John Sheridan stood ankle deep in the lush grass of his farm tracing the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic with his finger across the skyline.
“I’m being shoved back into a corner,” he said, following its path in a 270-degree arc.
“There’s a young lad there,” he said, waving in the direction of his 22-year-old son, Chris. “He doesn’t remember what it was like when there was a border.”
No memories of the soldiers, the searches, the checkpoints to be traversed to enter towns right across the border.
“It was soul-destroying,” Sheridan recalled.
Like many living in communities along the border, Sheridan is adamant that Britain’s looming exit from the European Union must not bring the reinstatement of a physical boundary, including the return of manned customs posts or security cameras. Some in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic fear Brexit would rekindle tensions and even spill over into violence.
As President Donald Trump pursues his pledge to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and several Eastern European nations have constructed border fences to keep out migrants, the West appears to be re-embracing the idea of establishing boundaries.
But it isn’t quite so straightforward here.
For much of the late 20th century, the border was a front line in the bloody 30-year conflict known as “the Troubles.” The dispute pitted republicans, primarily Catholics seeking a united Ireland, against security forces tasked with maintaining British rule over Northern Ireland. They also fought against local loyalists, primarily Protestants wanting Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. Some 3,600 were killed — with groups on all sides among the perpetrators and victims.
A delicate peace was negotiated in 1998, and the military checkpoints and watchtowers that had been regularly targeted by republicans as symbols of British dominance gradually disappeared.
Today the border is more or less invisible, with little more than a change in the asphalt and different road signs indicating that you have left one country and entered another. There are more than 200 official — and innumerable unofficial — crossing points.
There is a saying in Northern Ireland that whoever drew the partition line must have been on the whiskey, as it twists-and-turns seamlessly through farmland, schoolyards and even homes.
While voters overall across the United Kingdom opted to leave the European Union in last year’s referendum, 56 percent in Northern Ireland voted to remain.
How — and whether — to keep the border invisible is among a multitude of thorny issues that need to be negotiated by the time Britain leaves the 28-country bloc in March 2019. Hundreds of laws will have to be rewritten and new trade agreements drawn up.
The E.U. and the U.K. have both said they don’t want a so-called hard border. However, Ireland and the E.U. remain dissatisfied with Britain’s proposals to keep the dividing line as is.
The E.U. has demanded that “significant progress” must be made on the border issue by Dec. 4 or talks about the future trade relationship won’t begin as planned.
Europe currently has border controls with all countries outside the customs union or single market. The British government has said it intends to leave both, but the debate as to whether it should — or will — rages on.
To make matters worse, Northern Ireland doesn’t have a government after a power-sharing agreement collapsed in January. Nationalist politicians, who want the island to be united, and unionists, who are in favor of the status quo, had worked together since the previous May.
NBC News took a road trip along the length of the U.K.’s only land border with the E.U. to examine the potential impact of Brexit.
‘The Legacy of Our Past’
Perhaps nothing along the border illustrates the sectarian divide better than Northern Ireland’s second-largest city. Even its name is contentious, with unionists referring to it as Londonderry and nationalists as Derry.
In 2011, a Peace Bridge was built over the River Foyle to better link the predominantly Catholic west bank to the majority Protestant population in the east. Partly funded by the European Union, the span was intended to improve relations between the two communities, but the city, in many ways, remains segregated.
The only high school set up to bring these communities together, Oakgrove Integrated College, sits outside the city center.
John Harkin, a vice principal, worries that a reinstatement of a hard border after Brexit might end with some reverting to what he calls “tribal positions.” That would leave his students, who are too young to remember “the Troubles,” exposed to tensions in a way they haven’t been before.
“Lots of lives are still blighted by the legacy of our past, and there are issues there which, if not handled carefully, could erupt into violence,” Harkin said.
Annie Doherty, 19, who recently graduated from the school, said that until Brexit she had taken for granted that she would never feel Catholic-Protestant strife in the same way her parents had.
“It seems that it might be more difficult than it might have been for us, as we grow older, to keep the peace as it is now,” she said.
The Garden Hedge
Southwest of Londonderry, Mullenan Road passes an old customs building, since transformed into a family home.
Patrick Horner, 62, lives across the street. His garden hedge marks the border between the U.K. and Ireland, as well as the edge of his property.
“We don’t need a border. Why would we?” he asked. “These are imaginary lines.”
Northern Ireland was created by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, in which Britain partitioned the island into two, with six counties in the north remaining in the U.K. A bloody civil war ensued in the south.
Nearly a century later, the question of identity weighs heavily on Horner, who says he feels Irish but officially lives in the U.K.
The Good Friday Agreement — which formally ended “the Troubles” in 1998 — afforded the people of Northern Ireland the right to identify and be accepted as British or Irish, or both, within the European Union.
Many argue this acted as the pact’s glue, and that peace may be undermined without it after Brexit.
“It was our ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Horner said. “You could be Irish, British, Pakistani or Indian and still be European … But without that it’s going to put us back into our trenches.”
Peter Sheridan, the head of an all-island peace-building charity who was sitting at Horner’s kitchen table, said it was the physical border that caused tensions to spill over into violence in the first place.
“Many people think the conflict was about the Catholic and Protestant religions. It wasn’t. It was about identity,” he said, explaining that one side of the community saw themselves tied to London and the other side to Dublin.
“When you put a border up between people and their allegiances, that’s why the conflict happened,” Sheridan added.
While Sheridan said he didn’t think there would be a return to violence, he did say the people of Northern Ireland couldn’t become complacent. “We need to learn from the past,” he said.
Martina Anderson, a member of the European Parliament who is with the nationalist Sinn Fein party, agreed that Northern Ireland can’t afford to jeopardize the progress it’s made.
The return of a hard border would “undermine all that has been achieved in our peace process during the last 20 years,” said Anderson, who spent 13 years behind bars for her role in an Irish Republican Army bombing plot before being released as part of the peace accords.
The IRA waged a three-decade campaign to win a united Ireland and is considered a terrorist group by the British government.
Anderson said a hard border would not only lead to “economic oblivion” but would “totally” undermine the peace and lead to “years of hard work undone.”
The Road Less Traveled
Around 70 miles down the road , in Northern Ireland’s southwestern-most corner, John Sheridan, the farmer, was ticking off a list of things he stands to lose after Brexit.
He fears that if tariffs are introduced for trade between the U.K. and European Union countries, the value of his lamb could drastically decrease.
“They’ll put me out of business, so why wouldn’t I be in a bad humor?” he said during a visit to his farm in August.
Sheridan is a member of Border Communities Against Brexit, a group of residents that came together after the Brexit referendum out of concern that Northern Ireland’s vote to remain would not be respected.
Sheridan, 56, was clear that communities on either side of the border, which are now “married” and “completely interconnected,” must not be ripped apart again.
He pointed to wind turbines and a ridgeline of limestone in the distance, highlighting that there was “about 15 miles of border, absolutely no fence, no anything whatsoever” as evidence of the “ridiculousness” of trying to reintroduce a barrier.
Only border communities “understand the fallacy of saying this is north, this is south,” he said.
Recent talks between the E.U. and the U.K. have reassured Sheridan that an answer will be found.
Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s chief Brexit negotiator, has called for a “unique solution” to the Irish border problem but said the onus was on Britain to come forward with proposals.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Nov. 27 that Britain remained “firmly committed” to avoiding physical infrastructure at the border, but offered no new explanation of how this might work.
Gregory Campbell, a lawmaker with the Democratic Unionist Party, which is helping to prop up May’s government, said the suggestion that border issues might put peace in jeopardy was “nonsense.”
A Trip to The Past
Pamela Morrison, 70, knows too well the cost of escalating violence.
She lost three brothers during “the Troubles.”
They served in the Ulster Defence Regiment of the British Army, and were murdered one by one while off-duty.
In 1981, her brother Ronnie was shot through the heart while delivering groceries. Five months later, Cecil was shot leaving his mother-in-law’s house after visiting his newborn child.
Then Jimmy was killed while driving schoolchildren to a swimming pool in 1985.
While no one has ever been convicted in any of the three killings, Morrison has no doubt that they were carried out by the IRA.
“It got to the stage where you had to watch everywhere you went … because you didn’t know who was watching you … or who the next person was going to be,” she said.
Morrison, who lives some 17 miles east of Sheridan’s Legnabrocky Farms in rural Fermanagh County, said she was unsure what Brexit would mean for peace, though she also warned of violence if border checkpoints returned.
“I honestly think it would take very little to start it off again,” she said. “I wouldn’t like to see it.”
The Third Night of Christmas
Across the border from Morrison’s house sits the small town of Belturbet in the Irish Republic.
It was here that two teenagers, Geraldine O’Reilly and Paddy Stanley, were murdered by a car bomb believed to have been planted by Northern Ireland loyalist paramilitaries — also classified as terrorists by the British government — on Dec. 28, 1972.
Geraldine, 15, had been leaving a restaurant when the explosion occurred.
Her older brother, Anthony, was waiting for her outside.
“Everything was just blank. The car in front of me was on fire, the car behind me was on fire, and I was kind of half out of the car,” he recalled from his living room, a short drive from the site of the explosion. “It was the third night of Christmas. You never expect any trouble at that time.”
No one was convicted of the teenagers’ murders.
Anthony O’Reilly said he thought the border had been necessary during “the Troubles” but saw little reason to reintroduce one now.
“We’re hoping it would be an electronic border,” interrupted his wife, Marie, adding that no one wanted to see a return to manned checkpoints.
“It would bring it straight back to you … something you’re trying to get over,” she said, referring to policed border posts. “It would still be in your face.”
A Church in Two Places
Declan Fearon stood in front of Jonesborough Parish Church, contemplating the impact Brexit might have on his family.
“The border is not an issue anymore,” he said, “but if we allow that to go back to being an official border, a border that people are aware of, then we leave a terrible legacy to our grandkids.”
Fearon, who is also a member of Border Communities Against Brexit, said when it came to the border, the big issue was its effect on people’s psyche.
“In people’s minds now you’re putting a barrier between us again,” he said. “You’re trampling over the Good Friday Agreement as if it didn’t exist.”
Fearon, who lives around 60 miles east of Belturbet in Northern Ireland, said supporters of Brexit didn’t consider the impact on the border regions when they called for Britain to leave the E.U.
He opened the gate to the church’s graveyard. “This is where my father is buried,” he said, walking up the path.
At a certain point he stopped and pointed at the ground. On one side was Northern Ireland, on the other the Irish Republic.
“This is how ludicrous it gets when people say we’ve got to seal off the border,” he added. “The church is in the north and this graveyard is in the south. The only access to the graveyard is to come through the north.”
Where the Land Meets the Sea
The border meets the water in the east of the country at Newry River, which opens up into Carlingford Lough and then the Irish Sea.
On Aug. 27, 1979, 18 British soldiers were killed on the banks of the river in an IRA ambush. It was the biggest loss of life Britain’s army suffered in a single day during “the Troubles.”
The spot is now slated to be the site of a major infrastructure project — a bridge over the water that divides Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic.
The E.U. had once pledged around $20 million to help fund the structure but withdrew its offer when additional funding could not be secured.
Now Pamela Arthurs, chief executive of the East Border Region, which promotes economic development in the area, is concerned that Brexit will make it even harder for financing to be found.
“Not only would it have been good for our economic prospects, good for tourism, but it is symbolic in one sense,” she said, standing in front of wreaths laid for the fallen soldiers. “It would be a physical link between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
Funding for the bridge initially came from a specific E.U. fund that fosters peace and economic development in Northern Ireland and the border region. Arthurs is concerned this peace fund now may run dry.
The End of the Road
Further down the river at Warrenpoint, the last Northern Irish town near the border, residents were enjoying an unusually balmy summer evening on the waterfront.
Elmer Bell, 52, co-owner of DizzyLands Funfair, a fairgrounds provider, said he was concerned he may not be able to accept as many jobs in the south should a border be reintroduced.
“I remember when you could spend half a day at a customs check,” he said. “I have 12 big trucks. If they had to check everything, that would be a crazy thing.”
But not everybody in Warrenpoint was worried. Eunan McGurk, who was watching a drumming competition in the market square, said people in the border communities were strong..
“The experience of ‘the Troubles’ stands us in good stead to get on with it. We’ll make the most of it,” he said, leaning against his wife’s Harley-Davidson. “People’s shops and businesses were bombed, and they used to dust themselves down and repaint. We’re resilient people.”