World, As Seen from the most beautiful islands: Ireland and Cyprus

One century of the Northern Irish border


Notable facts: last spring marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and the European Union and the United Kingdom finally reached definitive agreements regarding the Northern Irish border in trade. The border has been a source of tension for over a century. More broadly, how have geographers viewed borders in this century?

After the British decided to leave the European Union in 2016, it took nearly four years for Brexit to become a reality. The negotiations were often deadlocked. The land border between Northern Ireland (a part of the United Kingdom) and the EU member state of Ireland was the major obstacle. Out of curiosity, many dignitaries visited what seemed to be a crucial border. However, the assembled photographers had difficulty capturing it on film because there were no fences or customs booths to be found. Therefore, they took photos of a country road where the markings changed from yellow to white and of road signs indicating speed limits in kilometers and then in miles a little further on. The significance of the border being inconspicuous was crucial. It should never again become the hard border it once was before 1998.

Notable facts: last spring marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and the European Union and the United Kingdom finally reached definitive agreements regarding the Northern Irish border in trade. The border has been a source of tension for over a century. More broadly, how have geographers viewed borders in this century?

In the three decades prior to 1998, a civil war raged over the status of Northern Ireland. Irish nationalists sought Irish reunification and British departure. However, most Protestant Northern Irish wanted to remain part of the UK. The Troubles, as this period was known, resulted in about 3,500 deaths (see also Geography October 2018). The media predominantly portrayed the conflict as a struggle between Protestant unionists (the majority) and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. But socioeconomic disparities also played a role, which we will discuss later.

On April 10, 1998 (Good Friday), the UK and Ireland signed an agreement that put an end to the violence. Thanks to this agreement, the border gradually softened, and Northern Ireland and Ireland became increasingly connected. However, tensions still simmered beneath the surface. Struggles persist to this day, particularly in cities like Belfast and (London)Derry. Segregation is significant, with separate schools, sports clubs, and in some places, tall “peace walls” separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Colorful murals mark boundaries and territories.

On a (inter)national level, Brexit reignited the discord that had previously been dampened by the agreement. This fits a pattern: border issues often involve higher powers. External parties determine the course of the border or its character. While Northern Ireland formally left the EU with the UK, it still remains part of the EU customs union and internal market. The actual EU external border now lies in the Irish Sea, and the UK must control trade under EU supervision. Whether this will work is a topic we will explore at the end of this article. First, let’s take a historical-geographical perspective: how did the border come into existence? How geographers viewed borders, then and now, can be found in the sidebars.

Struggle for Freedom

For centuries, Ireland was an English colony. In the 19th century, resistance to this rule grew. From 1870, the call for self-government (Home Rule) grew louder. The Irish Home Rule Bill was rejected twice by the British Parliament. In 1914, the law was finally passed but not implemented due to the outbreak of World War I. Protestants were opposed to self-rule for all of Ireland; they cynically referred to it as “Home Rule is Rome Rule.” The Irish national movement was divided. Some wanted to wait for the end of the war, while others unilaterally declared the independent Irish Republic on Easter Monday 1916, during the war. The British army violently suppressed this uprising, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries, with fifteen leaders executed. This Easter Rising pushed many towards the nationalist camp.

In 1920, the British government once again proposed Home Rule, which would have divided Ireland into two parts: North and South, each with self-governance. This Government of Ireland Act was referred to as the Partition Act by Irish nationalists who were against the division; they believed that all of Ireland should be liberated and thus did not support the law. Negotiations in 1921 led to an Anglo-Irish Treaty, with the creation of an Irish Free State as its primary outcome. The six counties of Northern Ireland were given the option to remain outside of this arrangement, which they willingly accepted. The predominantly Protestant areas sought to maintain the closest possible ties with Great Britain.

The Irish Free State was granted the status of a dominion within the British Empire (later the Commonwealth). The British king was also the king of Ireland, but primarily in a ceremonial capacity (similar to the current situation in Canada and Australia). In 1937, the name was changed to Ireland, and the country became independent. In 1949, all formal ties with Great Britain were severed, and Ireland became a republic, leaving the Commonwealth.

From 1921, Northern Ireland remained a political entity within the British Empire with self-governance. James Craig was the first Prime Minister and held that position until his death in 1940. He was the leader of the unionists and strongly thought in terms of rivalry: the North versus the South, Protestants versus Catholics.

Under pressure from Protestants, three of the original nine counties of Ulster – Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan, where Catholics predominantly lived – were excluded from Northern Ireland under the arrangements of 1920/21. This enlarged the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, defined as the six remaining counties. In 1921, two-thirds of the population were Protestant, and one-third was Catholic. The Protestants were primarily descendants of English and Scottish settlers who had established themselves in the 16th century on the lands of Irish nobility who had unsuccessfully resisted the English and were forced to flee. This marked the beginning of Ulster as a predominantly Protestant area in the northeast. Elsewhere on the island, the nobility was more willing to compromise: they had to formally align with English power structures but were allowed to keep their land in return. Consequently, there was literally less room for overseas colonists in those areas.

The (provisional) border followed the provincial boundaries, and a border commission was tasked with advising on the exact, final course of the border. In the border region, the interests were significant, and the debates were intense. The commission suggested minor adjustments, but due to numerous disagreements, this advice was not accepted. The provisional border became final in 1925 and has not been altered since.

The partition had significant consequences for border residents. The two political entities increasingly diverged, and from 1923, the border also became a customs border where import duties were levied. From then on, the border could only be crossed at official border crossings, leading to longer travel times for many. Smuggling also became widespread. Between 1933 and 1939, there was even talk of an economic war between the Irish Free State and the UK. Import duties had to be paid on an increasing number of goods. In the struggle for complete independence, the Irish stopped paying import duties to the UK, prompting the kingdom to expand the list of taxed goods, including more agricultural products. This was disastrous for border residents who heavily relied on agriculture.

In 1939, most conflicts between the Irish Free State and the UK were resolved, but the customs border remained in place, as did the tensions between Catholics (who dreamed of reunification with Ireland) and Protestants (who remained vigilant). The border even hardened during World War II, primarily due to the differing roles during the war. Unlike in 1914 when Irish volunteers fought under the British flag, Ireland declared itself neutral. In Northern Ireland, war industries flourished, and the export of goods was restricted, even to Ireland. This led to shortages in Ireland.

Militarization of the Border

In 1966, nationalists across Ireland organized parades to commemorate the Easter Rising of fifty years earlier. In Dublin, the statue of the British war hero Nelson was blown up. Unionists in Northern Ireland established a paramilitary organization (Ulster Volunteer Force) that detonated bombs at Catholic institutions, declaring it a war against the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The IRA had been founded after the Easter Rising and had carried out attacks on British arsenals and administrative centers along the border between 1956 and 1962. This violent Border Campaign had limited support among the population, and the IRA remained relatively small. However, in response to unionist violence and the structural discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland, the IRA radicalized further. Violence from both sides led to an escalation. The arrival of British troops in August 1969, in an attempt to quell the violence, further inflamed nationalist sentiments.

Catholics began to assert their demands more vocally, inspired by the global rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s (such as that led by Martin Luther King). A (non-violent) civil rights movement also emerged in Northern Ireland, particularly among Catholics who experienced structural discrimination. They pointed out that they had fewer opportunities in the job market, were marginalized in the housing market, that 90% of the Northern Irish police force consisted of Protestants, and that gerrymandering (the manipulation of electoral district boundaries in favor of the most powerful party) disadvantaged Catholics in elections. In short, socio-economic disparities fueled the conflict. Peaceful protests proved futile, motivating the IRA to seek change through violence.

The escalation of the conflict was evident in the militarization of the land border: watchtowers, barbed wire, roadblocks, the closure of small border crossings, and increasing military control by British soldiers. This also resulted in a rise in the number of fatalities. The stark statistics can be found on the Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) website of Ulster University, which provides a wealth of background information. Approximately 60% of the 3,532 casualties between 1969 and 2001 resulted from republican violence, 30% from unionists, and 10% from British troops.

From 1973, this military border became less rigid in economic terms. In that year, both the UK and Ireland joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC). Their simultaneous accession was not coincidental; the EEC hoped to prevent complex border issues. Membership was a significant boost for economic relations between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Inclusion in the customs union, and particularly the introduction of the internal market in 1993, with the free movement of goods, services, people, and capital, have been of great significance.

The peace process was initiated by an agreement between the British and Irish governments in 1993, in which the right to self-determination of the Irish people was recognized. A year later, the IRA and unionist paramilitaries decided on a ceasefire. In 1998, all decisions were formalized in the famous Good Friday Agreement, which was signed by all parties except one, the unionist party DUP, led by Reverend Ian Paisley. However, even he, in his later years, chose peace and began cooperating with his former adversaries.

It’s interesting to note the external pressure from both the EU and the United States (with a significant Irish migrant population) on the peace process. The American Senator George Mitchell led the peace talks. Thanks to this pressure, the Good Friday Agreement achieved much. Here are the key decisions:

  1. The right to self-determination for the Irish meant that the fate of Northern Ireland was placed in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. If a majority in a referendum chose to join Ireland, the UK had to accept it.
  2. Ireland removed its claim to Northern Ireland from its constitution.
  3. The power of the Northern Ireland government and the Northern Ireland Assembly was increased within the UK. Power was devolved from London to Belfast (devolution). The executive authority in Northern Ireland had to be based on power-sharing between the different communities.
  4. Ireland and Northern Ireland established a joint ministerial council to address cross-border issues.
  5. They committed to peaceful cooperation and the disarmament of all paramilitary organizations.

Thanks to the agreement, violence came to a definitive end, with the exception of a few attacks by IRA hardliners. In the border region, roadblocks, watchtowers, and checkpoints disappeared quickly. Connections were restored, and bridges were rebuilt, much to the delight of border residents. The border itself is hardly recognizable today, but a landscape of memory has emerged, with remnants of the vanished border barricades and monuments bearing the names of the fallen.

Written by: Patrick O'Brien

Patrick O'Brien is a student who is taking only the first steps in journalism. The main interest is events from the world of macroeconomics and finance.

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