Border the topic.
It’s about the 499 km long border separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland. It was shaped on 7 December 1922, when most of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence to become the independent Irish Free State. The six northeastern counties, known as Northern Ireland, remained within the United Kingdom, creating the partition of Ireland.
Nothing new, though.
In February 1923, shortly after creating the Irish Free State, the newly founded state and the United Kingdom agreed on avoiding the need for immigration controls between the two countries. This tradition included that Irish citizens are entitled to settle, work and vote in the UK, with British citizens in Ireland having similar rights. Upon the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, the border in Ireland became the only land border between the UK and the EU. Suddenly the border took on a relevance that it had never had before.
So Brexit changed a lot for the Irish people.
From the late 1960s to 1998, there was the so-called Northern Ireland conflict in which more than 3,500 people were killed. A key issue was the status of Northern Ireland. Unionists and loyalists wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Irish nationalists and republicans wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland. As part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the border has been largely invisible, without any physical barrier or custom checks on its many crossing points.
Brexit would have made the border visible again.
All Brexit participants wanted to avoid that at all costs. So that the old conflict doesn’t flare up again. That is why the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the treaty between the European Union and the United Kingdom (signed on 24 January 2020), setting the terms of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, got an appendix: The Northern Ireland Protocol.
Tell me more.
Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is formally outside the EU single market, but EU free movement of goods rules and EU Customs Union rules still apply; this ensures there are no customs checks or controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island.
Is it that easy?
In place of an Ireland/Northern Ireland land border, the protocol has created a de facto customs border down the Irish Sea for customs purposes, separating Northern Ireland from the island of Great Britain.
How do people in Northern Ireland think about that?
Unionists don’t like it. They say the protocol breaches many of the peace agreement guarantees (Good Friday Agreement) and that the mechanism works against the wishes of unionists in Northern Ireland and is therefore unacceptable. But the truth also includes: In the 2016 referendum on the future of UK membership in the European Union, Northern Ireland voted by a margin of 12 per cent to remain within the EU.
What are the effects on the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?
The de facto customs border separating Northern Ireland from the island of Great Britain has brought the Irish regions closer together. Since there are still no trade barriers, trade on the Irish island is easy. And with the trade restrictions to the island of Great Britain, economic relations between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are becoming stronger.
This does not yet result in a unification.
A unification could be a helpful tool to ensure that free trade on the Irish Isle maintains. From Northern Ireland’s point of view, there is another reason in favour of unification: Northern Ireland is subject to many EU regulations but has no democratic relationship to the EU and is not represented in the European parliament.
Do the people want unification?
The people of the Republic of Ireland have always been in favour of it. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is still divided. A current poll has found that among Northerners, 49 per cent would vote to remain in the UK, 42 per cent would vote for a united Ireland, and 9 per cent were undecided. Crucially, among those aged under 45, there is overwhelming support for unity.
Borders of national states are not taken as a given, “but are the endogenous outcomes of decisions by agents who interact with each other while pursuing their goals under constraints,” as Professor of Economics Enrico Spolaore puts it in his paper The Economics of Political Borders. Goals and constraints change over time. So the inner Irish border may one day disappear. But not soon. Northern Ireland is divided upon the unification question. Dublin’s government “wants stability in Northern Ireland. It does not want territory, or trouble”, as Colm Tóibín, an Irish writer, put it lately in The Guardian. Maybe open borders are the best way for prosperity and peace.