In 1971, the UK government closed 100 Irish border crossings and cratered them with explosives

The motorway from Belfast to Dublin earlier this month. Image: Getty.

William Gladstone is said to have remarked that, whenever a solution to the ‘Irish Question’ was found, the Irish secretly changed the question. Historian Piers Brendon provided an equally droll rebuttal: “The trouble was that the Irish question remained the same – how to get rid of the Union?”

A generation after Gladstone’s death, the Anglo-Irish Treaty cemented the partition of Ireland following the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. The sectarian underpinning of partition ensured towns and villages were cut off from hinterlands, farms were split, and local businesses suffered.

This land border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK extends over 300 miles. Crossing points range from motorways and dual carriageways to secondary roads and dirt tracks, many known only to locals. As the ‘Troubles’ escalated from 1970 onwards, IRA arms and explosives sourced in the Republic or smuggled there from abroad were often transported over the border into Northern Ireland. In 1971, Ulster Unionist MP William Stratton Mills referred to this as a “gelignite trail across the border”, drawing parallels with the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

That August, the Stormont government’s decision to introduce internment without trial, directed solely at the nationalist population, led to a sharp increase in violence. In response, the government announced that all “unapproved” border crossings were to be cratered and made impassable. Ostensibly, this initiative – along with increased military security on the “approved” roads – would reduce the violence by starving Northern IRA units of supplies. Some suspected, however, that hardline members of the Ulster Unionist Party, such as John Taylor (now Baron Kilclooney), were using the opportunity to hermetically seal their state off from the Republic once and for all. The decision to close “unapproved” border roads was taken unilaterally: the government of the Irish Republic were not consulted.

Both Official and Provisional wings of the IRA issued warnings to the British Army about cratering operations. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association also warned of its alienating effect on locals, pointing out that

“anybody determined to take arms or explosives into the North would not be deterred by holes in the road. The only people to suffer would be members of the local community, farmers, housewives and schoolchildren who had to make long detours as they went about their daily business.  The total effect iss to bring about the resentment of the army.”

The Irish-American journalist, P. Michael O’Sullivan, witnessed a full-scale border riot in County Tyrone, between locals and British soldiers during a cratering operation in late 1971. This was not atypical. Republican militants, many of whom were part of these border communities, were quick to see the strategic advantage in targeting British Army cratering operations. Following an Official IRA gun attack on a British Army squad engaged in cratering operations, that organisation released a statement referring to cratering as

“an act calculated to disrupt the lives of many people who depend upon the roads for their day-to-day travel… We wish to thank all the people of the area for the support they gave to our units and for their prompt action in filling the road. We pledge ourselves to defend their rights whenever similar acts of aggression are carried out by the British Army under instructions from Faulkner’s bully boys like John Taylor.”

The following year, the Official IRA unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Taylor, grievously wounding him in a shooting. The organisation’s statement following the attack noted: “Mr Taylor was the main advocate of the policy of cratering Border roads. This policy was designed to heighten tension along the Border.”

Numerous newspaper reports from Northern Ireland in the last quarter of 1971 report locals refilling roads after British Army operations. After just a few weeks of the operation, the cost for supplies – explosives, vehicles – was estimated at £10,000 in the currency of the time.

By the end of the year, a joke was circulating among political circles in Belfast and London regarding the road cratering strategy: Ulster Unionists wanted all the cratered roads on the border to be marked as holes on a map. The map was then to be presented by British officers to Prime Minister Edward Heath with the instructions to tear along the dotted line.

When the British Army sought to blockade roads with anti-tank traps instead of cratering, locals simply used construction machinery to remove the “spikes” as soon as the army left the scene. Sometimes, they did not even wait that long.


With time, the value of this tactic towards reducing violence was bound to be questioned – particularly as Provisional IRA attacks on British Army border operations were becoming increasingly sophisticated and commonplace. On one occasion in December 1971, soldiers came under sustained rifle and machinegun fire from the border, just 150 yards away.

Although the troops succeeded in cratering the road, this was their third time having to do so. On both previous occasions, locals refilled the road as soon as the soldiers had left. A newspaper report of the incident noted that “local residents were last night making plans to fill them again.”

The following month, a British soldier was killed by concealed mines during a cratering operation. Several days earlier, a British Army helicopter was reported to have fired on an IRA unit attempting an ambush of a cratering party. Gunfire from the helicopter was indiscriminate and struck houses on the southern side of the border, causing a diplomatic event.

In January 1972, over 1,000 rounds were fired in an exchange between the British Army and Provisional IRA units on the border. Following the encounter, a claymore-type bomb was found and defused. The command wire from the bomb ran over the border into the South.

The same day, John Taylor claimed that cratering led to “a considerable decline” in the number of hit-and-run attacks along the border. Taylor also acknowledged that nearly half of the 140 roads that were made impassable had been filled in again by locals.

Three days later, the Parachute Regiment indiscriminately fired into a Civil Rights demonstration in the city of Derry, killing thirteen civilians; another man later died of his wounds. Any remaining bonds of support for or tolerance towards the British Army within the nationalist community had been irrevocably broken. The conflict had entered its bloodiest year where, at its height, the Provisional IRA were conducting attacks across the border daily.

Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee reported on the possible outcomes for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic as part of the Brexit strategy:

“33,000 members of the Armed Forces were deployed in Northern Ireland. If you talk to veterans, I do not think you will find a single officer who thought the border was sealed for one hour during that period. All the evidence is that it was not.”

George Hamilton, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, believes that any physical infrastructure along the border would become the subject of “unhelpful attention” from militant Irish republicans. He has emphatically ruled out any border situation which would make his officers into “sitting ducks”.

Any proposal to address the border issue – the new “Irish question” – must be mindful of past and future; potential support for militant Irish republicans today and the inability to police the border with thousands of troops during the three decade-long ‘Troubles’.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.