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BLACKLION, Ireland – Only a gentle stream separates the border villages of Blacklion and Belcoo, where Irish cows graze along one bank, British sheep on the other. Long gone are the armored police checkpoints, the concrete-block barricades on illegal side roads, the customs officers on the prowl for smugglers.
But Ireland's soft border could become a hard fact of life again if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the sovereignty-sharing bloc that has done much to blur the 95-year-old boundary.
Should a majority of British voters reject continued EU membership in a June 23 referendum, Northern Ireland's nearly 500-kilometer (310-mile) frontier with the Irish Republic would become the only British land border with the 27 remaining EU nations. The intertwined residents of Belcoo in Northern Ireland and Blacklion barely 200 meters (yards) away in the Republic of Ireland would find themselves again in two diverging lands.
While some view that prospect as an opportunity, many more express dread at the thought.
"I live right down on the border and I wouldn't want to see my family experience all those problems that arose. It was terrible at times," said farmer Hugh Maguire, 60, who lives in Blacklion but raises sheep, cattle and hens on nearby Northern Ireland soil. "Borders create problems."
Both communities depend on EU funding. Agriculture is the top employer, and farms receive 329 euros per hectare (133 euros, or $149, per acre) from the EU's subsidy scheme — around 80,000 euros ($90,000) annually to Maguire's 241-hectare farm. Few Northern Ireland farmers are confident that the British government, long a critic of EU farm subsidies, would maintain anything close to that support.
"We cannot survive without the subsidies. There's no way in the wide, wide world," said Maguire, who gets two-thirds of his income from subsidies, much of the rest from open market access to livestock marts south of the border, where lamb prices are stronger.
The EU symbol liberally adorns projects big and small in both villages. That reflects double-barreled European funding available for Ireland's borderland, which qualifies both for infrastructure investment on economic deprivation grounds and as a recovering conflict zone following Irish Republican Army cease-fires of the 1990s.
As councilman John Paul Feeley stands near the bridge connecting his native Blacklion with Belcoo, he points in every direction to projects funded by the EU. These include two enterprise centers, still largely empty, to house business startups; footpaths, a riverside walk and park with historical plaques; and a once-crumbling 18th-century market building transformed into a gift shop, social hall, coffee bar and tourist information hub complete with iPad and mini-cinema.
All around the region, road signs highlight a border-straddling tourist attraction branded the Geopark that links natural and archaeological treasures, including caves, castle ruins, dolmen-marked graves and the humble headwaters of Ireland's mighty River Shannon.
It's a marketing work in progress. On a blustery midweek visit, there's not a tourist in sight, only a lone worker using a weed-whacker to keep the EU-funded paths open to hilltop Neolithic monuments offering panoramas of the two villages and mountains, forests, lakes and farms.
"It's a stunning view, and it's a view opened up by the EU," Feeley said. "We just need to get the people here."
As a resident of the Irish Republic, Feeley can't vote on Brexit. His brother, a mechanic living in Belcoo, can.
"I know he'll be voting to stay in the EU. I really haven't found anybody locally making a strong case to get out," Feeley said.
But chatting to locals in Jack's Bar, the main Belcoo pub, harvests a wide swathe of opinion, including disenchantment — even disgust — with the EU. Some argue that the UK shouldn't be so open to immigration from the bloc's eastern members.
"The EU does throw a lot of money at the farmers. But they also make it way too easy for foreigners to come here, claim benefits and overcrowd the place," said Jay McGourty, a 25-year-old bricklayer. "I don't want to come across as a racist, but people from other countries see the UK as a gold mine."
When asked how many foreigners lived among Belcoo's approximately 500 residents, he paused: "Two, maybe three Poles."
McGourty, who's never voted in a Northern Ireland election but plans to cast a referendum ballot, still isn't sure which way he'll vote, because he works mostly on Irish Republic building sites and wouldn't like to see "the hassle and waste of time" of border checks.
Behind the bar, proprietor Paul Leonard and his son Stephen look likely to cancel each other's votes. The son favors staying in the EU, while the father is eyeing an exit.
"I'd love to stay in the EU," said Stephen Leonard. "Wee country villages like this can be dead set against everything, but we need to keep moving forward."
Paul Leonard says he's annoyed by what he considers overblown scare tactics from the pro-EU camp — particularly assertions that the return of an actively policed border with customs checks would stir an IRA revival. The last of eight people slain by the IRA in Belcoo, a policeman at a vehicle checkpoint, was shot outside the pub in 1992. The IRA sniper fired from Blacklion.
Paul Leonard appreciates today's transformed security landscape. His own father, Tom, served 32 years in the Northern Ireland police and survived an IRA assassination bid in Londonderry in 1985. After his father retired from the force, he sought reassurances from local IRA figures that his family could safely return to live in their native Belcoo.
A durable truce has allowed Belcoo's bomb-proof police fortress to be razed and replaced with apartments. There's no longer any officers based in the village. Paul Leonard expresses confidence that an EU-free Northern Ireland wouldn't alter this.
"There's no way this generation will let the country go back to the bad old ways. We've moved on," he said. "And a UK free of all that EU bureaucracy would be a good thing for business. The UK's already shown it can be independent by keeping its own currency instead of joining the euro."
Everyone seems to agree on one point: EU withdrawal would drive a renaissance in cross-border smuggling amid a weaker British pound and revived import barriers.
"The border was always a smuggler's paradise," said Harold Johnston, whose family has run a clothes store in Blacklion since 1901. "Smugglers would want the border back more than anyone. They'll all be voting to send the EU packing."
Jack's Bar, https://www.facebook.com/jacksbarbelcoo/