Northern Ireland, 1921-2021: new borders, old tensions


A century on from the creation of Northern Ireland, its society is once again deeply divided about the need for, and implications of, a border being drawn around it. Local tensions reflect suspicion regarding the actions of London, as well as long-existing sensitivities and a profound sense of uncertainty about the future. In recognising the parallels between the Government of Ireland Act (1920) and the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement (2020), as they affect Northern Ireland, we can draw lessons for the present challenges facing the EU and UK as they make momentous decisions over the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

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Anti-Brexit Poster on the Co.Louth side of the Border at Ballybinaby, Ireland.

Dividing the United Kingdom

When a country decides to partition itself, the stakes are inevitably high. The British Prime Minister faced an unenviable choice, faced with a decision about what should happen on the island of Ireland, to be made under the shadow of violence. The topic had troubled his predecessor and divided Parliament, and his party now urged him to act decisively and relieve Westminster from the weary burden of the ‘Irish Question’. Adding to the portentous nature of the decision was the fact that Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours had changed forever. Old alliances and trust were gone, with trading conditions across the channel having undergone a huge upheaval. The Prime Minister weighed up all these elements in his decision to partition the United Kingdom.

I am, in fact, referring to two Prime Ministers, acting a century apart. In the Government of Ireland Act (1920), David Lloyd George drew a border across Ireland, which was, at the time, integrated as a whole within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. One hundred years later, in the Withdrawal Agreement Act of 2020, Boris Johnson chose to draw a different border down the Irish Sea, within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Both acts sought to manage an extremely complicated situation in a pragmatic way, but, of course, drawing a border is never a mere act of practicality. Boundaries represent (sometimes in retrospect) historical processes of division and consolidation. Borders can be barriers to some types of movement and bridges for others. However, being made as they are by human decision, their mere existence can have enormous social and symbolic importance.

We should not be surprised, therefore, that new border controls within the United Kingdom have had profound political, as well as legal, implications. These are felt especially acutely in Northern Ireland, where politics, culture and society are by and large defined in relation to Britain and/or Ireland.

Avoiding a hard border but creating a new one

The pitiable thing about Northern Ireland is that it is a place obsessed with its own history, but ultimately helpless to do much about it. This is because its history has never been just about Northern Ireland per se, but rather about Britain and Ireland, and their relationship to each other. Often, both the frictions and bonds involved in that relationship have been caught up in wider European affairs. At certain momentous points in history, Ireland has had allies on the continent, as in Spanish support for the Irish rebels at the turn of the 17th century or the French expedition to support the United Irishmen at the end of the 18th century, not to mention German support for Irish independence during the First World War. On such occasions, these allies have come to Ireland’s aid. Historians may well look back on the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and see it in a similar vein, albeit diplomatic rather than militaristic. It can also be considered to be a most noteworthy instance of European solidarity, where all twenty-six member states agreed to prioritise the concerns of Ireland in the Brexit process. Even though it proved to be a heavy and complex encumbrance, the European Council’s determination to ‘avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland’ was an ambition that it maintained. Furthermore, this ambition was shared by the United Kingdom.

The border on the island of Ireland had already been ‘hard’ in its century-long existence. It had previously been a customs border between the UK and Ireland, and had been a fortified border as the British Army sought to contain the activity of Irish republican paramilitaries during the Troubles. There were two processes that helped soften the border towards the end of the 20th century: European integration (which reduced border frictions among member states) and the peace process (which strengthened east/west relations, between Britain and Ireland, and north/south relations, on the island of Ireland itself). Brexit ran counter to one of these processes and posed a deep threat to the other. The agreement the UK and EU eventually came to in order to avoid a hard border was born in a context of unexpected disruption and uncertainty to the 1998 Agreement itself.

The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement was included as a joint effort to find ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ to this conundrum. It marked a new type of arrangement for the EU’s single market (with Northern Ireland de facto part of the single market for goods), and a new arrangement for the UK’s internal market. In essence, this means customs and regulatory checks, and controls on goods moving across the Irish Sea, implemented by UK authorities on the EU’s behalf. Both sides are very conscious of the risks involved. Given the nature of the problem, and the history of Northern Ireland, it was inevitable that implementing the Protocol would prove to be even more difficult than negotiating it.

Parallels between 1921 and 2021

In 1921, the implementation of the Government of Ireland Act saw the creation of Northern Ireland against a background of tumult, and no small amount of incredulity and suspicion. Nationalists, particularly those caught on the wrong side of the Irish border as a then-minority community (i.e. Catholics, who constituted a third of the population of Northern Ireland), believed that London had been swayed by threats of violence from unionists. They held out hope that the Council of Ireland established by the Act might quickly lead to reunification, as Lloyd George himself envisaged it might. Few imagined at the time that the arrangements would be anything other than temporary, bringing, as they did, disruption to long-existing economic and social ties across the island of Ireland. The parallels with today are striking, albeit this time for the “other” community – it now being unionists who fear the new “border” means the disruption to long-existing ties with Britain.

In 2021, the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is also taking place in a context of growing unease and mistrust. Unionists believe that London was swayed to avoid a hard Irish border by threats of violence from republicans. Some suspect that Dublin schemed to bring about the creation of a united Ireland ‘by stealth’. They hold out hope that the UK-EU Joint Committee established by the Agreement will minimise the impact of the Protocol. And, looking ahead, they hope that the ‘consent mechanism’, to be exercised by the Northern Ireland Assembly at the end of 2024 (in which members will vote on whether to continue alignment to EU rules on customs and goods regulations), might see the end of the Irish Sea border altogether.

A hope to hold on to

There are, however, two very significant differences between 1921 and 2021. When the Government of Ireland Act came into effect on 3 May, 1921, it was against a backdrop of violent conflict. The Irish War of Independence did not end until a ceasefire was called in July, and it was then followed all too quickly by the Irish Civil War in 1922. This was accompanied by visceral sectarian conflict in the new Northern Ireland. In 2021, the paramilitary organisations engaged in violence during the Troubles are continuing to respect the ceasefires they called in the 1990s, although they (or, at least, certain elements) remain active in criminality, intimidation and extortion (see, for example, the latest report of the Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitary activity). Their ceasefires are maintained, ultimately, by purported commitment to the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. This is the Agreement that the Protocol seeks to ‘uphold in all its parts’, even as the scaffolding around the accord is shaken by the earthquake of Brexit.

This latter point relates to the second difference, namely that the decision to put border controls between Britain and Northern Ireland was not solely a domestic act by the UK Government, but was rather a joint concern of the UK and the EU. The UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement means, on the one hand, that the EU no longer constitutes the broad context for the peace process; Northern Ireland is no longer a member (despite the wishes of its majority). On the other hand, the same Withdrawal Agreement also makes the EU a player with a decisive role. The protestations of unionists and the concerns of businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland show that the UK is implementing the Protocol, albeit less rapidly and rigorously than the European Commission might wish to see. Nevertheless, we know that borders are not, ultimately, just about controls. They are also about relationships. Moreover, what happens across the Irish Sea has implications not just for relations within the United Kingdom, but also within Northern Ireland itself. While the EU is insisting that certain rules are applied in the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, it is also imposing frictions on movement that has both symbolic and economic significance. It does not matter that this movement is across a sea rather than a land boundary – any friction exacerbates social anxieties and political tensions, as well as bringing additional costs. Ultimately, maintaining peace is about maintaining balance. The better and closer the relationships between Northern Ireland and its neighbours (east and south) are, the more stable the conditions for peace. And with that, the better the prospects would be for a future that is more prosperous and less violent than the one experienced in the wake of 1921.