By the early 1990s, civil servants, ministers and the tourism industry were increasingly concerned about the off-putting appearance of the security installations along the border, according to newly-declassified government files.
A draft February 1992 ministerial submission, to go in the name of NIO minister Richard Needham, said that “Hugh O’Neill, chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and I continue to be concerned about the adverse impact which the appearance of border checkpoints have on tourist and potential investors crossing the land frontier to visit Northern Ireland”.
Mr Needham said he was “firmly of the opinion that, without compromising security, the appearance of Cloghoge [the main checkpoint at the Newry border] can be improved”.
In the late 1980s, ministers had agreed to dress up check points in material which would be less visually unpleasant. But a confidential 1992 note said that improvements had been delayed after the IRA targeted the sites with ‘human bombs’ – where civilians were forced to drive bombs which they were then detonated remotely.
In a November 1990 meeting with Mr Needham, Lord Brookborough told him that he was “extremely concerned about the delays caused at the various checkpoints” and the impact on tourism.
A note of the meeting by Mr Needham’s private secretary Jenny Pyper said: “He pointed out that from the point of view of the local people as well, these checkpoints were causing considerable delays and...many of the local people had reverted to opening some of the lesser used border roads. This in itself caused problems for the security forces”. Mr Needham said that for some time he had been concerned that “no thought appeared to have been given to how such checkpoints could be made more ‘user-friendly’.”
In a June 1990 meeting between Mr Needham, the Army and NIO officials, the minister referred to “the sometimes ‘fearsome’ mode of dress and patrolling of soldiers in Belfast city centre and particularly the practice of standing upright whilst observing from landrovers”.
Referring to the visual impact of border checkpoints, he said it was “important not to leave the impression with people visiting Northern Ireland that they were coming to an armed camp”.
In a 1991 meeting, Mr Needham said that he wanted a campaign to encourage southern visitors. At that point, he said that 600,000 people from Northern Ireland travelled south but only 300,000 came in the other direction.
America’s top diplomat in Northern Ireland sent the head of the civil service a letter rippling with discontent after he was held up at the border in 1993.
US Consul General Douglas Archard’s letter to Sir David Fell has been released among files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year rule.
The strong letter of complaint was written in April 1993 after Mr Archard was held up for 30 minutes at the Cloghoge checkpoint near Newry.
The US diplomat told the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service that the “inordinate delay” seemed to be “for no good reason”.
Highlighting that he was returning from the opening of the Slieve Gullion Courtyard project, an effort to encourage tourism in the area, Mr Archard said that the impact of such border delays would be to discourage tourism.