The realisation that Brexit was going to happen and that we did not know what the implications were for the future of the Irish border was the initial impetus for this event under the Southern Voice Programme at Glencree. All the speculation about soft and hard borders and the fears expressed about how this might affect progress towards peace on this island are, we felt, worthy of public dialogue. We, therefore, wanted to create a space for dialogue, to share understandings of the nature and proximity of, administrative borders, imaginative borders, and symbolic borders and how they affect us all in different ways.
We also felt it was important to consider how international borders are used to divide and to prevent movement of those fleeing war and searching for a better future, while at the same time acknowledging the need to protect and keep people safe. What has been the experience of borders of those who have had to negotiate them as they flee and how is this expressed by these who have sought asylum and become refugees in Ireland? This event was intended to bring together people who were interested in these themes who might have something to say while Glencree would provide the space and support for these conversations
The morning got started with the gentle and atmospheric sounds provided by Second Wind which offered a warm welcome to guests and speakers. Barbara Walshe, the chair of Glencree opened the event by reminding us that it was exactly a year since Brexit was announced and this remains a huge challenge and a context for the day’s proceedings. She also initiated a minute’s silence to honour all those who had died in recent atrocities in Britain and elsewhere and included those killed in the Grenfell fire.
Joe Robinson then provided an introduction to the day’s events including the invitation for the audience to get involved in the discussions that would follow the panels. He then introduced Prof Catherine Nash who gave the opening lecture referencing ‘Partitioned Lives: The Irish Borderlands’ her 2013 publication on the subject. This was a thorough overview of the realities, implications, diverse perspectives and lived experience of borders that set up what followed through a geographical lens.
Prof Nash then hosted the first panel whose members were asked to focus on ‘Imagining Borders’. This consisted of Garrett Carr, Kapka Kassabova and Bryonie Reid. Garrett talked about walking and mapping the Irish border and the cross stitching brought to the map by small crossings such as gates, bridges and laneways. Borderlanders are united by the terrain as much as they are divided in the sense of being defined by different national constructions. Kapka spoke about how the Bulgarian-Turkish border she had grown up with was a hard-edged barrier to people trying to go south and how many lost their lives in the attempt. Now it’s a soft border for Bulgarians but an impassable one for those fleeing war in Syria and other countries. A lively discussion emerged with very active audience participation and the theme of borders within and the exclusionary lines drawn to deny the presence of asylum seekers and other minorities in society was raised by a number of contributors. Bryonie talked about how borders are often shaped by men in offices with maps who have never been in the areas they are defining of the future of and how the border areas were characterised by fear and violence and cut off from the wider world during the Troubles. Her photographs illustrate the sense of periphery and isolation that was also represented by the images that Kapka showed.
The sun came out and we broke for lunch and after some nice food relaxing time we had border crossing through music with Kiruu joined by Ronan O’Snodaigh on bodhrán and Richard Campbell on Lambeg drum, the two major traditions on this island working together on a song about peace. Then we were into the second panel of the day chaired by Zoë O’Reilly and featuring inputs from Razan Ibraheem, Vukašin Nedeljković and Caoimhe Butterly. Razan talked about the effects of war on ordinary Syrians and those who have had to flee for their lives, finding their realities transformed from living ordinary lives in a beautiful country to uncertain futures in refugee camps and dangerous sea crossings. She encouraged people to greet anyone from Syria that they might meet with a smile and inspired the audience to respond positively and actively to the crisis that is still unfolding. Vukašin spoke about the experience of people living in direct provision and showed slides from his photographic documentation to illustrate the sense of powerlessness and degradation involved for those who are forced into this system. Having lived through this experience he pointed out how i brutal and de-humanising it is how it effects those who live in it make them ‘non-persons’ at the mercy of the state. Speakers from the floor reflected this and gave us all cause for reflection as to where we are located in this process. Caoimhe led us into this discussion showing her film about Idomeni camp in Greece and the experience of Syrian refugees living there, highlighting how they see closed borders as another form of violence used against them. She spoke about the collaborative process of working with people to document their reality rather than appropriating their experience in a voyeuristic way as media often do. It is a moving and provocative piece of filmmaking that asked questions of those living in the relative security of ‘safe European homes’.
The final panel featured two very different presentations. Prof. Gi-Beom Lee spoke about the Korean border and the restrictive policies of recent South Korean governments which has made all border crossing difficult and prevented his organisation Okedongmu providing development aid and doing peacebuilding work. He has crossed the border to North Korea more than thirty times but has not been able to go there for nine years, though he plans to visit there again in August. Piaras Mac Einri brought us back home with reflections on how the focus in Brexit negotiations affecting Ireland will be on defending the common travel area only for citizens of the Republic and Northern Ireland with negative implications for migrants. He highlighted our failure to develop our own migration policy and the tendency to follow UK policy in this regard. Again this echoed the previous concern of a border emerging more generally between the citizens of Europe and those who have been forced to flee to Europe and what kind of future this suggests.
After a brief interlude where there was a chance to view a work in progress, the new Glencree film being crafted by Alan Gilsenan, the audience were asked to give their feedback and the work is certainly moving in the right direction. It is both atmospheric and absorbing and reminds us of both the magic and unique possibility Glencree offers as a location and organisation for peacebuilding endeavours.
The last act of the day was a wonderful opportunity to hear Frank Mc Guinness talk about the role of borders of all kinds in his life and work. Andy Pollak teased out some of the playwright’s stories from Buncrana to Dublin and Coleraine. He spoke of the vital role of border crossing in the family economy with women working in the shirt factories in Derry which formed the subject of his play ‘The Factory Girls’. Frank also reminded us of the need to hear the terrible grief of the Troubles and how art might have a role to play in leading the way. A wonderful end to the day as William Devas closed the proceedings and reminded us that nothing is resolved but we go away with a sense of the work that must be done.
The themes of the day were by no means exhausted, though the audience were happy to go outside and get the fresh air and have a glass of wine in the sun. The achievement of Borders and Borderlands’ was to bring diverse perspectives and a range of speakers to an equally disparate audience and allow the conversation to flow. Though the atmosphere was informal and the event was enjoyable, we are certain that people went home with lots to think about.