Why is a "hard border" between Ireland and Northern Ireland such a problem for EU/UK negotiations around brexit?



I have read a lot about this and the answer to my question seems to be that one is afraid that a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will lead to a restart of "The Troubles" and violence between both factions.

Is that really realistic? The peace treaty is more than 20 years old, a whole generation has grown up without violence and especially Ireland has prospered during this period.

Is there really a good "hotbed", i.e., social and political circumstances, for new outbursts of violence on the island of Ireland today? In comparison, I have a hard time imagine a hard border somewhere around Alsace-Lorraine would cause violence between the French and the Germans.


Posted 2019-03-19T21:35:25.670

Reputation: 828

3You mentioned Alsace-Lorraine. Look back at 1871, 1914, 1940. A generation or more between those wars. – o.m. – 2019-03-20T05:22:31.253

1@o.m. But they weren't triggered by that. And there was no violence in the periods inbetween the wars. – d-b – 2019-03-20T06:41:32.123

I guess that even if a restart of "the troubles" is extremely unlikely, those troubles are so awful that it clearly isn't worth the risk. – Bregalad – 2019-03-20T07:07:05.533

12A whole generation may have grown up since the Good Friday Agreement, but two whole generations who grew up during the troubles are still alive. – Jontia – 2019-03-20T09:44:10.130

1"What is the "average-Joe" Eire citizen's opinion about this?" - Note that "Politics Stack Exchange is ... not a place to advance opinions or debate" – RedGrittyBrick – 2019-03-20T10:00:51.733

@Jontia But it is almost always the young who are the "soldiers" and if they refuse, nothing will happen. 65-year-olds usually don't riot against the police. – d-b – 2019-03-20T10:29:00.653

3@RedGrittyBrick Please read again. I was asking for results from polls or similar. – d-b – 2019-03-20T10:29:35.670

Technically violence has already resumed, on a very small scale: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/12/group-calling-itself-ira-claims-it-sent-parcel-bombs-uk-addresses

– pjc50 – 2019-03-20T16:51:57.337

@pjc50 Amazing. – d-b – 2019-03-21T07:32:05.057



A whole generation has grown up since the Good Friday Agreement.

No, two separate generations have grown up: one Catholic, one Protestant. They go to different schools, live in different places and try to avoid mixing as much as possible. Talking to my friends in Northern Ireland, the divide is as wide as ever and they expect bloodshed if a hard border is imposed. There are still bombs going off in Northern Ireland though not on the same scale as in the past.

The opinion among residents (and UNESCO) is that the communities are still very far apart and that a hard border would lead to violence.

It's nice to think that time heals all wounds, but in many cases this is not true. The roots of the 'Troubles' go back hundreds of years, a twenty year hiatus is not the same as a permanent change.

Dave Gremlin

Posted 2019-03-19T21:35:25.670

Reputation: 1 277


Beyond the threat of violence, there is also a severe risk of the UK breaking up. The laws governing Northern Ireland require that if there appears to be enough support for reunification with Ireland a "border poll" should be held, i.e. a referendum on Northern Ireland leaving the UK and becoming part of the Republic of Ireland.

Given that Northern Ireland rejected Brexit by a wide margin in the 2016 referendum and there was already significant support for reunification, in the event of no-deal and/or a hard border a border poll becomes much more likely. The UK government, or more specifically the Tory Party and Theresa May, does not want to be responsible for breaking up the UK.


Posted 2019-03-19T21:35:25.670

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7Given that Northern Ireland rejected brexit by a wide margin in the 2016 referendum actually according to coloured maps of the brexit vote, some regions of northern Ireland voted majority for brexit. So the northern ireland seems very split on this question. – Bregalad – 2019-03-20T15:16:51.157

6@Bregalad it makes sense to look at NI as a whole because the current law only allows for the whole of NI to rejoin Ireland or not. I suppose in theory the border could be moved but no-one is suggesting that as an option. – user – 2019-03-20T15:26:33.190

I was talking about the brexit vote, not about whether northern Ireland (or parts of it) should join the republic or not. You claim that northern Ireland rejected brexit with a "wide margin" - this is not true. – Bregalad – 2019-03-20T16:27:04.520

3The last attempt to partition Ireland to solve a disagreement is how it got into this mess in the first place. – pjc50 – 2019-03-20T16:53:22.337

2@Bregalad you misunderstand. Since any border poll would consider the fate of the whole of NI, it makes sense to look at the overall vote for the whole of NI. The option to split NI differently is not currently on offer or possible by any legal instrument. – user – 2019-03-20T17:07:47.723

@user You misundersood. I never brought up splitting NI differently or whatsoever. You brought that up. I just noted that northern ireland did not vote against brexit by a small margin, but you say in your answer that it did so by a large margin. I point that this is wrong, and on map you can see parts of northern ireland voting massively for brexit. This is a strong indication that not everyone in NI is against brexit. I was just pointing this logical error. – Bregalad – 2019-03-20T18:57:49.330

4@user @Bregalad wide margin is an unlucky term to use in this discussion. Yes, NI voted 44% leave 55% remain, which is a wide margin statistically. But it is "only" five remain voters for every four leave voters. You must not read anything else but a single democratic decision from that. Wide margin means you tend to derive other assessments from the result and it simply does not support that. – user1129682 – 2019-03-20T20:46:20.350


It definitely is a reasonable fear for the UK and its people to hold.

Firstly it is still a tense situation with shops and houses being built to close to the "border" being shot at and parties like the Sinn Fein being entirely focused around that sovereignty as their purpose. The troubles were a major part of Irish history and violence like that doesn't fade fast, look at Israel-Palestine borders they are old but any interaction or policy to change them holds vast consequences.

Beyond the fear of violence, even politically it's dangerous. A nation gains its sovereignty from its borders. To mess with those is to mess with the countries independence which is the main cause of problems inside the UK and brexit itself.


Posted 2019-03-19T21:35:25.670

Reputation: 528


20 years is nothing. People who where young adults then still have more the decade to go before hitting retirement age. The Troubles are very much still in living memory.

And while there is a peace agreement, it doesn't mean all is forgotten and forgiven. I've friends from Northern Ireland who are deeply concerned about the well being of their young nephew. The reason? His name could be seen as a name from "the other religion" and they fear that won't be acceptable by members of their own religion.

I wanted to say "come back in 200 years", but this is Europe, we tend to get upset about things which happened a long time ago. Try again in 2000 years.


Posted 2019-03-19T21:35:25.670


Well, I think Germans were quite accepted in France, Benelux, Scandinavia and even Israel 1965. But your answer makes me want to ask a different question: Why are people on Ireland so vindictive and unforgiving in this special case? Most of Europe has excused the Germans for WW2 these days, and after all, WW2 was by any standard much worse than whatever Britain did on Ireland. – d-b – 2019-03-20T13:48:32.990

Vindictive seems like a very odd choice of words. If Germany had hung on to a quarter of France instead of being roundly defeated and forced to accept whatever the Allies determined was fair then you might see a different attitude from the French to the Germans. – Eric Nolan – 2019-03-20T14:07:41.627

The Germans responsible were prosecuted and some of them were executed. That allowed "wiping the slate clean". The question of whether anyone should be prosecuted for opening fire on unarmed demonstrators and mass shooting a number of people is still active at the moment ("Soldier F") – pjc50 – 2019-03-20T14:15:52.323

1@d-b The people of Ireland are no more unforgiving than anyone else, conflicts last for generations in many places. Also, this is Northern Ireland (not Eire). The two communities feel very threatened, the Protestant/unionist community feel threatend by the prospect of being subsumed into a mostly Catholic and republican Eire, the Catholic/republican community is in the minority in the north and was discriminated against for years and fear a return to this. The Troubles started when the minority Catholics started civil rights protests and the Unionist authorities reacted badly to it – Dave Gremlin – 2019-03-20T15:19:56.493

@DaveGremlin I beg to differ. Again the German example: Germany has a good relationship with Israel as well as its remaining Jewish community. – d-b – 2019-03-20T15:55:41.390

2@EricNolan France hangs on to a significant part of Germany, Poland hangs on to a significant of Germany. Germany has accepted that. Eire lost/didn't defeat Britain, therefore Ulster is British. Why does some people in Eire not accept that fact, like the Germans have done (And Austrians and Finnish to name a few others who have lost territory during the 20th century but accept that. Finland is particulary interesting/comparable - Russia invaded them completely unprovoked, with the explicit purpose to steal land.) – d-b – 2019-03-20T16:03:29.540

@pjc50 You really can't compare evilness (or mistakes) by a lower ranking officer with industrial scale genocide. Of course you shouldn't kill unarmed demonstrants but in the greater picture that's a minor incident. Something similar happened here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%85dalen_shootings (5 unarmed demonstrants killed by the military) but people got over it.

– d-b – 2019-03-20T16:10:54.463


@d-b I refer the honorable gentleman to my previous answer https://politics.stackexchange.com/questions/34511/why-are-the-nationalists-and-unionists-in-ireland-northern-ireland-ok-with-usi/34520#34520

– pjc50 – 2019-03-20T16:13:24.307

3@d-b There was no war between Eire and the UK. The Troubles were a sectarian conflict within Northern Ireland. pjc50's linked answer explains the situation very well – Dave Gremlin – 2019-03-20T16:50:48.307

1@DaveGremlin Don't you think this is a little over simplifying things? Yes, neither country ever declared war on the other but one may argue that this is merely because Ireland didn't have time to establish itself as a country 100 years ago, let alone be recognised by the UK as such. Also, it was the British that brought and virtually imposed their belief on the island. At that time it was already the church of ENGLAND, so there has always been quite the tie between belief, country, monarch and conqueror. – user1129682 – 2019-03-20T21:11:45.070

@user1129682 - It is a huge simplification, yes. England, then Britain invaded Ireland and effectively stole it from its inhabitants. There was the flight of the Earls and the Plantation of Ulster. Eventually the Irish people managed to throw out the British and establish their own free state. My answer and my comments are mainly limited to the current situation in Northern Ireland where there wasn't any great conflict between the British and Irish parliaments during the Troubles, isn't now, but there is still animosity between the two communities because each feel threatened by the other – Dave Gremlin – 2019-03-20T21:37:30.933

@DaveGremlin Well the Danes stole England/Scotland from the celts, and then the Normans stole it from the Danes. I have never heard of any Celtic resentment towards the Danes and the Normans, have you? – d-b – 2019-03-20T21:50:15.090

@d-b I think there is some validity in rephrasing that to "I have never heard of any British resentment towards [...] the French, have you?" Would you like to reconsider? scnr – user1129682 – 2019-03-20T22:05:13.287

@user1129682 The Normans weren't French, they were actually Norse. But France is another example, 800 years of war and then the Fashoda incident. Suddenly all hate and (violent) rivalry went up in smoke. – d-b – 2019-03-21T00:21:38.770

@d-b The reason that the 'people on Ireland (sic) so vindictive and unforgiving in this special case?' is because each community in Ulster feels its existence is threatened by the other. The reason the other communities are not 'vindictive and unforgiving' is because they don't feel threatened. Germany and Israel are not mutual threats to each other's existence. The antagonism between Celts, Danes and Normans has shaped British culture!!! The Fashoda incident didn't create an ongoing existential threat to anyone, it was a minor diplomatic cock-up by the French who recognised it as such – Dave Gremlin – 2019-03-22T09:58:45.517

@d-b the assumption that Germans were "quite accepted" in Benelux in 1965 is highly questionable. I moved to Amsterdam in 1999 and I was shocked by the number of people I met who were eager to tell me how much they hated.Germans. Also, Irish resentment against the English arguably is Celtic resentment against the Danes and/or Normans (and/or Angles and Saxons, who did much of the stealing in the south). – phoog – 2020-03-18T04:49:10.317


The political situation in Northern Ireland has reached a low point this decade with the Stormont deadlock:

[Northern Ireland] has been without an executive since January 2017, when the governing parties - the DUP and Sinn Féin - split in a bitter row.

Northern Ireland's biggest political crisis for more than a decade has left Stormont in limbo. [...]

Take the big sticking point of Sinn Féin's demand for legislation to give official status to the Irish language in Northern Ireland.

It's true that other countries with deep divisions like Belgium have had similar deadlocks, one lasting 541 days, yet no violence broke out. But clearly the situation in Northern Ireland is not just a case of "up-and-up", and I would argue that the breakdown of the power-sharing scheme is a bad omen because it may entail return of more direct rule from Westminster, which was one of the rallying points of nationalists (to fight against). In the words of Sinn Fein vice-president, Michelle O'Neil (19 March 2019)

"The British Government and Michael Gove, a long-term opponent of the Good Friday Agreement, are playing to the unionist demand for unrestrained British direct rule.

"I cannot overstate the grave implications if the British Government follows through on these threats."

I can't think of party with [former] ties to paramilitary forces threatening "grave implications" not being taken as likelihood of a return to some kind of violence.

Sinn Féin still does not send MPs to Westminster because they don't want to swear the vote of allegiance to the Queen. (This is quite unlike what happens in Belgium, i.e. the political rift in Northern Ireland is deeper; at least in Belgium they're no longer arguing about the official status of their languages, as far as I can tell.)

Furthermore, the last border post between the Republic and Northern Ireland was dismantled only in 2006; that's not long ago.


Posted 2019-03-19T21:35:25.670

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