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?

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    Good 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 Sep 9 '17 at 19:54
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    @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 Sep 9 '17 at 20:07
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    @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. bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39976319 – origimbo Sep 9 '17 at 20:13
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    @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 Sep 9 '17 at 21:10
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    @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 Nov 22 '17 at 19:45
up vote 21 down vote accepted

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.

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    By "English government" I mean a hypothetical body that would govern England. – James K Nov 23 '17 at 17:13
  • The Good Friday agreement doesn't mention the open border, however; any connection between the agreement and the state of the border is implicit. – phoog Sep 14 at 14:06

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.

  • As 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 Nov 22 '17 at 19:43
  • Also, 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 Nov 23 '17 at 11:19
  • Commercial drivers at the Swedish/Norwegian border complained it's too slow? That's interesting, I wasn't aware of that. – gerrit Nov 23 '17 at 12:19
  • Yeah. 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 Nov 23 '17 at 13:40
  • "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 Sep 14 at 11:59

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?

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    From 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 Sep 14 at 14:12
  • The 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 Sep 14 at 14:14
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    So 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 Sep 14 at 14:19

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