Why is having border controls in Ireland so problematic for Irish nationalists?


One of the biggest challenges of Brexit is resolving the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. On one hand it is impossible for the UK to leave the Single Market while maintaining an open border with an EU member. On the other hand Ireland seems to be hard bent on avoiding border checks at land crossings, in order to avoid upsetting the peace process between Unionists and Nationalists.

But why are Irish nationalists so hard bent on keeping the border open? What difference does it make to them, since Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK with or without a customs union?


Posted 2017-09-09T19:14:55.507

Reputation: 36 466

1@Martin Schröder: The edit summary is optional. If you leave the field empty, the system will create a summary itself (in this case “Edited tags”; in other cases, e.g., “Removed 37 characters in body” – obviously, a real summary makes more sense there). – chirlu – 2018-07-21T09:46:54.967

@DenisdeBernardy there is nothing in the agreement that "puts forward that you cannot have border barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland." If the preceding sentence is incorrect, please identify the part of the agreement that does so. – phoog – 2019-09-01T05:35:55.963

5Good Friday Agreement? And keep in mind that it's not entirely certain that the UK won't break up post-Brexit. It is, after all, four kingdoms, two of which (and some colonies of which, chiefly Gibraltar) have voted against Brexit. – Denis de Bernardy – 2017-09-09T19:54:49.117

4@DenisdeBernardy On purely technical terms, it's probably more correct to use the word "countries" than kingdoms, due to the age of the pairing of England & Wales. Although if you divided down to the AngloSaxon level, it's possible the kingdom of Wessex voted remain as well. – origimbo – 2017-09-09T20:07:00.083

1@DenisdeBernardy yes but the Good Friday Agreement has dozens of provisions. Why would custom checks necessarily topple it down? – JonathanReez – 2017-09-09T20:12:43.823


@JonathanReez It's not only Irish Nationalists who support a soft border. For example the DUP, the unionist party currently propping up the minority Conservative government do too. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39976319

– origimbo – 2017-09-09T20:13:02.770

4@JonathanReez: In a nutshell the agreement essentially puts forward that you cannot have border barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and acknowledged (quoting the wiki page) "that a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland." – Denis de Bernardy – 2017-09-09T21:10:12.663

1There are numerous small roads between the countries, and I can imagine it'd be hard to set up full border checkpoints at each and every one of them. Even pre-Schengen Switzerland didn't have checkpoints on all minor roads – Crazydre – 2017-10-08T11:22:55.347

1Hard border controls don't make sense from any point of view. They only make things worse, whatever the criterion. Given the DUP and Sinn Fein agree on something like that emphatically, then we can all die and go to heaven. – smci – 2017-11-20T22:56:18.433

3@Coke There's a customs border at the Sweden-Norway border. At small roads there is a sign: "If you have goods to declare, please use a different border crossing". Same at small roads on the Swiss border. You don't need checkpoints at all minor roads, you just need to inform people with goods to declare where to declare them. – gerrit – 2017-11-22T19:45:42.477

1@Gerrit I'm talking about pre-Schengen Switzerland, when officially there should have been full border checks. In practice nothing's changed at the land border except for passport stamps being abolished - at major crossings Schengen-internal border checks are still common especially for long-distance buses – Crazydre – 2017-11-22T21:18:03.577

1@Coke but pre-Schengen one wasn't officially allowed to use small backroads to enter or exit Switzerland, if I remember correctly. That would be a big no-no for the Irish. – JonathanReez – 2017-11-22T21:29:44.650

2@JonathanReez I thought that was allowed in pre-Schengen Switzerland if you had the right to enter Switzerland, but not if you didn't. The border was very porous. – gerrit – 2017-11-22T21:41:45.450



For Irish Nationalists, the Irish state is composed of all 32 counties on the island of Ireland. The nationalist view is that 6 of these are currently occupied by the British (see Why don't Sinn Féin take their seats in the UK parliament?), while 26 are governed from Dublin. The legitimacy of the Dublin government is a point of contention among nationalists, in part due to the first Dáil of the Irish Free State "ceding" the 6 counties which form Northern Ireland to the British (the counties were already under British rule, as was the whole of Ireland). A view amongst republican Irish is that the third Revolutionary Dáil of the Irish Republic is the last legitimate Dáil as it was the last to be elected as a result of an "all-Ireland" election.

So to have a border control between the 6 counties in the North and the 26 in the South is as much a red line (for a nationalist) as if the French had demanded there be a border between Kent, Sussex and Surrey, and the rest of England, with those counties being part of France. No English Government would accept such a condition. The Nationalist point of view would see the Northern Irish border in the same way.

For Loyalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland the question is more pragmatic. Northern Ireland is a small region, and it is easier and cheaper to trade with Ireland, than to ship stuff over to and from the rest of the UK. For the economic development of "Ulster" they want the border as open as possible.

The open border is one thing that both Nationalists and Unionists agree on, for different reasons, and it is a key part of the Good Friday agreement.

James K

Posted 2017-09-09T19:14:55.507

Reputation: 70 324

1The Good Friday agreement doesn't mention the open border, however; any connection between the agreement and the state of the border is implicit. – phoog – 2018-09-14T14:06:46.853

1How strong support do the nationalists have for their view on Ireland as one country among the general public? That is, maybe the general public agrees with the idea but they don't really care. Similar to how social democratic parties, in European countries with a ruling monarch, might have a demand for republic in their party platform but they don't do anything about it when in office because their constituent really doesn't care. – d-b – 2019-03-19T21:43:23.477

1If you have a new question you could ask it as q question, rather than in this rather old comment thread – James K – 2019-03-19T22:03:48.253

4By "English government" I mean a hypothetical body that would govern England. – James K – 2017-11-23T17:13:46.370


There are two basic issues.

  1. Border controls would reverse a lot of the progress that has been made with the Good Friday Agreement. Aside from the economic problems it would cause (many people cross the border every day for work, not to mention goods and services), the border posts were often the targets of violence and terrorism and seen as divisive. Few people want to go back to that state.

  2. Nationalists want to see a united Ireland, that is with Northern Ireland made part of Ireland again and no longer part of the United Kingdom. The removal of a hard border is a step closer to that, as is joint rule. The eventual aim of the mainstream republican movement is a referendum that results in reunification, which they will be able to propose if they ever gain political control under the current system.


Posted 2017-09-09T19:14:55.507

Reputation: 16 552

1"The eventual aim of the mainstream republican movement is a referendum that results in reunification, which they will be able to propose if they ever gain political control under the current system" Because of power-sharing, I'm not sure that it's possible for them to be in "control". – owjburnham – 2018-09-14T11:59:00.790

1As for point (1), you can have plenty of people crossing through the "green lane" and back every day, just like at the Norwegian-Swedish border. But Norway and Sweden are both in the EEA, so the situation is not analogous. – gerrit – 2017-11-22T19:43:46.497

1Also, that border stops commercial vehicles for checks. They interviewed some drivers on the TV (BBC Newsnight) and they complained that it was too slow. – user – 2017-11-23T11:19:48.817

1Commercial drivers at the Swedish/Norwegian border complained it's too slow? That's interesting, I wasn't aware of that. – gerrit – 2017-11-23T12:19:38.383

1Yeah. They have an electronic system to handle a lot of the paperwork, but they still have to stop vehicles and check the contents match. They were looking at introducing something better, but even that would not be as good as what the Ireland/UK border has now. – user – 2017-11-23T13:40:52.613


The above answers are excellent. One thing I would add, is that a significant part of the Northern Irish population does not consider themselves to be British, and hold Irish passports (currently NI citizens can choose their citizenship). You can imagine the issues that Irish nationalists, holding Irish passports, but living in the non EU, UK part of Ireland would have. Would they be forced to exchange their Irish passports for UK passports? Or would they maintain their Irish passports and technically be foreign citizens in Ireland?


Posted 2017-09-09T19:14:55.507

Reputation: 3 401

4From the UK point of view, an Irish citizen living in the UK is just that, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK. Irish citizens will continue to have privileged status in UK immigration law, which they already enjoyed decades before the EU came into being. Nothing about Brexit will force anyone in Northern Ireland to claim citizenship of the UK, and it won't make Irish citizens in Northern Ireland "foreigners" any more than they already are. (Those born in Northern Ireland are generally citizens of both countries, even if they don't claim both citizenships.) – phoog – 2018-09-14T14:12:07.283

1The question of whether an Irish citizen who is not also a citizen of the UK and who resides in Northern Ireland is a "foreigner" depends of course on the point of view. For one who sees Northern Ireland as occupied territory, such a person is living under foreign occupation, not in a foreign country. For one who sees Northern Ireland as part of the UK, such a person is living in a foreign country, both before and after Brexit. – phoog – 2018-09-14T14:14:26.617

5So the border conversation really is about customs, almost exclusively, not immigration: the common travel area, like the privileged status of Irish citizens, predates the EU by decades (yes, it existed during the time when there were militarized border checkpoints on the Irish border), and it can be expected to survive the UK's departure from the EU. – phoog – 2018-09-14T14:19:05.267