Matt Dunham, AP
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, Wednesday, April 3, 2019.

DUBLIN — Last week, I drove across the Republic of Ireland in under 15 minutes.

OK, I cheated a little. Starting in Belleek, at the far western tip of Northern Ireland, I made for the Fairy Bridges of Bundoran, located on the Atlantic Ocean only 8.5 miles away. I was exploiting a quirk in the border, a narrow strip of land along the west coast that keeps the majority-Catholic county of Donegal connected to the rest of the republic. So it wasn't much of a feat … but it does make for a good story.

This trip was possible only because the Irish border is so illogical. That illogicality, in turn, makes its centrality to the Brexit debate perfectly sensible — and makes for a good story.

The boundary is the legacy of England's brutal 17th-century colonization of Ireland's Ulster region, which left Catholics and Protestants too intermingled to be separated by any clean political boundary and too mutually antagonistic to comfortably share the Home Rule. The solution — carve out the six majority protestant counties from the rest of Ireland — didn't really solve the problem.

Nonetheless, Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants currently enjoy an uneasy truce, a process the European Union assisted by blurring the border to invisibility. I discovered just how invisible when I prepared to commemorate my passage into the republic — and realized I was already there. The only visible transition had been a slight difference in road signage.

But Brexit looms, and behind it the specter of a harder, more visible border. And so British Prime Minister Theresa May has desperately tried to find some compromise among at least five parties, each of whom can't, or won't, give up the one thing some other party must have.

Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland understandably resent living on their ancestral lands as an ethno-religious minority. They're opposed to border checkpoints, even a friendlier version run by the Irish government.

I found out just how intense the opposition is about five minutes after pulling into Keady. A pugnacious older gent told me he'd removed the last checkpoints on the Armagh border after Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace agreement in 1998 — and didn't doubt that the younger lads would tackle the next ones. A January car bombing in Derry indicates that some nationalists may already be getting a jump-start on the Troubles 2.0.

But if Brexit happens, the E.U. won't consent to a gaping hole in its borders. Unless Britain hews to E.U. rules, Ireland, which will remain in the E.U., must have something like a border somewhere — either with the United Kingdom or with the E.U. Which leaves the Irish government with a conundrum. Ireland walling itself off from the E.U., to maintain a connection with Northern Ireland would defeat the purpose of E.U. membership. But it's neither practical nor politically acceptable for the Irish government to actively reharden the border with Northern Ireland.

May could of course break the Brexit stalemate either by ceding the E.U. the control it wants or carving Northern Ireland off into its own regulatory zone. But Protestant Unionists are adamant that there can be no separate regime for Northern Ireland because damn it, they're British. The 10 Democratic Unionist Party members of Parliament are also the linchpin of May's parliamentary majority.

Unfortunately, that majority also depends on pro-leave members who insist that U.K. voters voted "Leave," not "Downgrade to nonvoting membership in the E.U." Pursuing Brexit in name only risks both the May government's democratic legitimacy and an irreparable split in her party.

No compromise can possibly satisfy all these reasonable, intransigent demands. And so on Wednesday, the prime minister crossed a hard border of her own: She sat down with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, to explore a cross-party compromise. With enough Labour votes, May could bypass the DUP and the Brexiteers, and make enough concessions to Europe to keep the Irish border open.

6 comments on this story

It's hard to overstate how amazing the May-Corbyn meeting was, the political equivalent of peace talks between cat and mouse. Corbyn isn't just the opposition leader; he's a socialist radical. Cooperating with him would split May's party down the middle — and thereby possibly hand him the keys to her office.

Taking this step illustrates just how impossible it was to secure compromise within her own majority. And that's the Irish border in a nutshell, making humdrum things such as "compromises" considerably more difficult — and less likely — than startling impossibilities such as driving across a nation in 15 minutes.