KILLEEN, Ireland ─ There is a narrow country road in Killeen in County Armagh where the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is marked by patched-up bomb craters and a tiny white-washed cottage with a large plastic sign identifying it as a Bureau de Change.
Until recently this was part of the 103-mile main road between Belfast and Dublin. It was one of the most neglected roads on the island, reflecting the political and cultural divide between the independent south and the unionist north. But few people pass along it now on their journey between the island’s two major cities.
A few hundred yards away a new freeway has opened, and automobiles and trucks glide past Killeen on porous, low-noise asphalt at 70 miles per hour, the only evidence that they have crossed into another jurisdiction being a change in the signs from miles to kilometers.
The last eight-mile stretch of the Belfast-Dublin freeway was jointly opened on July 29 by the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, reflecting the new togetherness of the two parts of the island.
The freeway, called “motorway” in the south and “dual-carriageway” in the north, has brought the two parts of Ireland closer in several respects. There are now no stop signs or traffic lights between Belfast and Dublin, apart from a toll at a suspension bridge across the river Boyne.
A journey that once took up to four hours, through towns with endless roundabouts and villages where tractors impede the traffic flow, has been reduced to one-and-a-half hours.
The completed highway makes Ireland a more attractive place for trade, investment, business and tourism, said Cowen, who quipped that if the economy was all about swings and roundabouts, that at least they had got rid of the roundabouts. It has also consigned the old road at Killeen to a backwater with a dubious history.
When I drove there after the opening ceremony I found that it has become an oasis of calm. Only a few trucks were coming off the motorway to fill up with diesel at one of the two garages or to pick up french fries at the chip shop, as the freeway has no service stations. The bureau de change was open but I saw no customers going in or out in the 20 minutes I was there.
During the Troubles, this was one of the most murderous places in Ireland. On Nov. 27, 1971, the IRA blew up the Killeen customs building, then ambushed a British Army patrol that came to investigate. But their gunfire killed instead two men, Jimmy O’Neill and Ian Hankin, who worked for the customs service.
Sixteen more people lost their lives to political violence at this border crossing, including Northern Ireland’s Chief Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife, Cecily, who perished on April 28, 1987, when an IRA bomb exploded as they drove past.
The last victims were a Northern Ireland heating contractor, Robert Hanna, his wife Maureen and 7-year-old son, David, who were killed when an IRA landmine exploded beneath their car in Killeen on July 23, 1988.
They were returning home from Dublin airport after a vacation in the United States, and the 1,000-pound explosive device had been intended for Northern Ireland High Court Judge Eoin Higgins, also coming back from a U.S. trip.
All border customs posts were abandoned in 1992 when the European Single Market came into effect, and British Army checkpoints were removed after the Troubles officially ended, but there is still a slight air of menace in Killeen and people don’t talk much to strangers.
Dissident republicans, who oppose the participation of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, in the government of Northern Ireland, are active in the area. In December a 70-pound bomb was defused at the Killeen bridge under the Belfast-Dublin railway line.
Cowen called the militant hard-liners “people on the margins” who are not relevant in today’s Ireland.
McGuinness, himself formerly an IRA leader in Derry, surveyed the new freeway carved out of the rounded hills above Newry. “They need to come and look at this road today and see what the future is like,” he said.