LETTERKENNY, Ireland — The cows stand oblivious in the relentless drizzle, seemingly untroubled by their proximity to the border. But the farmer spreading grain for his heifers feels the demarcation with deep unease. It is a barrier that risks separating him from feed and fertilizer.
Lawrence McNamee’s dairy farm sits just inside the Republic of Ireland, on a lush patch of County Donegal. The port for ships bearing feed and fertilizer lies just up the road, yet it is on the other side of the line in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.
For the past 20 years, the border has existed on paper alone. Britain and the Republic of Ireland are both members of the European Union and its common marketplace. So people, goods and livestock can come and go as they please, traversing the mostly invisible line without tariffs or bureaucratic hindrance.
But Britain’s looming exit from the European bloc, known widely as Brexit, threatens to make the old border real again — a factor that has long collided with any prospect of a smooth divorce. Mr. McNamee could wind up paying steep tariffs for feed and fertilizers. He could find it difficult to bring in veterinarians from the other side of the border.
“It’s in the lap of the Gods at the moment,” he says.
So, it happens, is the very outcome of Brexit as a March deadline approaches — and the increasingly imaginable prospect that Britain could crash out of Europe absent a settlement, yielding chaos. So is the political survival of Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, and the wildly unpopular Brexit deal she forged with Europe. So is her nation’s future relationship with the Continent.
All of these questions remain maddeningly uncertain, in large part because no one has managed to solve the vexing issue of the Irish border.
Ever since Britain stunned the world in June 2016 with a referendum setting Brexit in motion, the future of the Irish border has hovered over the proceedings as the single most intractable problem and the element most liable to yield disaster. How can Britain leave Europe without enforcing the demarcation? Yet a hard border could reignite the hostilities that long plagued communities on both sides. It could impede vibrant trade across the border, which has fostered peace.
For the last three decades of the 20th century, the border was militarized. Northern Ireland was besieged with conflict between predominantly Catholic communities that favored joining the Republic and largely Protestant loyalists of the British crown. People along the border were accustomed to violence and fear.
The Troubles, as this period was known, officially ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Among the provisions of the truce was a shared understanding that people and goods must be allowed to move freely across the border. Trade would become a source of cross-border cooperation that would lift fortunes.
Last year, Northern Ireland and the Republic traded goods worth more than 3.2 billion euros (about $3.6 billion), according to official figures. The Republic sends meat, pharmaceuticals and whiskey north. Northern Ireland sends large volumes of dairy products, live animals and animal feed.
From where Mr. McNamee sits — at the kitchen table in the farmhouse where he was born and raised — the return of a hard border would put all of this progress at risk.
“It would be devastating,” he says.
At 47, he thinks back to the fear of his youth: the bombings, people disappearing, British soldiers demanding identification at checkpoints, the paramilitary groups sowing terror.
A border could produce fresh sources of grievance, damage trade and create checkpoints that would beckon as targets for attack.
“It would be a real backward step,” Mr. McNamee says. “Back to the Dark Ages.”
Leaders on both sides of the divide have vowed to avoid such an outcome. The border is but a line on the map, one that twists and meanders for more than 300 miles, like an indecisive river. The Republic has promised to maintain it that way, drawing the vociferous support of Europe.
The agreement Mrs. May struck with Europe has been engineered to avoid disrupting trade or reigniting tensions. It would eliminate the need for a hard border by guaranteeing that Northern Ireland would remain in an existing customs union with Europe until a formal trade deal is negotiated.
But hard-core proponents of Brexit in Mrs. May’s own governing Conservative Party have assailed that arrangement as a form of vassalage, arguing that it could keep Britain stuck in the European orbit indefinitely.
Earlier this month, as Mrs. May absorbed the reality that her deal was doomed in Parliament, she abruptly scrapped a vote. Members of her party then sought to topple her with a no-confidence vote. She survived, securing protection against further challenge for another year.
But the Brexit conundrum remained, with especially broad divergence over the Irish border. Mrs. May’s deal seems unlikely to ever win passage, and Europe has ruled out sweetening the terms. And the calendar advances toward March 29, the day that Britain is supposed to leave.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, trade would be governed by the rules of the World Trade Organization. That would mean tariffs reaching as high as 64 percent on dairy and other agricultural products, discouraging business. In that event, economic growth in the Republic of Ireland could be cut in half, according to a recent report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, a think tank in Dublin.
The Bank of England recently warned that a no-deal Brexit could plunge Britain into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
For all of Ireland, a chaotic Brexit would almost certainly create other barriers to trade, like sanitary inspections and health regulations. In short, it could require checks and procedures that would look and feel like a border.
Kieran Kennedy grimaces at such talk. Forty years ago, when he was 16, he started working at O’neills, a sporting goods manufacturer in the Northern Ireland border town of Strabane. He drew the least appealing assignment: driving a van loaded with finished wares from the factory to a distribution hub in Letterkenny, on the other side of the border.
The journey was only 12 miles, yet it typically took three hours. First, he had to submit to an inspection and fill out forms at a British customs clearing station. Then he had to drive another 100 yards to a British Army checkpoint. There, he recalls, soldiers frequently harassed him, viewing him — a young Catholic — as a potential militant. Half a mile down the road, he reached customs for the Republic of Ireland, and then carried on to the warehouse.
Today, Mr. Kennedy has risen to become the managing director of O’neills, and the same drive is completed in 20 minutes. The soldiers are gone. Violence and fear have mostly dissipated. Yet the authorities in London have conjured a way to put this progress at risk.
“If there’s a border,” he says, “it would be an absolute disaster for us.”
Roughly half of the 700 workers at the O’neills plant in Strabane live on the other side of the border. If checkpoints emerge, it could interfere with their commutes.
The company ships yarn from Asia to the port in Dublin, then trucks it across the border to be spun into fabric in Strabane. The fabric gets trucked back over the border to be dyed at a plant in Dublin. Some of the material comes back to Strabane, where workers cut and sew it into uniforms for rugby, Gaelic football and cricket teams. Making some products involves eight separate border crossings, Mr. Kennedy says.
On a recent trip to Brussels, European Union officials assured him that the border would not return.
Many analysts assume Europe and Britain will find a finesse that avoids a border, even if they fail to complete a Brexit deal.
“A hard border is unlikely, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” says Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy based in London. “Flexibility is likely to present itself.”
But Mrs. May is intent on limiting immigration, something Britain can do only by leaving the European marketplace, which requires free movement of people. Europe is adamant that Britain not be allowed to leave the bloc and keep the benefits of membership: It should not be able to sell its wares unhampered into the Republic while breaching European rules.
“There will need to be checks,” Mr. Rahman said. “The question is how onerous, and where those checks take place.”
For people in Ireland, history offers little comfort, teaching time and again that policies hatched in England tend to play out here with ill effect. Many see Brexit as the latest in a long string of indignities, a reckless bit of political histrionics that again puts Ireland in the cross hairs.
“Those politicians in London, they don’t give one dirt about Ireland,” says Willie McKeever, a retired woodcutter who lives in a pro-Republican neighborhood in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry, where a 1968 police crackdown on protesters marked the beginning of The Troubles. “It could start up again.”
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