Almost two years have slid by now since I took a reporting trip to Ireland. I looped around Dublin, Belfast, and of course the countryside, doing stories as fun as this New York Times hotel review and as serious as this Pacific Standard piece on incorporating philosophy into teen education.
Yet there’s still one story yet to be published, and somehow it’s more relevant than ever. As Brexit lurches on, it’s become clear that British leaders are flying by the seats of their pants, without any kind of grand strategy, and not even a safety net.
Few places are more threatened by this destructive bumbling than Northern Ireland. Its two decades of fragile peace—after 40 years of violent Catholic-Protestant Troubles—could be shattered if the open border between UK-governed Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland to the south gets closed (or even just manned). The New York Times just took up the scary prospect of post-Brexit violence within the past week.
People’s livelihoods are threatened, too, and that’s what I’m underscoring in an upcoming feature for Culture magazine. I met the impressive young cheesemaker Mike Thompson at Sheridans Food Fair outside Dublin. He started making Northern Ireland’s only raw-milk cheese at 26, crowdfunding his Mike’s Fancy Cheese production when no banks would finance him. I visited Thompson’s production facility outside Belfast to learn more. He calls his cheese Young Buck, and it’s a Stilton-riffing blue that’s tangy and fabulous.
Yet Thompson sends 70 percent of his cheese to either Ireland or continental Europe. A post-Brexit tariff suddenly slapped on that cheese, rendering it an export, could destroy his business. In the sausagemaking that is Euro-Brexit policy, Thompson’s small business could get crushed as easily as a gnat in the grinder.
When I met him two years ago and asked him about the political situation, a blithe Thompson smiled and said, “We’re such a small business, I’m sure we can get by.” Now he’s opened a retail shop to hedge his bets—selling all he can locally is the Mike’s Fancy Cheese Brexit protection plan—but there are still no guarantees. It’s a reminder of the individual tolls Brexit continues to take. Look for the story in Culture‘s Summer Issue.