Wednesday, 27 February 2013

They order these things better in Ireland

Dublin’s one of those places that one really ought to visit frequently, simply for the good of one’s soul.

It’s been the best part of twenty years since I was last there. Previous visits had opened my eyes to many charming aspects of Irish life: 

  • the time they were gradually switching over from miles to kilometres on road signs, so a ’50’ could mean a speed restriction in kilometres or in miles per hour and the only way you could tell was if you remembered which character font was being used for which; 
  • the time we were told that they were celebrating the millennium of the city several years late because they’d missed the date, but promised to get it right next millennium; 
  • the time I watched a young man, without hope of reward or even waiting for thanks, stooping to stand my youngest son – then three – back up on his feet after he’d fallen flat on his face in Grafton Street.

O'Connell Street: 
about as far as I got into the enchanted city of Dublin today
So I was delighted to return this morning, even if only for the day. And I was even more pleased that my visit started with another illustration of the qualities that make the Irish so special.

We talk so much of the bitterness that separated England from Ireland that we often forget that there are also familial bonds that link the nations. In many respects, Ireland is not a foreign country: Irishmen never lost the right to live, work and even vote in Britain; the six copyright libraries of Britain, which have a right to a copy of every book published in the country, still include the library of Trinity College Dublin; and travel between Britain and Ireland is unrestricted, with no requirement to carry or show a passport.

That made it odd when I arrived at Dublin airport this morning to be asked to produce my passport at the exit.

‘What’s this?’ I asked, ‘I thought passports weren’t necessary between Britain and Ireland.’

‘Technically, that’s right,’ the Garda officer replied, ‘but the trouble is we don’t have any other exit we can use for travellers from Britain.’

I had no complaints. Indeed, I found the experience magical.

My mind went back to the summer of 1982 when I was in East Berlin. Heading back to the Western side on one occasion, I passed an armed guard who checked my papers; then I followed a long corridor with a chicane in it, which contained another guard, this time with a machine gun. Beyond it was a guardhouse where my papers were checked again; then a short walk across the death strip before the final wicket gate, held open by another armed guard after he too had checked my papers.

Beyond was Checkpoint Charlie, with the three soldiers, an American, a Frenchman and a Brit, sitting at their desk behind the window facing into the East. I still had my passport in my hand so I went towards them, holding it out. No-one looked up. They neither waved me through nor waved me on; they certainly didn’t glance at my papers.

I could have kicked myself. Of course they wouldn’t examine my passport. The Western powers didn’t recognise the demarcation line between the two sides of Berlin as an international border. To make any gesture of checking passports would have been to admit that there really was a border there. That would have meant denying a principle they weren’t prepared to abandon, even though, as my own experience had indisputably proved, what I had just crossed  really was a border and, indeed, was the most fearsome in Europe. Citizens of the East attempting to do the same might have paid for it with their lives.

In Dublin this morning, the principle was that no-one arriving from Britain needed to show a passport, but to honour it would have meant putting an extra channel in and another set of exit doors. Much too much trouble. So principle was abandoned and pragmatism triumphed.

Without wanting to knock what was happening at Checkpoint Charlie, I have to say that, in general, life would be a great deal happier around the world if more people realised that reality mattered more than noble theory.

Ah, the charm of the Irish people who’ve understood that crucial truth.

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