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Bordering on Division

Along the border between Northern Ireland and the
Republic of Ireland, communities have worked hard to move on from a more
violent time in the island’s history, when customs posts and military
checkpoints were the norm. But, as Brexit looms, is a return to the past

By: /
4 December, 2017
(Credit: Sami Chouhdary)
By: Deaglán de Bréadún

Journalist and author

By: Naomi O’Leary


On an emerald, hilly landscape — one of the last stops in Europe before you hit the Atlantic Ocean — twin villages face each other. Blacklion and Belcoo have less than a thousand souls between them, carrying out their lives amid their pastel-painted two-storey houses, a handful of pubs, and shops selling sweets, cigarettes and local newspapers. A road links them, meeting in the middle at a stone bridge over a rippling river. 

The villages are physically close, but may be about to become geopolitically distant. Belcoo is in Northern Ireland; Blacklion is in the Republic of Ireland. The bridge connecting them is about to become the external border of the European Union, the world’s largest trading bloc. 

Follow the road north from Belcoo and take a few turns into the narrow laneways that run between the fields, and you’ll come to the Abocurragh farm. Abocurragh has been in the Mullally family for generations: the current owners, Bernie and Gerry, run it as a dairy farm and a bed and breakfast. Guests use it as a base for local scenic walks and visits to the nearby Marble Arch Caves.

But this area was not always famous for its landscape. The Mullallys, both in their sixties, remember when British Army vehicles roamed the roads, checkpoints were the norm, and young men were killed by snipers, booby-trap bombs and land mines within earshot.

“From here to Enniskillen you could be stopped 10 times,” said Gerry Mullally, referring to the Northern Irish town 14 kilometres away, as he sipped a cup of tea at the farmhouse kitchen table. “If there was an incident, it could be more.”

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 largely brought an end to a 30-year period of violence in the region, and allowed this place to transcend its politics. The hopefulness of that time brought a rush of tourists — nowadays, visitors might not even be aware they have crossed the border until their mobile phones switch carrier. Both jurisdictions are in the European single market; the milk from Abocurragh cows goes south to be processed in the Republic, without passing any customs. Locals commute to jobs on the other side of the border without a thought.

But all this could be about to change.

The Dividing ‘Line’

Two political entities make up the island to the west of Great Britain: the Republic of Ireland, which has been an independent state for almost a century, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland and Wales. There are 4.8 million people in the Republic, and 1.8 million in Northern Ireland.

If you were to imagine a map of this area, you might visualize Northern Ireland as the north half of the island, and the Republic as the south half. But that would be incorrect — Northern Ireland doesn’t touch the west coast at all, because the territory of the Republic is wrapped around it in a C-shape. Parts of the Republic are further north than Northern Ireland.

The international border between the two is uneven and difficult to follow; it winds its way along the edges of fields and streams, zigzagging across roads and back again, following old Irish county boundaries, which themselves followed old land ownership patterns. If you straightened it out like a string, it would stretch to 500 kilometres — that’s greater than the length of the whole island from top to bottom.

The current border came into existence in 1922, when 26 counties of Ireland broke off to become independent, and six counties remained part of the United Kingdom. Many on both sides of the conflict never expected it to endure as an international dividing line.

The border is thought to have about 300 crossing points, from motorways, to laneways where the hedgerows’ tops overarch the road, to unofficial farm tracks not featured on any map.

“It’s very difficult to explain to somebody who doesn’t live around here,” sighed George Colgan, a steel-haired, 56-year-old truck driver and father of five who lives among rolling fields just inside Northern Ireland. His nearest town is Clones, County Monaghan, a 10-minute drive from his home. To reach it, he crosses the border four times.

“The only way I could explain it is: take a tin of spaghetti and just spread it out. That’s the roads. In between that spaghetti is the fields, and you don’t know whether you’re in [the] north or south,” Colgan said.

Borders of the Past

As an illustration of what travel across the Irish border entailed in the past, consider a 1948 visit by then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his wife, Violet, to County Mayo, on the west coast of the independent part of Ireland. During their holiday, the couple took a side trip across the border to meet the then prime minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Brookeborough. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was not very active in those days and the Attlees clearly did not feel under any threat. With Violet driving and with no police escort, they made their way across the dividing line to the village of Belcoo, where a customs post was located. Customs officials stopped the car and carried out an inspection. Years later, journalist John Cole described in his book of political memoirs, As It Seemed to Me, how Violet was required to open the luggage in the boot of the car, “presumably to ensure that she and the Prime Minister were not making a killing out of imported nylon stockings, then in short supply.”

Customs posts — set up with the goal of collecting tariffs and controlling the flow of goods across the border in the days before both jurisdictions were part of the European single market — were seen by Irish nationalists as a symbol of the imposition of partition by the British government, as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Over the decades they were a favoured target for violent attack by militant Irish republicans. One of the more spectacular examples of this occurred on November 11, 1956, when six such posts at different locations along the border were destroyed — five were blown up and the sixth was burned down.

Ireland and the United Kingdom both joined the European Economic Community (EEC), as it was then known, on New Year’s Day, 1973. Twenty years later the EEC was incorporated into the European Union, which was established on November 1, 1993. Customs posts were abolished that same year as part of the process of European integration.

“People are prepared to go to great lengths to ensure that we don’t go backwards.”

Bitter Memories

Here are some of George Colgan’s memories of the border.

He remembers being woken up as a child by the sound of an explosion. It was the Lackey Bridge being blown up — a crossing point between the two jurisdictions that was metres from his family home. Colgan believes the explosion to have been a vigilante act by Protestant farmers who were afraid of nationalist militants coming north. He had been playing under the bridge just the day before.

As the years went on, and the area descended into the grinding, slow-burning war known as “The Troubles,” the destruction of bridges would become more systematic. The British Army blocked border roads with barriers or blew them up, in order to reduce the number of checkpoints they had to cover in a bitter battle against militants who wanted the island to be one “United Ireland.”

Here’s what Colgan recalls of that: queues of locals in cars trying to get across; soldiers and frightened children; humiliation by checkpoint guards; and sudden detentions that seemed arbitrary and menaced his daily life. If he had to get somewhere for a fixed time — a doctor’s appointment, for example — it was easier to sneak across the border through the fields.

In later years, a group of locals began illicitly repairing the border crossings. They would gather at the destroyed road at night and covertly pull away the barriers with farm machinery, laying down gravel to fill the craters. It was a cat-and-mouse game — before long, the army would destroy the roads again.

Pat Treanor, a local Monaghan councillor for the nationalist Sinn Féin party, was part of this campaign. In Clones, in a centre for former Republican prisoners with the faces of hunger strikers hung in memory on the walls, Treanor told the story of how he lost his finger. In 1994, a time when roads were still closed for security purposes and border areas still militarized, Treanor took some visiting journalists to see a border crossing. While there, the Northern Irish police force suddenly swooped. Treanor was arrested. As the squad car carried him away, IRA gunmen opened fire on it, accidentally shooting Treanor in the hand.

Nowadays, the talk is of what action would be taken if customs barriers were to reappear.

“Do we go out and protest, do we close the roads, do we take over whatever property or land that the customs department is going to build their customs huts on, do we do a peace camp on their sites?” Treanor asked, rattling off ideas of how a border could be resisted. “All of that is really a live issue within the community, because people are prepared to go to great lengths to ensure that we don’t go backwards.”

The signs of a burgeoning campaign are obvious. On the roadways in and out of Clones, billboards announce road closures. Designed to look like official notices, they are actually the work of the campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit. Earlier this year, the group marched in protest to Stormont, the parliament buildings of Northern Ireland’s ruling assembly. But there was no one to receive them. The joint nationalist/unionist administration — an arrangement brought about by the GFA — had collapsed in bitter acrimony in January.

Asked about the risk of violence returning to the borderlands, Treanor paused.

“It depends on what conditions are created.”

Customs Checks

Despite their controversial status and a history of violent attacks, with the advent of Brexit the prospect is looming that customs posts may well be re-established. At present, the border is virtually invisible, apart from the fact that the road signs on the southern side show distances in kilometres and those in the north show miles. Since Irish nationalists already object in principle to the partition of the island, the return of customs posts would be seen as a “hardening” of the border between the two territories. Another factor leading to a hard border would be the UK government’s intention to control immigration by citizens of EU states other than Ireland, as well as the need to deal with what is likely to be a significant increase in cross-border smuggling.

A draft report prepared for the Irish Revenue Commissioners in the aftermath of the June 2016 UK vote to leave the European Union says that around eight “designated crossing points” staffed by customs officers on the 310-mile/500 km border may be required after Brexit. Research indicates that there are approximately 13,000 crossings each month by commercial vehicles on the main cross-border routes. According to the report, retaining the current free-flow arrangement after Brexit will not be possible from a customs perspective.

The report says: “Once the negotiations are completed…the UK will become a 3rd country for customs purposes and the associated formalities will be unavoidable…while this will affect all [member states], the [effect] will be more profound on Ireland as the only EU country to have a physical border with the UK.”

Unless negotiations between London and Brussels work out a special deal on trade, the report says, “the only alternative is the WTO (World Trade Organisation) model whereby all UK goods entering the EU would be subject to a default range of tariffs. In such a scenario, initially at least, it has to be assumed that broadly similar tariffs would apply to EU goods entering the UK.”

Dagmar Schiek, a professor of EU law and policy at Queen’s University Belfast, said in an interview that the prospect of eight customs posts “of course presupposes that there are also electronic controls and pre-declarations and so on, because these eight border posts can only do spot-checks to ensure everything is proper, but not complete controls.”

She continued: “Borders always cause friction, but it has to be said that the EU does a lot to make its external borders less cumbersome and more frictionless. The EU customs code has extensive chapters on pre-declaration and electronic controls to ensure this.”

An example of what Schiek is referring to can be found at the border between Sweden, an EU member state, and Norway, which is outside the European Union. A summary declaration (that is, pre-arrival information) is sent electronically at least one hour prior to arrival of goods traffic at the border, with the result that clearance takes between three and nine minutes on average.

Brexit v4
(Credit: Sami Chouhdary)

Black Markets

Clones’ town centre is quiet. Many shops are shuttered. This was once the natural market town for many villages now in Northern Ireland. Half of the roads leading into Clones originate there; the parish of Clones sits on both sides of the border. The strands of local people’s lives — going to church, visiting family, commuting to work — have always weaved back and forth over the line. Older locals reminisce about a once-bustling town, and many blame the road closures for strangling it economically as people were kept away. 

The decline of rural towns is not unique to County Monaghan. What is certain, however, is that here regular businesses have to compete with the black-market commerce that exploits the idiosyncrasies of the border.

A short drive away from Clones is an informal market, advertised on social media and held on land that straddles the border. From the backs of vans, vendors sell everything from bulk groceries to carpets to used farm machinery. Unlike the centre of Clones, here there are bustling crowds, and business appears to be booming. The market has an international element: at one stall, a queue of Polish-speaking customers wait their turn to buy dried sausages. Locals here are used to navigating the two jurisdictions for the best deal — Northern Ireland for alcohol, the Republic for gas — shifting their shopping habits according to the fluctuations of the pound and the euro.

Unsurprisingly, the borderlands also have a storied history of smuggling. Grandmothers reminisce about slipping sugar or butter into their waistbands before the 1970s. Clever youths could once make a few extra quid bringing whatever was in demand from one side to another.

“In the border region, it would be seen over the years as an acceptable thing to do,” said Declan Breathnach, a member of the Irish parliament with the centrist Fianna Fáil party, from the border county of Louth. “It was a mythical thing really, for people to feed their households.”

However, Breathnach believes that in recent years the practice has become more sinister. Brexit, he fears, could send the criminal industry into overdrive. 

“They are relabelling bottles. They’re taking coal and rebagging it and selling it as smokeless fuel. They’re taking detergent and mixing it and boxing it again. You can ring up in most border counties and get drink or cigarettes delivered to your door,” Breathnach said. “In the past it was done out of necessity. It has moved into racketeering.”

Roughly a dozen gangs with deep local roots run the cross-border fuel trade, peeling off €239 million a year from the exchequer and €196 million a year from industry, according to a 2016 study by legal and accountancy firm Grant Thornton. When needed, the smugglers can shift from one side of the border to the other to avoid the law.

As soon as a discrepancy appears between the two jurisdictions, such as an extra tax on fuel in one that doesn’t apply in another, a black market for that product blossoms along the border. And as soon as UK regulations diverge from the EU ones that the Republic operates under, opportunities for smugglers will proliferate. The infrastructure and know-how for the expansion is already in place. 

“If [British Prime Minister] Theresa May adopts a cheap food policy, and hormone-treated Brazilian beef is in the butcher’s shop in Newry, someone will see you can buy that for half the cost of Irish beef,” Breathnach said. This could spell disaster for efforts to build trust in Irish food and drink — major national exports.

“We are back to a major problem with food integrity,” Breathnach said. “The border is like a sieve.”

Sitting Ducks

Quite apart from customs posts located on the southern side of the border, any such structures set up inside Northern Ireland territory will almost inevitably become a target for IRA dissidents who disagreed with that organization’s decision to call off its armed campaign and support the peace process and the GFA.

A renewal of violence would make the restoration of British military installations on the northern side of the border a real possibility. These were dismantled as part of the GFA but, as Gavin Barrett, a University College Dublin professor specializing in European law, said in an interview: “If customs controls come in again, they will require police or British Army protection. That makes them a target. If they become a target and they start getting attacked, well, then you’re going to get security controls back, obviously.”

Mark Lindsay, who chairs the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI), said: “We simply don’t have the numbers to protect the other agencies which would be deployed at designated border crossings. At another level, in a region where the terrorist threat level is rated ‘severe,’ it would be lunacy to order our men and women to undertake static duties in extremely-exposed areas.

“Border duties would place our officers at an unacceptable risk. Setting predictable patterns along any static border establishments would mean our officers would be ‘sitting ducks’ for terrorists who want nothing more than to murder police. If there are smarter, more tech-savvy ways of policing the border, then let’s hear what they are.” 

In addition to the payment of tariffs, any food or livestock being transported across the border from Northern Ireland would be required to meet EU regulations for food safety and animal health. There is concern that, after Brexit, the United Kingdom may begin importing cheap food from countries that don’t comply with EU standards, and that efforts will be made to export such material across the border to the Republic. 

Those Most at Risk

There is another way in which lives could be at stake.

Much of the borderlands is rural territory. The population is not dense, and public services can be scanty — sometimes, the nearest hospital is across the border.

Slowly and meticulously, often backed by EU funds, the health services on either side of the border have worked together to stop the border from mattering.

“We now see sick babies from Northern Ireland coming to have life-saving surgery in Crumlin hospital in Dublin. We see people needing radiotherapy from Donegal in the Republic going to have it in Altnagelvin hospital in Derry,” Irish health minister Simon Harris said in a phone interview.

“Just like so many areas in relation to Brexit, there are moving parts and uncertainties,” Harris said.

“If it will be a hard Brexit, what will happen to the recognition of professional qualifications in one jurisdiction versus another? What about people moving north and south in terms of our ambulance personnel, and medics, and doctors?”

“People don’t want borders here again, is the general feeling.”

The uncertainty is affecting staff at hospitals in both jurisdictions. A doctor who lives on the border and works with diabetes patients from both sides confided that there was a perceptible feeling of stress and worry among the staff at work. The uncertainty was bringing up unpleasant memories of more divided times.

“For someone living near the border there’s a huge consciousness that their lives could get so much more difficult,” the doctor said. “A lot of my colleagues come across the border to work and we’re all wondering how it will affect our day-to-day lives. We just don’t know what it’s going to mean.”

Being able to get radiation therapy at a clinic a drivable distance away can transform the life of a cancer patient. For a child from Northern Ireland that needs heart surgery, getting treatment in Dublin rather than across the sea means less travel risk, and can allow family to stay with the child during treatment.

“If you’re seriously ill with cancer, you wouldn’t want your treatment to be disrupted. In the back of people’s minds is: what would happen to me if I wasn’t able to go into Derry easily to get my treatment?” said a spokeswoman for Cooperation And Working Together (CAWT), a partnership between the Health and Social Care Services in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, which facilitates cross-border collaborative working in health and social care.

“What do we need? Certainty. Certainty,” she said. “We need to know what’s happening and when, and people can plan around that. Customs union: will we be in or out? Single market: in or out? The nature of the border: will it be structure-free?…People don’t want borders here again, is the general feeling.”

How the Rules Could Work

Among other things, the European Union is a customs union. As UCD’s Barrett explains: “A customs union has two elements to it. One is the abolition of customs controls between the states that are a member of the customs union, for example between Ireland and the UK [including Northern Ireland], between Ireland and France, between Ireland and Germany.”

With regard to the second element, he continued: “In exchange for that, though, you erect a tariff wall around the customs union. A customs union involves free movement for all of the goods that are in the customs union, whether because they are produced in the European Union or because they have been produced outside the EU, we’ll say in South Korea or China or wherever, and the non-EU producers had paid whatever the common customs tariff is, to come over that wall.”

If, as a result of Brexit, the United Kingdom leaves the EU customs union, Northern Ireland would go too, creating a situation where Northern Ireland wouldn’t be in the EU customs union, but the Republic of Ireland would. This would result in a hard border between the two, and the inevitable return of border posts. Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, has threatened to block progress on Brexit negotiations unless May’s government can guarantee that there will be no hard border.

Queen’s University’s Schiek said border posts could be avoided in two ways: if the UK government were either to exit the customs union but renew the relationship under a different name (similar to the customs union arrangement Turkey has with the European Union, despite not being an EU member state) or to agree that Northern Ireland could leave the European Union with the United Kingdom but remain in the EU customs union.

An EU internal paper leaked to the media cites the second option as the only way to avoid a hard border, so that the same rules would apply throughout the island of Ireland — a position supported by the Irish government.

But this is a political non-starter because of objections by unionist parties in the north.

“The downside from the perspective of the unionists in Northern Ireland would be that Northern Ireland wouldn’t be in a customs union with the UK itself. We would have a customs border in the Irish Sea,” Schiek said.

“That’s very difficult politically because in Northern Ireland there is a large faction who would never want to see any border towards Great Britain, and because the common EU membership of Ireland and the UK is going to end: either there will be a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or there will be a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. There is no alternative. If this could be discussed rationally then one could probably feel that the border in the Irish Sea is less complicated than the land border.”

Barrett believes there is no chance that the customs border will be in the Irish Sea after Brexit, partly because May’s Conservative government is dependent on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is strongly opposed to such a move. “Economically, it doesn’t make any sense anyway,” Barrett said. “About two-thirds of Northern Ireland trade is actually with mainland Britain. So, inconvenient though it is, having controls at the border with the Republic actually makes more sense economically.”

In a recently released book from Oxford University Press, The Law & Politics of Brexit (edited by Federico Fabbrini), professors John Doyle and Eileen Connolly of Dublin City University suggest that Northern Cyprus could be a model for Northern Ireland. Goods produced in Northern Cyprus — a territory currently occupied by Turkey, which is not an EU member state — are allowed to enter EU markets without customs duties, once they have been certified by the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce.

Doyle and Connolly write: “A similar arrangement could empower the Northern Ireland executive to identify goods as originating in Northern Ireland (and not simply travelling through Northern Ireland from the UK or a third country). As part of a Brexit deal, the EU could allow certified goods from Northern Ireland to enter the EU market via the Republic of Ireland and to be treated as EU goods. At the same time, the UK could allow such goods [to] enter the UK market as ‘domestic goods’, and this would allow the UK to present this arrangement as a symmetrical one, meeting the needs of both nationalists and unionists, and therefore acceptable to the unionist parties and to pro-Ulster Unionist conservatives.”

However, many have argued that in the event Northern Ireland was granted unique status in terms of trade, Scotland would be encouraged to seek a similar arrangement (the overall UK vote on Brexit was 52 percent for, 48 percent against, whereas in Northern Ireland, the result was 44 percent for and 56 percent against. In Scotland, the result was 38 percent for and 62 percent against).

Schiek believes there is no basis for this: “There is a decisive difference. There is no such thing as a Good Friday Agreement between Scotland and the UK, and rightly so, because the GFA takes into account that Northern Ireland is a hybrid territory where there are people who identify as Irish, people who identify as British, people who identify as both and people who identify as neither, and the GFA guarantees that all these identities can flourish.”

Another border-related issue that has arisen in the context of Brexit is the Common Travel Area (CTA), which predates membership of the European community by either state and enables UK and Irish citizens to travel and reside in either jurisdiction without hindrance, as well as enjoy associated rights and entitlements. The CTA is recognized in EU law by Protocol No. 20 to the Treaty on European Union and Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Concerns have been expressed that the right of Irish and UK citizens to move freely between either jurisdiction might be affected by Brexit, but Barrett thinks this is unlikely: “I’m not expecting that the CTA will either be a bone of contention or that it will be in any particular danger from the process of Brexit. There’s a question mark over whether Protocol 20 will be automatically revoked or automatically cease to apply by virtue of the process of Brexit. You can argue that either way. But even if that were true, there are other provisions and other protocols that would maintain Ireland’s position anyway. So it’s not in any danger.”

Schiek is less optimistic and believes the position needs to be nailed down: “Presently the CTA is not a proper international agreement between Ireland and the UK. It is just common practice through usage which has been agreed between the two governments but is not legally binding. So if one state is outside the EU and the other is inside the EU, it would be very good if they could agree a legally binding document.”

Still Waiting

The next summit of European heads of state and government, scheduled for December 14-15 in Brussels, is to decide whether “sufficient progress” has been made to allow commencement of the second phase of talks on the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and the trading relationship between the two entities in the future.

The outlook is good for a resolution of two major issues, namely, the price the British are prepared to pay as a “divorce settlement” and the question of safeguarding EU and UK citizens’ rights in each other’s territory after Brexit. The main bone of contention is the dividing line between the two parts of Ireland, which will be the only land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union after Brexit.

Varadkar has maintained that the United Kingdom is not making it sufficiently clear as to how the return of a hard border can be avoided. This is reported to have generated considerable annoyance on the British side, which was expressed in blunt terms by the tabloid newspaper, The Sun, in an editorial advising Varadkar: “Shut your gob and grow up.”

The Irish government has the right to veto the second round of EU-UK talks but, given London’s decision to substantially increased its financial offer to Brussels, Dublin has in recent weeks seemed likely to come under considerable pressure from its European partners to play along and refrain from blocking the next phase of negotiations. However, European Council President Donald Tusk, during a visit to Dublin last week, expressed strong opposition to a hard border and declared that “if the UK offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU.”

“The politicians keep saying there will be no return to a border. Why can’t they explain how?”

A special meeting of the Irish government took place on the morning December 4 amid reports that, as a means of preventing a hard border, the United Kingdom was prepared to allow the rules of the customs union and the single market to continue applying in Northern Ireland, even if those rules no longer applied in Britain itself. As the day wore on, however, it became clear that no such agreement was being reached.

In early 2016, as campaigning for the June referendum got under way, Bernie Mullally was initially not overly concerned. The conventional wisdom was that the British would vote to stay in the bloc. In any case, Northern Ireland would have little say. The region makes up less than three percent of the population of the United Kingdom. Ultimately, English votes would decide it. 

But, as the campaign unfolded, Bernie began to feel concerned. Strangely, the area with the most at stake — Northern Ireland — was hardly mentioned by politicians or campaigners, or in the media. It seemed as though British voters were barely aware of it. Northern Ireland was hardly ever addressed, and if so, only with platitudes.

When the vote came through, it was a reckoning: 51.9 percent of UK voters had opted to leave the European Union. That Northern Ireland and Scotland had both voted to remain didn’t matter to the ultimate result. 

Since the vote, the Mullallys have been waiting to hear what this means for their livelihoods. What will happen to the milk they produce? Will it still be feasible to send it across the border? Will tourists need to face border guards? If so, will they still come?

“The uncertainty, the uncertainty is the problem. We just don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” Bernie Mullally said in October, as another round of Brexit talks was set to begin.

“It’s gone on for so long now. We have been waiting and waiting. The politicians keep saying there will be no return to a border. Why can’t they explain how?”

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