The Irish border
Almost a century on from the creation of Northern Ireland, the Irish border could decide the future of the UK and Europe. What were the Troubles, and are they over for good?
Why does the border matter?
This 310-mile line could decide the future of the UK and Europe. The question of what to do with the Irish border has paralysed Parliament and roadblocked Brexit.
After Brexit, Northern Ireland will be the only part of the UK to share a border with an EU country. The billions of pounds of goods passing between the two will need to be checked.
However, an invisible border was a key term in the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998 after decades of bloodshed. All sides agree that a hard border must be avoided. How? No one knows, and anxiety is building.
How was the border decided?
In 1919, Irish republicans declared independence from Westminster, starting the Irish War of Independence. However, Protestants in the northern counties wanted to stay in the UK, fearing they would be oppressed by Dublin’s Catholic lawmakers.
Two years later, the British government divided Ireland into the Protestant-majority north, which would stay in the UK, and the largely Catholic south, which would be given Home Rule.
The new border was a winding 310-mile route, separating six counties into Northern Ireland. The “northern” name is not strictly accurate: Donegal is the island’s most northern county, but it is in the Republic.
Some areas included in Northern Ireland, such as Derry, were mostly inhabited by Catholics who were unhappy with their new situation. These disagreements resurfaced in the devastating years of the Troubles.
Who fought in the Troubles?
Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists. Unionists consider themselves British and want Northern Ireland to stay in the UK. Irish nationalists and republicans want a united Ireland, free from British rule.
Both sides have their moderates and extremists.
In the 1960s, Northern Ireland was deeply divided. Protestants and Catholics lived in segregated neighbourhoods. The Catholic minority faced discrimination in elections and housing.
In 1968, angry Catholics took part in marches, which spilled into violent rioting. The fighting inflamed old tensions between unionists and nationalists, starting a 30-year conflict known as the Troubles.
The Provisional IRA, a paramilitary group, aimed to remove the border by force. The IRA was responsible for much of the republican violence, while attacks from unionist paramilitaries also killed scores.
British soldiers were officially there to keep the peace between the two communities, but they fought with the republicans too.
By the time the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, 3,500 people had died — over half of them civilians — and 50,000 injured.
What is the Good Friday Agreement?
Peace came when the Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998. The deal created the Northern Irish Assembly, in which unionists and nationalists could share power equally. It also allowed people and goods to move freely across the border, which helped ease tensions over the issue.
Could the Troubles start again?
Around 150 people have died in isolated attacks since 1998. In January 2019, a bomb which exploded in Derry was blamed on the New IRA. In April, the journalist Lyra McKee was murdered during riots there.
“There is a real danger that Brexit could re-ignite conflict here,” said human rights expert Brian Gormally.
During the Troubles, customs posts on the border were a regular target for attacks. “There is something symbolic about it and it becomes a target for violent dissident republicans,” said Northern Ireland’s top police officer.
But others say the fears are overblown and irresponsible: the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland support peace.
- Should Ireland be reunified?
- Research one famous political leader from the last 100 years of Irish history. Produce a profile on them explaining what happened in their life, what they believed in and whether they are a controversial figure.
- Home Rule
- This gave the Irish power to make their own laws, although they remained part of the British Empire. Ireland did not become fully independent until 1949.
- People could be given more votes, up to a maximum of six, depending on how many properties they own. This benefited wealthier Protestants.
- An organised military group that is not a part of a government’s armed forces. The British government viewed them as terrorists.
- The power-sharing arrangement between the republican Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed in early 2017. Relations between the parties are sour, and the country has been without a working executive since.
- 75% of the population is Catholic. Nationalists call it Derry, while unionists call it Londonderry.
- Someone who rebels against the state.