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March 20, 2019

Paintballs and politics on Ireland's battleground border

Paintballs and politics on Ireland's battleground border
'The owner of a paintballing business located on the Irish border fears for his livelihood if there's a return to a hard border' - By: AFP PAUL FAITH

Since the end of "The Troubles", a paintballers' paradise has thrived on the site of an old British army base on the Irish border.

But Watchtower Adventures owner Mark Rice fears he could go bust if Brexit brings back controls along the currently free-flowing frontier.

"It's the unknown," said Rice, 31, on whose family land the base was built.

"The professionals don't even know or the politicians -- they don't know what they're talking about either.

"You just don't know, you could wake up some morning the next day with the road blocked," he said.

"It would probably close me down, that is the big fear, and I've put everything I have into it."

Where stag dos and hen parties trade luminous paintball volleys, British Army base "Romeo 21" once loomed during the conflict that tore the British province of Northern Ireland apart for three decades.

Three watchtowers and a helicopter pad commanded a panoramic view of the border between County Armagh in Northern Ireland, and County Louth in the Republic.

Republican paramilitaries would open fire from the Irish hillside to the east and Rice has childhood memories of British soldiers patrolling his back garden, interrupting his playtime on a trike.

"You woke up in the middle of the night with the helicopters flying over your house," Rice remembered.

"There were checkpoints everywhere you went, it was pretty heavy."

- 'Toxic issue' -

The region's turbulent history is now part of the paintballing park's marketing strategy.

The company's logo features the silhouette of the old army installation wreathed in barbed wire and Rice is currently building an additional mock watchtower for use in paintball battles.

At the same time, the haunting hidden remnants of the army base have surfaced again after a heat wave last summer that kindled gorse fires in the area.

Coils of rusted barbed wire, heavy metal bolts and wiring are now visible -- a reminder that the past in this troubled zone lies just under the surface.

"The status of the border, that was always the toxic issue that had destabilised politics," said Conor Patterson, head of the local Newry and Mourne Enterprise Agency, a business association.

"We're now again talking in the language of orange and green, British and Irish, nationalist and unionist, republican and loyalist."

"All those differentiations with all that goes with them and the history of conflict, we thought we had left behind long ago to build a new common future."

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