N. Ireland Farmers Forced off Land See Hope of Return

It is 25 years since John McClure and his wife and five children left behind a 100-acre farm close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In the 1970s, as part of its campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army was targeting Protestant families living in isolated rural areas.

When the IRA killed a Protestant neighbor of the McClures in March 1972, they were advised to leave their farm at Garrison in County Fermanagh. The land has been owned by the family since 1942.

Mr. McClure, a weather-beaten man in work boots and tweed jacket, recalls being "under a terrible lot of strain. Somebody who lived all your life beside you has been shot. You're in the same position, and you know you could be next."

The McClure story is not unique. The isolated border area is difficult terrain to police and locally became known as "bandit territory." In recent months, security forces on both sides of the border have uncovered arms and training areas belonging to the IRA.

The number of Protestant families who left is not known. Now a new organization has been formed to help those families forced to abandon their homes. Fear Encouraged Abandoning Roots (FEAR) is led by Arlene Foster, who as a child in 1979 was forced to leave her home in Enniskillen after her father was shot at by the IRA.

FEAR has employed a community worker to trace the families who abandoned their homes. And it has applied to the European Union for financial assistance in helping families reclaim uncultivated land and restore old farmhouses.

Few families actually sold their land. Many like John McClure rented it out. A few years ago his son, Richard, took over the farm. However, he commutes to the farm where the old family home stands derelict. The senior McClure would like to restore the house and return home. "I would be happy to go back. I would surely, if the [IRA] cease-fire lasts, if I was sure it was permanent."

"There is a feeling that attempts are still being made to squeeze them out of the community in which they live," Ms. Foster says. Many hope that July's IRA cease-fire and the peace talks just starting between unionists and nationalist representatives will help ease tensions.

Divisions still persist. In recent months, several Protestant churches in the border area have been vandalized.

Few Catholics support such action. At the height of the IRA's border campaign the vast majority of Catholics were sympathetic to the plight of their Protestant neighbors. McClure recalls that when he left his farm in 1972 an offer of financial help came from the Catholic owner of a local shop. He says, "We never had any problems with our neighbors down here, or with neighbors across the border."

The border areas have suffered heavy losses due to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The tourist potential of the region has not been exploited. One recent initiative was the reopening of the Ballyconnell Canal, which links the Shannon River in the Irish Republic with the lakes of County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. Two thirds of the 30 million ($45 million) for the investment in this near 100-mile canal came from the European Union.

Over five years ending in 1999 the EU hopes to spend 1.5 billion ($2.3 billion) in the Irish border region. FEAR wants some of this money to be used to help people like McClure return home. Founder Foster argues that "if we could get even some of these people back on their land, it would be worthwhile."

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