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Why the Irish border still troubles Britain A century ago Ireland was partitioned between South and North. The legacy still haunts both islands

If you think your job is bad... British soldiers patrolling the border in County Fermanagh in 1976. Photo by Alex Bowie/Getty Images

If you think your job is bad... British soldiers patrolling the border in County Fermanagh in 1976. Photo by Alex Bowie/Getty Images


December 23, 2020   6 mins

Ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union, the Irish border has threatened to derail the Brexit negotiations. And though it may now have been pushed off the front pages by French fishermen, the issue has not been resolved. It has presented a stumbling block to already complex negotiations, and drawn from the British government a notorious declaration that it was ready to break international law to preserve its sovereign integrity; its re-emergence even represents a potentially fatal blow to the Northern Ireland peace process.

This should have come as no surprise: the border was born amid civil war, and for nearly 80 years was repeatedly a site of conflict. Its steady disappearance, Cheshire-cat-like, since the Good Friday agreement was above all a product of the common EU membership of Britain and the Irish Republic. Its centenary should provoke reflection on the manner of its creation.

A hundred years ago, two days before Christmas 1920, the Government of Ireland Act passed into law, splitting the country into two jurisdictions — the North and the South. This “partition act” had been a long time coming; the fourth home rule bill, as it was known, had been introduced a year earlier, and had ambled through Parliament while Ireland slid ever deeper into the grim guerrilla insurgency in which the IRA battled the British Army and armed police, the “Black and Tans”. The summer of 1920 had witnessed the “Belfast pogrom” — the deadliest disorders in the city’s history — as Protestant shipworkers drove Catholic dockers from the city. November saw heavy blows inflicted on British forces in Dublin and Cork. In the week after that Christmas, martial law was declared in southwest Ireland in the counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.

For over 30 years before the Government of Ireland bill’s introduction, indeed, Britain had been haunted, sometimes convulsed by the “Irish Question” — the demand for Irish self-government. Three “home rule” bills had generated an extended political crisis. The first, launched in 1886 by the great Victorian statesman William Ewart Gladstone, was an attempt to devolve sufficient power to an Irish assembly to satisfy the demand for self-government, without breaking up the United Kingdom. It never got through the House of Commons; instead it broke Gladstone’s own Liberal Party, as Liberal unionists led by Joseph Chamberlain crossed to the Conservatives. Gladstone returned briefly to power in 1892, with a second home rule bill, which fell in the House of Lords; and the Lords stood for the next 20 years as the bulwark against devolution, until their veto was removed in 1911.

The Liberal government of Herbert Henry Asquith — the last Liberal to command a parliamentary majority — brought in a third home rule bill, and the effect was explosive. Unionists in Ireland — above all in Ulster — mobilised, raised an armed militia, and threatened a unilateral declaration of independence. This defiance of the law was supported by Unionists in Britain, who demanded a referendum and threatened to prevent the government from using the army to enforce home rule. In this constitutional crisis, amidst fears of actual civil war, the Liberals began to tinker with the home rule proposal to head off the Ulster resistance.

Like Gladstone’s two bills, Asquith’s assumed that Ireland would be a single political unit. But ever since Chamberlain’s rebellion, there had been a demand for some kind of special treatment for the north-east of Ireland. Most Unionists used this only as a tool to scupper the entire devolution project, but others saw that if home rule became inevitable, at least Ulster could be saved from it. In 1912, the phenomenon of “Ulsteria” took flight, unforgettably voiced in Rudyard Kipling’s angry poem “Ulster 1912”, pulsating with hostility to Irish Catholicism. “What answer from the North?”, Kipling asked, and the reply was ominous — “if England drive us forth, we shall not fall alone”.

Irish nationalists insisted that this threat of armed resistance was a bluff, and the loyalist sense of Britishness was a delusion. Liberals had so far accepted their argument that Ireland was a single nation, but by 1912 some Liberal ministers began to think there might be merit in the great historian Lord Macaulay’s view, expressed during the first campaign to repeal the Union in 1833, that its leaders could not “find a reason for having a parliament at Dublin which will not be just as good for having another parliament at Londonderry”.

Belfast had become vastly more significant since then, and claimed that its economic strength would be destroyed by home rule. But ministers hesitated to act. It was a Liberal backbencher, Thomas Agar-Robartes, who put down an amendment calling for the exclusion of four north-eastern counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down and Londonderry). His reasoning was that the two nations in Ireland were entirely “different in sentiment, character, history and religion”. The government’s Irish nationalist allies naturally denounced the idea of two nations as “revolting and hateful”, “something like sacrilege”. Asquith stuck by them in 1912, but over the next couple of years and as the confrontation over home rule escalated, he shifted position. By early 1914, when the “Curragh mutiny” suggested that the army was on Ulster’s side, he was prepared to offer exclusion for six years on the basis of a county-by-county vote.

When the Great War broke out, it looked certain that a northern area would be excluded when the Home Rule Act — passed in September 1914 but put on ice until the end of the war — was eventually resuscitated. It seemed likely, too, that any exclusion would effectively be permanent. This became clear in 1916, after the Irish rebellion, when Lloyd George (soon to become prime minister) tried to find another path to settlement. He immediately offered exclusion of six counties, with no time limit. And whereas Asquith had deliberately avoided talk of “partition” — preferring “exclusion” — Lloyd George frankly said that exclusion “was partition”. His project was scuppered by Unionists in the Cabinet, now a Liberal-Conservative coalition, but every subsequent attempt to reconfigure home rule would follow his model.

Partition of some kind now seemed unavoidable, but the line of division remained negotiable. At the war’s end, the 1914 act was supposed to be implemented — a prospect which did not enthuse Lloyd George’s government. The political context changed dramatically in the 1918 election, the first since 1910, with the Irish parliamentary party practically wiped out by a new separatist movement, Sinn FĂ©in, which refused to attend Westminster, and set about building a republican counter-state. The appeal of home rule was waning; but the 1914 Act clearly had to be adapted, and yet another home rule bill was drawn up. The drafting committee found it easy to agree that there should be two Irish parliaments, one in Dublin and one in Belfast, but hard to decide whether the northern area should consist of the six counties or the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster.

The arguments for the latter were that the province “by its size was more suited to possess a parliament”, and also that its larger Catholic population would make partition look less blatantly sectarian — and also, some ministers thought, make eventual unification more likely. This was still being argued when the bill was about to go to parliament. The main counter-argument was that Ulster Unionists — their title notwithstanding — had already decided in 1916 to ditch three Ulster counties, precisely because their Catholic majorities would make the Unionist majority in the whole province worryingly slender.

The decision was painful, and grassroots sentiment held to the “Ulster Covenant”. But Sir Edward Carson, their leader, insisted that the nine-county area would be ungovernable. As to the frontier, he wanted a “clean cut”, using the existing county boundaries, even though some Unionists argued that if the border was adjusted to exclude as many Catholics as possible, the northern state would emerge stronger (if smaller). This desire for “homogeneity” would call for the use of plebiscites to determine the partition line — something familiar from a number of European cases under the Versailles settlement, and seemingly accepted by the government.

The Government of Ireland Act reached the statute book a full two years after the end of the war. The time lag might have been blamed on the most deadly virus of modern times, Spanish Flu, which swept the world in 1918-9, though there is little sign that the pandemic was accorded the disruptive power of its current successor. Political causes were more significant: deep hostility to home rule persisted among Conservatives, and Liberals were no longer optimistic about its viability.

But the delay carried a cost: by the time it was enacted, there was almost no chance that the “Southern Parliament” would ever meet. The Northern state apparatus, on the other hand, was already being put in place; its own security force, the Ulster Special Constabulary, was established several weeks before the formal creation of Northern Ireland. The elections to the two Irish parliaments in May 1921 would confirm Sinn FĂ©in and the Ulster Unionists as the only significant political groupings. A final settlement would require an accommodation between between Sinn FĂ©in and the British government.

The Northern state apparatus had effectively been established before the Act was passed, but the idea of adjusting the border to make Northern Ireland more “homogeneous” would persist for five years afterwards. A boundary commission, set up after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921, eventually recommended some limited territorial transfers. But no plebiscite was ever held, and the Irish government in Dublin rejected the settlement. The county line, with all its illogicalities and absurdities, became an international frontier, yet no passports were required to cross it; common citizenship across Britain and Ireland was maintained even before both countries joined the European community.

The border created many anomalous communal effects, but only in the 1970s, when the British Army began to fortify it in an attempt to stop IRA movement, did it really begin to fit the international model. Dismantling that physical structure has been one of the great achievements of the peace process, and avoiding its return will call for imaginative thinking of a kind that was in sadly short supply a century ago.


Charles Townshend is a British historian and Professor of International History at Keele University.


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Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

What is most sad about this whole thing is that rather than find an acceptable solution for everyone, the EU negotiators have used it as a pawn in their game to preserve their beloved political project.

Why can’t 2 sovereign nations that share a land border decide for themselves how best to manage that for the good of the people on both sides of it, then the EU find a sensible way to accommodate that. It is not as though border rules are homogeneous throughout the EU or between the EU and neighbouring countries that share land borders. The recent overreaction to the new strain is just the latest example of how quickly principles can be disregarded at whim by the member nations.

There is no such thing as international law, just treaties between nations. Treaties have to be renegotiated from time to time because circumstances change. Boris does not want to renegotiate this one at all. Despite all its imperfections and many aspects not panning out as hoped, it has led to relative peace and prosperity for the people of the island of Ireland. Good Friday only came about because John Major did secretly negotiate with terrorists, and whilst those terrorists still had the guns, they were not holding them to our heads at the negotiating table; unlike the EU over this issue. Boris’s response was quite rightly to put in place a mechanism which would prevent the EU being able to pull the trigger – regrettable but necessary.

For me the Irish border issue is concrete proof that the EU is an entirely venal and morally bankrupt political project that puts the survival of the project ahead of the needs of the citizens it attempts to rule not serve.

Once out we will need to find a way to make things as good as they can be in Ireland. It is the price we are being forced to pay for our freedom from tyranny – something both sides of the debate in Ireland have been fighting for for over a century.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

‘For me the Irish border issue is concrete proof that the EU is an entirely venal and morally bankrupt political project that puts the survival of the project ahead of the needs of the citizens it attempts to rule not serve.’

Absolutely true, but this has been obvious for at least 15 years. And I write as one who was once extremely pro-EU.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It only really became obvious to me about 5 years ago when I worked for the EU’s counter Somali piracy mission, Up until then I naively believed UK had an important role to play in supporting the smaller nations outside the Franco-German nexus and that we could influence EU development for the good of the citizens of Europe.

Oh well we all have our delusions, it is really quite liberating when you realise that they truly were just delusions.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Totally agree. What I don’t understand is why the UK government states that it will not put up border posts but will rely on electronic records of cross-border trade. This would put the ball in the EU’s court and challenge the EU to make the same commitment.

There is also the question of Irish citizens’ rights in the UK. Before both countries entered the old EEC, Irish citizens had preferential rights over other Europeans in the UK. Is the UK government offering to return to this situation? Will the EU refuse to accept preferential treatment for some of its citizens? Will the Irish government show its puppet nature by denying its own citizens preferential rights in the UK?

jongorman33
jongorman33
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

I would say that the current British govt has shown itself to be rather careless with its northern Irish province and surprisingly ignorant about the nature of the single market that it helped to create.

The EU have been inflexible, but this is entirely to be expected because the border between the Irish Republic and northern Ireland is also the border with Germany and France and Finland. The borders stay open because there is confidence that the provisions that others put in place is sufficient.

The British govt has signalled strongly that it intends to diverge and has demonstrated a lack of seriousness around keeping to agreements. A need for governance and enforcement flows directly from this. All of this is entirely predictable.

The problems on the Irish border stem from the dubious prospectus that the UK can do exactly what it wants and no consequences flow from that decision.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  jongorman33

I would say the current British government is delivering on the outcome of the referendum as it clearly promised to do when it was elected with a significant majority by an electorate who had watched with dismay as the previous government did everything it could to avoid delivering the outcome of the referendum. Governments should serve the people they govern and bow to the will of those people. If the EU, which is unelected, at least tried to follow those principles then there would be no problem, indeed there would probably have been no cause for Britain to leave in the first place.

jongorman33
jongorman33
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

All of that is fine, but nevertheless the issues on the Irish border were entirely predictable once it was decided that brexit = leaving the single market. We would all have benefited from a better debate on the pros and cons before the event because it has resulted in the partial amputation of Northern Ireland – something that was specifically denied in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Andy Yorks
Andy Yorks
3 years ago
Reply to  jongorman33

The Irish Border ‘problem’ is only a problem for the Republic and the EU – it is their border. The UK has decided what it would do, so that was that as far as we are concerned. The blame lies with lilly livered UK Civil Servants and incompetent politicians. The EU should have been told at the outset to f*** off. It is not for them to annex another states territory and the UK should have been very, very robust on defending itself. If Boris had any spine at all he would walk away from the FTA negotiation farce and tear up the Withdrawal Agreement.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

Listening to the radio tonight, I hear that some French civil servant has leaked that a trade deal is almost sorted and that the UK side has given huge concessions on fishing grounds. DREADFUL news. We have submitted to Napoleon Macron’s demands and threats of fishing piracy.

The EU demands are ridiculous – they want free access to a valuable UK resource so that they can just turn up and cart off the majority of the fish. How about a slightly different version? The UK should be entitled to drive large trucks to France and cart off 80% of the grapes. If these uk grape fishers take too many, they should be allowed to dump what they like on the way back to Britain, This of cours eis a laugably idiotic proposal – it is exactly what the French are demanding and may have been given.

Simon Diggins
Simon Diggins
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Fox

We don’t eat all the fish our current quota allows, let alone all we might eat with a change. It’s like arguing over fresh air: it blows where it wilt, and the fish swim where they want.

The only purpose of quotas is to stop over-exploitation of a resource that would otherwise be held ‘in common’, which in practice means everyone grabs what they can and one rapidly deplete all stocks. What matters therefore is the total take and a sensible allocation amongst all potential sharers; you certainly don’t scupper a trading relationship worth £400 Bn plus, over £60m of ‘fishing rights’.

Pete Rose
Pete Rose
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

It’s not called a ‘fishing industry’ for nothing. We are not a nation of subsistence fishers, we can catch and export our fish products too. Plus we can ensure our fisheries aren’t raped into nothingness, like the EU seems intent on doing, regardless of their ‘quotas’.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

No. You are talking nonsense. The waters belong to us an we derive only a small part of the value. The French don’t drink all of the wine they produce from their vinyards. They sell most of it. A sensible analogy to the issue of the French carting away vast amounts of our fish through the Common fisheries policy, is to imagine a scenario in which British truckers turn up in France, grab the majority of the grapes and drive them away without paying – AND, when they take too much, dump large amounts by the roadside to rot on the way home. THAT is what we have allowed for forty years, and what we are still allowing under the new rules. Boris’s much vaunted negotiations in late December only repatriate the right for British fishermen to regain a mere 8% of our own fish.

Fish are not a vast part of our GDP, but what we own, WE OWN. We can not allow piratical neighbours to take away our resources under threat.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  jongorman33

Switzerland seems to do fine with EU member states on every border. There are solutions if you want to find them and there are intractable issues if you want to exploit them for other purposes. Was it predictable that the political project would use the issue for its own ends which have nothing to do with what is in the best interests of the people of the island of Ireland nor of the people of what remains of the EU. Yes it was, I agree. Did it have to be that way, no it did not. Yes you should play every legitimate card you have in a business negotiation to get yourself the best deal, but should you really threaten the other side with revealing an old affair to their wife which could cause the break up of their family?

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

There is no such thing as international law, just treaties between nations.

Indeed. As I for one have never voted for an international lawmaker in my life, I regard any attempt to posit such a thing as tyranical.

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

This is no pawn for the people of Ireland. It’s the central all encompassing question.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

The parallels to the situation today are striking. The focus is always on the republican perspective while the threat from the loyalists is ignored. The whole Ni protocol has been built to favour the republicans by weakening NI’s links to rUK and in doing so the loyalists feel abandoned.

If the the Irish and EU try to force NI into a position where Dublin has effective veto over NI’s position in the UK expect loyalists to threaten violence.

It may not have been contested in court but Northern Ireland unionists feel the GFA has been breached by the NI protocol.

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Any sympathy I might feel for the position of NI unionists is extremely diluted by the knowledge that the DUP, the largest Unionist party, not only clamoured for Brexit, but facilitated its UK-wide promotion, by very dubious means. The NI Protocol, a nightmare for NI Unionism, is their reward. Spectacularly bad call.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Wilson

There are a number of points:

1. Northern Ireland recieved funds from the EU but it did not benefit from the single market. The rest of the UK and USA were it’s biggest markets. Much of the trade with RoI was controled through non EU agreements.
2. Brexit has been very elightening for many unionists. They have discovered that the EU’s commitment to the GFA was only skin deep and when the chips were down NI was a pawn in their game rather than a serious consideration. It was said that NI was the price the UK would pay for BRexit even though the GFA specifically excludes such a position.
3. The Eu was willing to effectively blockade NI, empting its shelves of food as a way to punish the UK government.

The real truth of the matter is BRexit has shown the EU to be a fair weather friend to Northern Ireland and the GFA and many unionists were afraid of that.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Wilson

So you’re not over being on the losing side in the biggest democratic vote in this country’s history? Well democracy is tough if you can’t accept the result

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

If there weren’t a Unionist threat, NI would be in a customs union with the EU already.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
3 years ago

I was struck by your words: “only in the 1970s, when the British Army began to fortify it in an attempt to stop IRA movement, did it really begin to fit the international model.”

Has there ever been a “hard border” in the sense of a fence and control points at every crossing between North and South, as opposed to the occasional security post? Please someone correct me if I’m mistaken, but I think not, even during the trade war of the 30s. And there certainly was freedom of movement for people throughout.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

Scott Reid, currently a Canadian Conservative MP, published a brilliant book, “Canada Remapped”, in 1992, anticipating the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. He dealt with the Irish partition in considerable length, making a lot of the points that Charles makes in this article. He rejected the idea that a county would be the smallest voting unit for deciding on new borders for an Irish Free State or a sovereign Quebec. Instead he recommended that the people in each polling unit decide where they wanted to go. This may be cutting it a bit too fine, but I agree with his general point. Charles writes: “This desire for ‘homogeneity’ would call for the use of plebiscites to determine the partition line ” something familiar from a number of European cases under the Versailles settlement.” It is a huge shame that these plebiscites never took place and that they were not used to determine the border between Ulster and the Republic. If it wouldn’t have stopped the violence that took place over the next century from happening, it certainly would have reduced it. And it isn’t necessarily true that in such situations, people always vote on narrowly sectarian or ethnic lines. The 1920 plebiscite on whether Carinthia would belong to Yugoslavia or Austria saw a surprising number of Slovenes vote for Austrian rule. In any case, there is perhaps a good case for a plebiscite in Northern Ireland now on remaining part of the UK or joining the Republic of Ireland. Better late than never.

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

Belfast and County Tyrone would have been a big issue. Also the glens of Antrim.

Not so easy.

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

Also, what of the (soft) ethnic cleansing that happened? What of the pogroms that drove Catholics from their homes?