ARNEY, Northern Ireland (CN) — If he could, cattle farmer Gordon Elliott would take back his vote for Brexit and choose to remain in the European Union, while also keeping the nearby border with Ireland open and free, as it is today.
“I voted to go,” Elliott said on a recent afternoon, mud-flecked cattle mooing and munching on hay behind him. “I think I would vote different. I think I would vote to stay in.”
He chuckled with good humor, then turned serious. “I think there are a lot of people in the same mind,” the 71-year-old cattleman said. “They voted ‘Go’ and didn't realize what a mess it was going to be.”
Elliott reflects a deep uneasiness with Brexit among people who live and work where Northern Ireland today merges seamlessly with the Republic of Ireland — a borderland of quiet rolling hills and pastures ringed by stone walls but also the unlikely place unraveling Brexit.
In nearby Arney, a rural community, Owen Sweeney, a 51-year-old quality manager, is of a similar mind to Elliot. He too voted for Brexit, persuaded in part by politicians and Brexit backers who said leaving the EU would be easy.
“It was all said in the beginning that there would be no problem on the border,” Sweeney said, taking a moment away from mowing his lawn.
Nearly three years later, Sweeney sees it differently today.
“I wanted out (of the EU) but without a hard border,” he said, using a term to describe a border with customs and identification checkpoints. “The hard border is bad. You want everyone to flow across. A lot of the business goes back and forth freely. And people travel back and forth.”
Today, the border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is hardly perceptible. You don't pass through a border check. You don't have to show any form of identification. There are no surveillance cameras or other high-tech gadgetry tracking your passage. Indeed, the crossing is noticeable only with the smallest changes, such as road signs measuring distances in kilometers rather miles, and public mailboxes turning from red to green.
But the seamless nature of the border was thrown into doubt after the United Kingdom voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU and “take back control of our borders,” as those advocating for Brexit argued.
However, to truly leave the EU and its regime of open borders, free movement of people, services and goods, systems of tariffs and laws, the United Kingdom would, in theory, need to re-establish a border in Ireland, the only place where the boundaries of the UK and the EU meet on land besides the tiny border of Gibraltar in Spain.
But there's one huge problem with a hard border: Ireland suffered decades of bloodshed due to the island being split in two by the border around Northern Ireland. The violence quieted down only after the Good Friday peace process was signed in 1998, which established a power-sharing government between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and led to the dissolution of the border.
“The border has always been contested,” said Darach MacDonald, a Londonderry-based journalist and author of “Hard Border,” a recent book about the subject. “The Irish border has never been an agreed border.”
The boundaries were imposed in 1922 when the United Kingdom ceded control of most of Ireland but kept six counties where Protestants lived and formed Northern Ireland.
The 310-mile-long border cut through towns, farmers' fields and even people's homes. Over time, as Ireland was plunged into strife during the Troubles, the border came to resemble a war zone with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences, closed roads, heavily armed British soldiers at checkpoints and frequent violence.