CARRICKCARNAN, Ireland — The land around the small Irish town of Carrickcarnan is the kind of place where Britain’s plan to leave the European Union runs right into a wall – an invisible one that’s proving inordinately difficult to overcome.

Somehow, a border of sorts will have to be drawn between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and EU member Ireland to allow customs control over goods, produce and livestock once the U.K. has fully left the bloc.

That means the largely unpoliced and invisible Irish land border will become the boundary between the EU and the U.K. – raising vexing questions about trade and customs checks.

Of all the thorny issues in Brexit talks, this has been the toughest because the challenge of keeping trade running smoothly is deeply entangled with questions of identity: what it means to be from Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities remain divided decades after 30 years of conflict claimed around 3,700 lives. The peace agreement signed in 1998 provides people with the freedom to identify as Irish or British, or both. It helped dismantle Northern Ireland’s once heavily policed and militarized border with Ireland – and the last thing people want now is a new one.

“The peace process took identity and borders out of politics. Brexit has put them slap bang back into the middle again,” lamented Northern Ireland business adviser Conor Houston.


EU leaders and British Prime Minister Theresa May hope to make progress this week as the Brexit divorce saga comes to a critical juncture.

The Northern Ireland-Ireland border zig-zags all over the map. It cuts around properties, veers over roads and dodges villages. People cross it when they leave home to visit their doctor or go shopping. It’s mostly only visible when the speed signs change from kilometers to miles.

The dividing line stretches for 312 miles and is dotted with over 250 official road crossings, more than on Europe’s entire eastern flank.

Creating a “hard border” – something all parties want to avoid – would be difficult.

On average, commercial vehicles cross the border 13,000 times a day. In the future, about 3,000 loads a day carrying beef, lamb, pork, poultry or dairy products might have to be stopped. Each check would take about 10 minutes, said Seamus Leheny from Freight Transport Association.

“We would have paralysis here on the border,” he said.

In coming weeks, EU officials and the British and Irish governments must come up with a policy that guarantees that goods can be controlled without stifling the economy. Above all, the Brexit Irish border plan must respect the unique identities of Northern Ireland’s people and not inflame tensions, as many fear it might.

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