Breaking Down Borders

by Margaret Kanjee

On the first day of April 1923
I was placed on the roadside
For travellers to see
That from this point on, they were about
To enter either the North or the South
As a simple sign I looked slightly uncool
But people soon learned that I was nobody’s fool
For day or night they could see my high beam
Just as they approached the townland of Killeen

I assumed that my job was a temporary position
But dividing up Ireland was no quick transition
Not least due to the ambiguity of the Boundary Commission.
In particular were the problems with Article 12
What wording to keep and what to shelve.
Northern Unionists were vehemently opposed
To changes that Southern Nationalists optimistically proposed

The Commission did little to please either side
And the fraying of tempers could not be denied
The mere words Free State made James Craig frown
While De Valera would take no oath to the Crown
It was even suggested to differentiate people on how they were taxed
But, and perhaps for the better, this was quietly axed!

Feetham declared “there will be no plebiscite”
The incompetent Mac Neill assumed he was right.
So, with little revision of previous decisions
Feetham prioritised religious divisions
He ignored the will of people, and the importance of trade
And, in the final outcome the original cartography stayed.
And so my border duty continued with time
In the form of a simple red and white sign
Portraying just two words Stop and Stad
But in either language, those optics looked bad
After the partition trauma, it was only to be expected
That I was not always going to be respected
As customs signs brought a new kind of strife
For local communities going about  daily life.

“Can I buy in the North?
“Or sell in the South?”
The two words on my sign helped them work it all out
And I know for a fact that many a load
Decided to take the unapproved road!

For seventy years I did my duty
And came across a lot of booty
But, with the introduction of the European Single Market
Cross border goods were no longer a target
Then Globalisation all but cancelled restriction
And borders were consigned to works of fiction.

As people could now travel anywhere to shop
Stad and stop signs were facing the chop!
To my loyal team mates  it came as a shock
That into the grinder, I might drop
“In an alternative environment, we could still see him”
And they lovingly placed me in a museum.
So it was not to be a final goodbye
As I continued to remain in the public eye
And truth be told I thought it ironic
That as time passed  I became iconic!

“Oh look… there’s dear old Stop and Stad”
And many a humorous exchange was had
Of how a young child’s heart would flutter
When told “Quick! sit down in the seatwell
But mind the eggs….and the butter!”

Then the  referendum result of 2016
Brought political turmoil, the likes never seen
Because, from the EU the UK would exit
Ushering in the birth of Brexit
And for me it came as no surprise
That the vexed question of  Ireland should arise
Would the border be soft ?
Or would it be hard?
For months on end these questions jarred
It seem for sure that heads would roll
In the skirmishing  to resolve Irish border control

Might I even be ordered  to come out of retirement
And go back on the road as an essential requirement?
But Modern customs technology left me mesmerised
How could I ever adapt to the new computerised!
Ultimately, a duplicitous decision, greatly chastised
Meant that  my fears  never materialised.

Up in the north, Arelene could not quite garner
Much enthusiasm for Michel Barnier
And though Boris made her  even crosser
A more cordial bond she tried to foster
“DUP allegiance to  Britain continues the same
We’ll back Brexit, and in the Union remain”
This, sentiment, however, was  not  a cross party refrain
“Our future is in Brussels” countered canny Michelle of Sinn Féin
An Taoiseach Leo with her agreed
And took to social media with lightning speed
“Yeah yeah,  we’re proud to be Irish
His tweet oozed sincerity and feelin’
Hashtag,  ultimately, we’re all European.”

Commotions in the Commons  was the stuff of cartoon
Tory party  solutions  rivalled Milligan’s Puckoon
The details were leaked and before very soon
A raucous Labour chorused “It’s the work of a goon!”
When bellicose Bercow bellowed “Order Order”
A haughty Rees Mogg sniffed “were merely respecting the Irish border”
Boris jumped in all bungle and zest
“ My Learned opposition,  assured you may rest
That me and my  party are doing our best
To get a fair deal
For our friends to the west”.

But Ireland had the measure of Boris Johnson
He cared little for the concessions we lost or won
With echoes of Feetham  in days now long gone
His sole objective was to “get Brexit done”

Protocols replaced backstops
As the customs row raged
And Arelene implored her errant PM
 to become more engaged
But Boris was not a man
 for perusing in detail
 the intricacies of Ireland’s cross border retail
“Enough is enough” he began to whine
“The clock is approaching the given deadline
Now, there’s nothing left to do but sign”

By now Arelene had begun to fret
That backing Boris was an unsafe bet
And how  humiliating it was to have to plea
For a little more time so all could agree
“Que sera” quipped Boris
To a duped DUP
And  callously concluded
“what will be, will be”
As the border was placed down the Irish Sea.

There’s now been a hundred years of  resistance
Since I first  displayed the border’s existence
I’ve seen many changes, the good and the bad
Through the lens of Stop and Stad
But freedom of  movement remains somewhat uncharted
And efforts to explore this should not be thwarted
 Dialogue must take precedence over inanimate signs
And break down borders in our hearts and our minds.

Reproduced with kind permission of the author. This poem was composed in Poetry as Commemoration workshops held at Newry & Mourne Museum on 7th and 14th of October, 2023. The workshops were led by poet Maria McManus.

Cover Image: Scans of map included with the Irish Boundary Commission final report, 1925. Available in B&W for free on National Archives (UK). Public Domain.