcohol, butter. I remember one IRA leader who had been a smuggler – an activity which taught many a guerrilla the art of elusivity, especially around Crossmaglen – telling me that he often travelled in the South for 48 hours at a time selling northern butter from his van.
When I remarked that his margin of profit, six pence a pound, hardly justified such effort he replied: “It does if you’re selling five tons at a time.”
Southern cattle going north were also a hot item, both at that time and for many years later. One big time cattle smuggler’s greed unpicked a valuable deal he had with the RUC.
He paid £1 a head to a District Inspector and in years of ever growing cattle movements, never even saw a Border patrol, never mind being stopped by one. One night he decided that, in the face of such in-activity, that, as he was moving 750 cattle, he would say nothing and keep his bullock bounty.
Unsurprisingly he was intercepted and later charged before Belfast Assizes where he suffered a hefty fine and the seizure of his cattle. Traumatised, he was reeling away from the Assizes when he was stopped by his old RUC District Inspector contact and taken for a drink, over which the policemen told the smuggler that he evidently had not realised the importance of the £1 pound levy.
It had not merely meant the absence of patrols. According to the cop: “Ten shillings went to the Lord (Lord Brookeborough, the then Six County Prime Minister. Five shillings went to the District Inspector, Two and six went to the Sergeant and the rest was divided amongst the patrol.” The pound was paid thereafter.
Prior to the comparatively recent VAT reductions and the fall in sterling, the Irish Government seeming operated a variant of the Bullock Bounty policy. A huge trade was allowed to grow up on the southern side of the border in selling petrol and diesel which meant the Republic gained as the British Exchequer lost revenue.
Much of the Six Counties mushroom growing industry was based on the Republic’s cheaper diesel. Sometimes the diesel was rendered cheaper still by illicit “laundering” of agricultural fuel. This removed the dyes which would have proved that the diesel had been sold at subsidised prices solely for use in tractors.
Apart from revenue loss, all of this activity has had the wholly undesirable side effect of creating a tradition of criminality on both sides of the Border. If one took a strip of land some ten kilometres wide on either side of the border from Carlingford Lough to the Foyle they would be excellently placed to conduct research into the theory and practice of warlordism.
But nowadays it is not warlordism that is the problem, It is the fact that Dublin housewives, and their counterparts from even further south, are shopping north of the border, not just for one or two items, that happen to be temporarily cheaper than in the Republic, but for all the contents of the entire weekly trolley from babies nappies to their partner’s six packs.
The nationalist slogan of “Hands across the border” has been translated into reality as – hands across the counter.
– First published 22nd March 2009 at IrishCentral.com