Why is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland giving the UK a hard time?

Why the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland giving the UK a hard time?


As we celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Quebec, it's only fitting that we turn our attention to the political situation in Ireland. After all, the Irish are a big part of our ancestry and their history is closer to ours than we think. 

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the partition of the island of Ireland is once again in the limelight. For the British, the situation is like tearing their hair out.

Customs controls

Last February, the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced that London and Brussels had just reached an agreement on Northern Ireland. 

For the record, the Good Friday agreement signed in 1998 abolished the customs border between the two parts of the same island of Ireland, namely the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state, and Northern Ireland, a constituent nation of the United Kingdom. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, therefore, there is no longer a hard border between the European Community and Northern Ireland.

The situation was problematic. How to manage post-Brexit customs controls with Northern Ireland without reinstalling a hard border with the Republic of Ireland? 

Once again, the British wondered why Northern Ireland , whose population of 1.9 million is only 3% of the population of the United Kingdom, so often made life difficult for them. 

Henry II of England

The partition of the island of Ireland, in 1921, would constitute a first answer to this question. But the real reason is the fact that Ireland lived under English rule for seven centuries. 

Religions, monarchy and colonization

< p>It was an Englishman, Pope Adrian IV, who allowed Henry II to conquer Ireland in 1171. But it was the advent of the Tudors to the throne of England at the end of the 15th century that changed the status of Ireland. 

Representation of Pope Adrian IV, who enabled Henry II to conquer Ireland.

Under the reign of Henry VIII, England became a Protestant country, while the majority of the Irish remained loyal to Rome. 

To better establish their authority in Ireland, the Tudors decided to colonize the whole country by means of a system of plantations. The island was the scene of systematic spoliation: the lands of the Irish were confiscated for the benefit of settlers from England, Scotland and Wales. 

The Ulster plantation, located in the north of the island, was the most important. New settlers, mainly Scots and English, transformed the province and made Belfast a great industrial metropolis. 

Plantation Map of Ulster

Looking for a solution

Between settlers and colonized, nothing was going well. Civil unrest spread across the island, sometimes leading to insurgencies. By the end of the 18th century, the situation had degenerated into widespread violence between Catholics and Protestants. The latter defended themselves by founding the Orange Order in 1795. In 1798, the Great Irish Rebellion was brutally suppressed by the British.

In 1800, the British Parliament, seeking a solution, incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom by the Act of union. The new country is now called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Irish were divided from then on between nationalists and unionists, whose struggle continued for 120 years in Westminster. The main objective of the two nationalist leaders, Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, was Home Rule: the internal autonomy of Ireland. But the Unionists had the support of Parliament. 

The conflict escalated

A majority in Ulster, Irish Protestants had no desire to find themselves a minority in a country whose parliament in Dublin would be under the control of the Catholic Church. “Home Rule is Rome Rule,” read their slogan. Both houses at Westminster agreed with them. 

Even so, Home Rule was eventually approved in 1912. Ulster Protestants threatened to resist militarily if the new law was imposed on them. Ireland was on the brink of civil war.

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 delayed the entry into force of the law. Frustrated nationalists launched an Easter Rising in 1916. The failure of the uprising had major consequences for Ireland.

An Uncertain Future

< p>Caving in to the demands of the Ulster Protestants, who threatened to ignite a civil war, the government eventually allowed them to secede from the rest of Ireland. In May 1921, Northern Ireland was born, made up of six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster, all predominantly Protestant and Unionist. It is still part of the United Kingdom. 

The future of Northern Ireland looks uncertain. It had to endure 30 years of inter-community violence before finding peace in 1998. In 2016, the constituent nation voted 56% against Brexit. In the elections in 2022, the unionists lost their majority to the nationalist parties. Last September, a census revealed that Catholics are now the majority in Northern Ireland. A final chapter in its history remains to be written.