In following the ongoing Brexit drama, I notice that the Northern Ireland border represents an important sticking point. In particular, both sides agree that there must not be a hard border. Not being familiar with Irish history, I'm curious why, since this sounds very non-standard. From what I have seen, this is because Northern Ireland is a country with split identities: a significant fraction wants to be part of Ireland, while an equally significant fraction would rather be part of the UK.

Why can't Northern Ireland just hold a referendum similar to the Scotland independence referendum from a few years ago, and both sides agree to support the results? This would make things so simple. If Northern Ireland votes to stay in the UK then a hard border is obvious and acceptable, since they are now definitely part of the UK and should act in solidarity with them as well. If Northern Ireland votes to join Ireland, the question of a border doesn't arise in the first place (and they remain in the EU).

My guess is that doing this would lead to violence, but I don't see why. After all the Scottish independence referendum didn't lead to violence, even though there was a sizable minority of Scotland that didn't like the result. I notice that Northern Ireland did actually have such a referendum in 1973, but oddly that didn't resolve the question: even with the boycott, the 591,820 voters who voted to remain is more than 50% of the electorate so the result seems clear.

Apologies if I missed some important background, since I genuinely know little about Irish history.

Tangentially related: Why is having border controls in Ireland so problematic for Irish nationalists? & Why is it impossible to leave the Single Market without a hard Irish border?


12 Answers 12


If you don't understand Irish history then you can't understand anything about Northern Ireland.

Briefly, the whole of Ireland used to be part of the British Empire. This was due to some uncommonly bloody history since the Tudor era (roughly 1550 to 1600) in which the Protestant UK invaded Ireland and then tried to suppress repeated rebellions by Catholics. Part of this effort involved bringing Protestant settlers in from Scotland to displace the native Irish Catholics. This led to a strong Protestant presence in the north-east corner of Ireland.

When the rest of Ireland won its independence in 1922 this Protestant area created a problem. The Protestant population were accustomed to being in a position of power relative to the Catholics (think Jim Crow) and would fight to maintain that position. The nascent Irish Republic was not in a position to put down a guerilla war in its north, so a settlement was reached where Ireland was divided along the current border. The area chosen had an overall Protestant majority, but due to the patchwork nature of settlement and the significant Catholic population there are parts of Northern Ireland that are primarily Catholic. These people never accepted the legitimacy of British rule over any part of Ireland. At the same time the anti-Catholic discrimination remained in the North, creating an ongoing undercurrent of Catholic anger.

During the 1960s and 70s the Provisional Irish Republican Army (aka "IRA" or "Provos") undertook a guerilla/terrorist war against what they considered to be British occupation. In the 1990s this was ended by the Good Friday Agreement between Tony Blair and Gerry Adams (there were others involved, but they were the key players). An important component of this was the European Union; because both Ireland and the UK were part of the EU the border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be dismantled and citizens of both North and South could simply drive over the border as if it were not there.

It's worth considering these border controls some more, to understand why this is such a sticking point. Before the border was opened the border posts had been manned by the British Army, so the IRA attacked them, so they were strongly fortified. If you crossed the border then you had to queue to have your car or lorry carefully inspected by nervous young men carrying fully automatic rifles. The IRA brought guns and explosives into Northern Ireland from sympathisers in the South, so anyone with a Catholic name would be singled out for extra scrutiny (at best). They were widely hated. To reduce the problem of policing the border to something manageable the Army also destroyed smaller roads and bridges that vehicles might otherwise use to evade their checkpoints, and erected fortified watchtowers on hills. In some areas these posts had to be resupplied by helicopter because supply lorries would be too vulnerable to attack.

If Northern Ireland were to hold a referendum on union with the Republic then it would fail because Protestants are still in a majority there. However Catholics would still refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of this because in their view it should be the whole of Ireland (North plus South) voting, as Ireland should never have been divided. The word "gerrymandered" generally turns up in discussion of the subject.

The UK government now has four basic options to choose between:

  1. Remain part of the EU single market, accepting EU rules and regulations, but without the seats in the EU parliament and other decision-making parts of the EU. This is not what the people of the UK voted for in the referendum. (Technically the EU free trade area was not on the ballot paper, but Leave campaigning focussed on issues such as free movement, EU regulations and membership costs which go with the EU free trade area).

  2. Implement a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This would mean a return of the hated border controls and quite possibly a resurgence of the IRA. This is not acceptable to the Irish Republic or the EU. It is also something that the UK government previously promised the EU that it would not do.

  3. Implement an equivalent border in the Irish sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and keep Northern Ireland in the European common market. This would make Northern Ireland a de-facto part of the Republic for most purposes and hence is not acceptable to the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. It would also be rejected by many in Great Britain, especially by Theresa May's own party, the full name of which is "The Conservative and Unionist Party". Crucially, Theresa May's government does not have a majority in parliament at present and can only pass legislation with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which represents exactly those Protestants. So if Theresa May looks like allowing such a thing the DUP will simply yank the carpet from under her.

  4. The "Singapore model": abolish all import controls and duties on any goods from anywhere (anything more selective would run foul of WTO rules). This would force the Irish government to impose a hard border for traffic leaving Northern Ireland, but at least it wouldn't be the fault of the UK. Some Brexiteers have seriously suggested this, but the economic and political implications make such a radical course very unlikely.

Update: Jan 2021

We've pretty much ended up with option 3, softened somewhat by a free trade agreement. You can now cross the NI/Eire border without any checks, but ferrying goods over the sea between NI and Great Britain requires paperwork and possibly paying duties if you can't prove that the goods will stay in the North.

Boris Johnson was able to negotiate this and push it through parliament, partly because he had a big enough majority not to need the Unionist parties, and partly because the Labour party decided not to oppose the only deal on offer.

  • 14
    @Allure: Short answer, its complicated. Gerry Adams was not part of the Irish government, he was leader of Sinn Fein, which was a political party in Northern Ireland and the "political wing of the IRA" as it was generally described. The Troubles could not be ended without his agreement, which is why I described him as a key player in the GFA. At the time the Republic had a clause in its constitution laying claim to NI, but considered the PIRA to be criminals who it did occasionally arrest. Oct 16, 2018 at 9:22
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    @bobsburner Its true that the border checkpoints continued when UK and Eire were both part of the EU, but the point here is that if the UK left the EU then those checkpoints would have to return. Sep 16, 2019 at 13:39
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    Just wanted to say @PaulJohnson that your post aged quite well. It really seems like there are only these 4 basic options (though Singapore model option doesn't seem to be seriously considered).
    – kukis
    Sep 16, 2019 at 19:35
  • 1
    There's a fifth option for resolving the situation you didn't mention: send in the army to annex the Republic of Ireland again. This would almost definitely result in the IRA coming back, but it'd still resolve the border issue!
    – nick012000
    Jun 6, 2020 at 3:02
  • 1
    @nick012000 Well then, here is a sixth option for you then: Ireland with the help of EU allies sends in the army to annex the UK.
    – Alice
    Jun 7, 2020 at 16:21

Northern Ireland is a net recipient rather than contributor to the UK economy (Scotland and Wales are too actually). It takes more money than it contributes. England is the wealthiest country in the UK, followed by Scotland, then NI, then Wales.

It's also deeply divided between nationalists and unionists. Half of the population sees itself as British, not Irish, the other half sees itself as Irish, not British. While Irish people in the Republic of Ireland would like to have a united island for cultural and historical reasons, they are well aware of the potential economic impacts of reunification with the North. It's an open question as to whether NI would be a net contributor or drain on the Republic of Ireland's economy, so for the Republic, it's a mix of cultural, historic and economic factors. The UK, in all honesty, would probably be glad to be rid of it, it's something of a troublesome burden that the UK was forced to bear due to its colonial history. While it is a net recipient, it's still a very small one, with a very small population, so it's hardly a major economic burden to the UK.

Most British people I know see NI has a red headed stepchild. It's actually a lovely place btw, Belfast is a beautiful city, it's where the Titanic was built, there's a great Titanic museum there, and the North scenes in Game of Thrones were filmed there, and it has some amazing scenery like the Giant's Causeway. But a lot of people in the UK still think of Northern Ireland and think terrorism (specifically the IRA, they are unaware of UVF unionist terrorism), but there's much more to NI than that. The (nominally) Catholic and thus Nationalist population of Irish descent in NI is growing however, and identify more strongly as Irish than British. A mix of nationalism and dissatisfaction with Brexit could push this small majority strongly towards reunification. And I can't see there being much push back from mainland UK these days.

So really, it comes down to whether the Irish Republic wants to reunify, and the opposition of the large Unionist minority of Scottish and English descent in NI who would bitterly oppose reunification for cultural and historic reasons. Even they may be swayed by the advantages of staying in the EU, though Ireland doesn't yet have an NHS, and the UK does, that and the investment from the UK government, which is probably more than what the Republic's government would be willing to invest, are the strongest reasons to remain in the UK.

In my opinion, NI probably will reunify with the rest of Ireland at some stage, especially as Ireland becomes more secular, the Catholic/Protestant divide becomes less significant. Younger generations are VERY secular agnostic/atheist. We have to keep in mind though, it really isn't that long ago that Belfast was a warzone. It has rapidly changed, but we're talking 20 years ago, not ancient history. It's a very sensitive subject. It's still much too early in my opinion.

  • 14
    "Northern Ireland is a net recipient" prime example: 10 NI MP's negotiated £2B in extra spending in return for promising to vote in the way they were likely to anyway
    – Caleth
    Oct 15, 2018 at 10:50
  • 38
    Please reference the statement around Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland all being net recipients of the UK economy. Currently, there are multiple ways this has been measured with different outcomes - so I feel it's important to include the reference you are basing the statement off of (I'm not arguing you need to remove the statement).
    – Bilkokuya
    Oct 15, 2018 at 14:02
  • 6
    Another factor is that a generation or two ago the Irish Republic was to a great extent dominated by the Catholic Church, which even ran slave labor camps: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalene_Laundries_in_Ireland This would contribute to the non-Catholic population of NI being somewhat reluctant to unify with the Republic. That influence has decreased in recent years, which might gradually change attitudes towards unification.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 15, 2018 at 19:25
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    The Titanic is indeed a great metaphor for Brexit.
    – gerrit
    Oct 16, 2018 at 9:35
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    Having grown up in the 1980s, I'd dispute people in the rest of the UK being unaware of the UVF. Yes, the IRA were the obvious threat (and I say that as a regular visitor to Manchester and the Arndale Centre at the time), but we knew perfectly well the IRA existed because of the Protestant gangs. And we would have been quite happy for both bunches of barbarians to jump in the nearest bog and drown themselves.
    – Graham
    Oct 16, 2018 at 20:28

This is in answer to the sub-question:

since you mention Gerry Adams was needed in the agreement, does this mean Ireland supports the unrest in Northern Ireland? If so, can the UK simply declare war (The Troubles certainly looks like an act of war)

"Simply declare war" == murder a significant number of people, including civilians, for what purpose? This is literally what the European Union was set up to prevent.

Firstly, the Troubles was not instigated or supported by the Irish government, it was an action by the residents of Northern Ireland and their supporters. Some of those supporters were in the Republic of Ireland, some in America, and more from the rest of the Irish diaspora. It was fundamentally a guerilla war, much like the British Empire fought in Kenya and other places.

Secondly, the Troubles tells us that the real problem is not conquering but occupying. The UK could "win" militarily almost overnight against the Republic. Let's say you have tanks parked in Dublin before the week is out and a Union Jack flying over the rubble. Then what?

The occupation of NI during the Troubles took a peak of 21,000 troops to occupy roughly one fifth of Ireland. That suggests you'd need about 100k troops to occupy the island as a whole. Forever. Immediately you have a problem as that's more than the whole current UK army strength. They would also need ongoing construction of bases, replacement equipment, bomb damage repair and so on. The insurgency would continue; troops would be routinely put in situations where they might fire on civilians. Bombings against the occupation would start; weekly car bombings would make Dublin look like Basra.

The international community would be horrified. Ireland is popular in America, and it's also part of the European Community. The EU would almost certainly impose sanctions and a trade embargo. Google and Amazon would be suing for the hundreds of millions of pounds of Dublin datacentre destroyed or rendered inoperable when the electricity was cut off. The provisional Irish government who fled in fishing boats to France would be calling for a re-invasion and sourcing weapons for the ongoing resistance campaign.

There would be no question of restoring democracy in Ireland, since that would immediately vote to end the occupation. The Human Rights Act would probably be suspended to allow the security services to torture and murder dissidents, as they did during the Troubles. I suspect that democracy in the UK would, in practice, be suspended or severely curtailed in response. There would almost certainly be more bombs going off in London, attempts to assasinate the government, murder members of the Royal Family and so on.

Meanwhile, in the middle of this, the UK would still be trying to strike a deal with Europe?

  • 9
    +1 as if everything you describe weren't enough there would also be the possibility that Ireland as a member of PESCO would appeal to the EU for military aid. Thereby dragging the situation down to a whole new level of clusterfork. A full military invasion of Eire by British forces (it wouldn't be a "war", wars need two armies and let's be realistic Ireland doesn't have one) would be like trying to trim your nails with a chainsaw, only more stupid. Oct 16, 2018 at 14:35
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    I'm not sure how justifiable it is to extrapolate from 21k troops in the Troubles to 100k to occupy the whole island for the simple reason that in the North there was a majority of the population who were "on the same side" as the British Army. I don't know how many of them thought that things would be better without the army, but there would certainly have been a substantial chunk of the population which cooperated with them. In the South there wouldn't be much cooperation from the population, so 100k may well be an underestimate. Oct 16, 2018 at 21:38
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    @allure the key lesson people should take away from the Troubles was that state violence and Army intervention made the situation worse and prolonged the conflict for decades. That's part of why I found the whole "just invade Ireland" idea so offensively stupid. It doesn't help that Tory MPs keep suggesting we go back to those times of violence.
    – pjc50
    Oct 16, 2018 at 22:33
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    @Allure it's interesting that you frame it that way round rather than "the British (Unionists?) in NI should just move to the mainland and leave the Irish alone". Feel free to ask a separate question but you must do some reading of your own first, e.g. on the Irish war of independence.
    – pjc50
    Oct 17, 2018 at 8:59
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    @Allure excellent. The short answer to "why is one side violent" is that it's reprisals for the violence of the other side. Cycle of violence, innit. For at least three hundred years.
    – pjc50
    Oct 17, 2018 at 9:12

The Good Friday Agreement ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland between Unionists (British/Protestant) and Nationalists (Irish/Catholic). It did this, in part, by essentially allowing two nations to exists in the country of Northern Ireland. Those that wished to be British could have a British passport, wave a Union flag and call themselves British to their hearts' content. Those that considered themselves to be Irish could to similar, including traveling the length and breadth of the island as if it were all one country.

There is a feeling in the air that groups like the IRA and the UVF have not gone extinct, but rather dormant, and any significant upheaval in the status quo may provoke one into provoking the other.

  • 8
    On your last paragraph: that's not a feeling. There is still violence "on both sides".
    – gerrit
    Oct 16, 2018 at 9:39
  • 6
    Under the terms of the Common Travel Area, all British and Irish citizens have been able to travel the length and breadth of Ireland (and the UK) as if they were all one country, since 1923 (except between the outbreak of WWII and re-establishement of the CTA in 1952). The Good Friday Agreement achieved a lot of things, but freedom to travel to the Irish Republic wasn't one of them and nor, for that matter, was people in NI being able to have British passports. Oct 16, 2018 at 14:43
  • 4
    There is no doubt in my mind that the European Union has been an important catalyst for peace in Ireland, for two reasons. The huge amounts of EU development aid to the Republic have enabled Ireland to have an economy in GDP terms comparable to Britain and other parts of the EU. (In the 1960s Ireland was far poorer than Britain). Northern Ireland has benefitted from this prosperity in the Republic too. The fact of both countries being in the EU has also enabled an open border and a sense of unity.
    – WS2
    Oct 16, 2018 at 23:13
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    @DavidRicherby Except for when it was highly militarised. Not sure what your experiences were in crossing the border in the 80s and 90s, but my memories are of guys in combats waving rifles and searching cars. Sure they may not have been immigration enforcement, but full scale military checkpoints do not scream "open border" to me.
    – Richard
    Oct 16, 2018 at 23:48
  • 3
    @DavidRicherby (Bfwd) The boundary of the six counties is a line, that looks as though it was drawn by a drunk - and as someone once pointed out - probably was. It extends across water, and can be circumvented by fishing boats. There were security checks in the fifties, long before the Troubles. As a child I visited Ireland in about 1955 and was taken on a car journey from Longford in the Republic to the North. Close to the border an armed RUC officer jumped out rather suddenly from the hedgerow and stopped the car in which I was travelling - only a routine check, but quite frightening.
    – WS2
    Oct 17, 2018 at 9:30

Multiple other answers explain the long-term reasons why this is a generally sensitive topic and not something that either the UK or the Republic want to lightly discuss.

However, there is a more immediate political barrier. Theresa May currently leads a minority government, which depends on the Democratic Unionist Party for confidence and supply. Unionism specifically refers to the political belief that Northern Ireland is and should remain part of the UK, on equal footing with Scotland, Wales, and England. If May tries to hold a referendum which questions this status quo, the DUP will almost surely withdraw its support and bring down the government.

This is not a hypothetical concern; the agreement specifically provides that:

As set out in its General Election manifesto the Conservative Party will never be neutral in expressing its support for the Union. As the UK Government we believe that Northern Ireland's future is best served within a stronger United Kingdom. We will always uphold the consent principle and the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party will never countenance any constitutional arrangements that are incompatible with the consent principle.

The referenced "consent principle" refers to a term in the Belfast Agreement essentially stating that Irish reunification requires the simultaneous consent of both a majority of the island as a whole and of Northern Ireland in particular. A referendum of just NI would not satisfy this requirement. The term is mentioned here because otherwise the first half of the paragraph could be seen as conspiring to undermine the Belfast Agreement.

In principle, the Conservatives could say that the consent principle required them to hold a referendum. In practice, no such referendum has been held in multiple decades, and it is highly unlikely the DUP would be pleased with holding one right now. This is especially true given that the Republic has not asked for a referendum (although Sinn Féin has rather strongly suggested that a referendum would be necessary following a No Deal Brexit), and Northern Ireland doesn't currently have a functioning devolved assembly (and so can't be said to have "asked for" anything).


Northern Ireland has always been the UK's problem child owing to The Troubles. This was a period of intense political violence between, broadly speaking, Irish Catholics (often Nationalists, Republicans) and Ulster Protestants (often Unionists, Loyalists), who generally identify mutually exclusively as Irish or British respectively. This makes the prospect of a simple referendum completely unrealistic. It would unlikely change anything.

A good book to explain the complexities of the era is Martin Dillon's 'The Dirty War'. It's very easy to stray into simplifications, generalisations, and propaganda. And yet the reality is complex, nuanced, and morbid.

Brief historical overview...

The seeds of conflict were sown with the Plantation of Ireland. By the mid 1500s England was newly Protestant and paranoid about the risk of an invasion by Spanish Catholics via Catholic Ireland (See the Spanish Armada). To counter this threat Protestant communities were created in Ireland; run by English lords, manned by Scottish labourers... often at the expense of the local Irish. This led to the establishment of the Protestant Ascendancy, which was the formalisation of minority rule by Protestants in Ireland. Thereafter Irish Catholics were excluded and discriminated against.

Come 1916 the Easter Rising occured in Dublin, which led to the Irish War of Independence in 1919. The War of Independence concluded in 1922 with the birth of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. This triggered the Irish Civil War.

In the 1950s Northern Ireland was one of the least violent parts of the UK. The problem was that Catholics were still discriminated against, most obviously that they were excluded from many jobs. A notable example was that a young Martin McGuinness applied for a job at his local mechanics, only to be told that he couldn't work there because he was Catholic. He later joined the PIRA and became one of Sinn Fein's most senior politicians.

The Troubles began in 1969 when sectarian rioting escalated into increasingly bloody cycles of violence. The unwillingness of local government to make any meaningful progress on the question of civil rights, along with the massacre of peaceful protesters on Bloody Sunday polarised opinion and increased sectarian paranoia.

This was made worse by the establishment of armed groups whose alleged purpose was the defence of their communities; most notably the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army on the republican side, and the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force on the loyalist.

The PIRA attempted to wage an insurgent war during 1971-72, but this failed to remove British forces from Ulster militarily, and consequently led to a longer terrorist phase of IRA activity. Many were guilty of unlawful abuse and the murder of innocent victims, from republican and loyalist terrorists to the British army, police, and intelligence organisations.

The Troubles ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement was negotiated between the British Government, Irish Government, and all major Northern Irish politicians and terrorists. The PIRA/Sinn Fein was brought to the table by Bill Clinton, while Mo Mowlam managed to drag Loyalists to the negotiation.

The agreement normalised relations, established civil rights, released political prisoners, and removed British soldiers from the border. This was the first time the people of Northern Ireland would agree on something. 71% voted in favour of the agreement in the 1998 referendum.

During The Troubles the border was essentially bandit country, roamed by IRA Snipers (most infamously in South Armagh) and smugglers. The British army was deployed in an attempt to secure the border, but they found this impossible. If it wasn't for the road signs you'd be forgiven for missing it. It doesn't exist as a physical entity.

The prospect of creating a hard border is entertained only by die hard Unionists who would do anything to make Northern Ireland more divided from Ireland, and English politicians who know absolutely nothing about Northern Ireland (Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg).

Northern Irish politics is bitterly divided and utterly dysfunctional. Local government has earned a world record for the longest time somewhere has not had a functioning government. They cannot even agree to sit down in the same room with each other, never mind something as complex as discussing Brexit.

Local politics is dominated by the two largest political parties: the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, representing [British] Unionists and [Irish] Nationalists respectively. They hate each other and represent incompatible beliefs: That Northern Ireland is an inalienable part of the UK... or that Northern Ireland should become part of a United Ireland.

The population is split almost evenly between Catholics and Protestants, and politics is extremely sectarian. Protestants do not vote for Nationalists, and Catholics do not vote for Unionists. There is a non-sectarian middle, but they are politically insignificant. Because voting is tribal it is very unlikely that an election or referendum will change anything.

There's a few reasons that Scotland's independence debate is peaceful. The most important however is that the United Kingdom was forged from a union between the kingdom of England and the kingdom of Scotland. This has meant that Scots have always been an influential part of the United Kingdom. Which contrasts sharply with the plight of Irish Catholics under English and then British rule.

  • 14
    Once upon a time a Jew went to live in NI. As he was unpacking, his new neigbour asked "Are you a Protestant or a Catholic". He replied "Well, I'm actually Jewish". "Yes," came the reply, "But are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?" Oct 17, 2018 at 14:05
  • If anyone is in any doubt about the "hate each other" bit: look up some of the political TV debates they had prior to the last Assembly elections. I've never seen such an angry debate and it did look like they might have physically attacked each other any moment if they hadn't been in a BBC Studio.
    – gerrit
    Oct 19, 2018 at 10:07
  • 4
    @PaulJohnson Many years ago I met a young Irish at work. He told me "If you go to Northern Ireland and they ask you if you are Protestant or Catholic, you answer 'I'm a tourist!'"
    – gnasher729
    Dec 23, 2018 at 16:39

Northern Ireland could aim for independence, or more likely to become part of Ireland. The latter is known as a "border poll" and has been proposed before. There is in fact a mechanism to trigger a border poll, but it requires political capital that isn't there at the moment.

Essentially that's what it comes down to: There isn't the political will to do it right now, not enough people in Northern Ireland support the idea. That may change, it may not, but for now the prospect of it happening is remote and a solution for the border, with NI in the UK, has to be found.


Aside from all the excellent reasons posted why a referendum would be hugely divisive and quite possibly destroy the peace process, it's unclear whether a referendum would theoretically even be possible. Calling a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland would presumably fall to the devolved government, which doesn't currently exist since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in early 2017.

  • 2
    Good point - although while NI is in this state it is subject to "direct rule" from Westminster via the Secretary of State.
    – pjc50
    Oct 16, 2018 at 16:37
  • Mechanism for Border Poll requires the UK Secretary of State for NI to call the poll, under the GFA. The NI Executive is not required for the process to go ahead.
    – Jontia
    Nov 10, 2021 at 9:58

In simple terms, the Irish situation is a dilemma that just doesn't exist in other EU countries.

Running through the issues will help, then it'll be clearer why a referendum can't/won't solve them (and isn't viable anyway).

  • The British population as a whole voted to leave. That means that in some way or other, they want to drop membership of the common EU rules on borders, and import/export regulations (in order to create their own which may differ over time).
  • That in turn implies there must be some kind of border with the EU, where commerce between UK and EU laws meet. The issue is, where to put this border? (Because this is such a hard question, attention has turned to other questions such as "how should it work" or "transition periods", to try and reach a compromise. But that's by the by ..)

The location and nature of the border would not normally be an issue. Many EU countries have borders with non EU countries, and ordinarily, Britain would do the same, with no issues at all. But it can't, because historically, there was social unrest, terrorism, and intense divides in Ireland. Generalising a bit, Protestant Northern Ireland saw itself as an integral part of the UK. Catholic Northern Ireland saw itself as a repressed, colonised, severed part of a united Ireland, virtually under British martial law. The divides were bitter.

The "Troubles" came to an end with an agreement (the "Good Friday" agreement) being reached. The agreement involved shared devolved rule over Northern Ireland, and removal of borders and obstructions between Northern Ireland and Eire (the rest of Ireland). Which means the UK-EU border is in real trouble.....

  • If it's put between north and south Ireland, it breaks the Good Friday peace agreement. There isn't a working devolved government to make a decision either, so it would have to be done by the British Government, which would come across as "imposed by Britain". So this risks a renewal of the Troubles, and huge issues in Ireland.
  • But if it's not there, presumably it would be put between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, which would push northern Ireland away from Britain, and create an internal customs border within and between different parts of Britain itself - also unacceptable to those involved who identify Northern Ireland as an integral part of Britain, as well as politically very difficult at Stormont and Westminster.

So there must be a border, but because NI (in the UK) and Eire (in the non-UK EU) have such a delicate and volatile border situation, an emotionally recent (to those involved) history of conflict, and deep bitter divisions and memories only recently starting the healing process, no border solution appears to exist without huge problems and bitter (possibly violent and at worst socially devastating) objections.

Hence the problem.....

Additional factors making it even more of a headache:

  • The desired solution is probably self contradictory - no border controls between Northern Ireland/Eire, no border controls dividing NI and mainland within the UK, but somehow despite these, a customs border between UK and EU.
  • Those in favour of leaving ("Brexit") will see retention of EU laws and customs rules, or any lengthy/indeterminate transition, as a betrayal of the referendum result. So "kicking into the long grass" is politically very hard, much more than normal.
  • But short term solutions are hard to find. A common political resolution for seeming insolvable political problems is to use vague language and deal with the issues as they arise another day. But here, because it's so pointed and in such sharp awareness, and all sides have very invested views, it's in very sharp focus and that's much harder to do.
  • "Technological" solutions are suggested but don't seem really up to the job. Presumably since otherwise we would all use them elsewhere - but we don't. Practically, the EU will want certainty that its customs aren't being worked around/evaded. Without a hard border control of some kind, that's difficult to achieve with enough certainty.

Conclusion: Argh.

And finally, to come back to your question, why not a referendum?

Because it's simply too divided. It would be akin (in practical terms) to trying to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland staying in the UK with a hard border, or becoming part of Eire.

It's simply too intense a question, to be resolved by a referendum of this kind. Whatever the outcome, it would almost certainly be rejected, and the mere suggestion of such a referendum might bring about the chaos, and, at worst, destroy the fragile peace that has been achieved so far.

Putting it more starkly, feelings on both sides run so deep that even the mere suggestion, made by anyone of standing, that either an internal-to-Ireland or an internal-to-UK stop point/checkpoint/hard-ish border might be created, would probably be enough to bring instability/massive protest/anger at a sense of betrayal.

(And also not to forget, someone has to propose and authorise a referendum. Stormmont is broken right now, and even if working would probably be unable to pass such a decision. Westminster simply doesn't have the legitimacy to do so - if not in reality then in the view of too many Northern Irish citizens. So there is not easy political way for such a referendum to be proposed and put into law, by any party in power, Irish or otherwise, even if the other problems didn't exist)

And this is why Northern Ireland's situation and border is such a big issue/headache/stumbling block in the whole situation. Can't be avoided, can't be left for future, can't be referendum'ed, no plainly viable solution... etc

  • "...no plainly viable solution..." In such a case, politics typically draws up a mixture of solutions and calls it compromise. Like a bit of a hard border mixed with a bit of soft border. Something for everyone. Some checks here and some checks there, so nobody can say he isn't checked while everyone can feel like he isn't checked. I guess that will be the outcome. Oct 22, 2018 at 12:19
  • @Teilarion - maybe. But the OP question isn't "what will happen in the end?" The question is "why isn't it being addressed by holding a referendum on the border issues, in Northern Ireland?"
    – Stilez
    Oct 22, 2018 at 18:38
  • You're right. I just commented on your very last sentence because I believe that there will be a viable solution in the end. Politics is usually all about compromises between differing opinions. Oct 23, 2018 at 7:21
  • Actually, it can be "referendum'ed" under the GFA which has an option for Irish unification. If the people of NI do vote for that, then all the problems go away. While such a vote won't happen before brexit, the parties may agree to keep the open borders until such a referendum within 12 months or so. At least that buys everyone 12 months with a chance for a permanent solution.
    – JJJ
    Feb 9, 2019 at 2:37
  • 1
    The problem is, its not a practical solution, at least not in any meaningful timescale for brexit. If there was a referendum and NI left the UK, then yes. But odds for that? Zero in any nearby time. The door exists legally, but I don't think any commentator would say it has the proverbial snowball in hell's hope of being sought by wither side, let alone working if they did.
    – Stilez
    Feb 9, 2019 at 8:06

Because if such a referendum were to be held, it would likely lead to the collapse of the UK Government, which would lead to chaos just at the time the UK needs stability.

The referendum would probably result in Irish unification. Pretty much all the nationalists would vote for it, and a significant enough number of unionists like the EU enough and have shed enough of their distrust / dislike of the republic that they would vote for it. Also the EU has far more money to prop up a failed economy than the UK has, and will have even more money than the UK post-brexit. Note that Northern Ireland as a whole voted to remain in the EU (56%).

(If the referendum were to fail, would there be violence? I doubt it, as a failed referendum would simply mean the status quo continues. Thankfully almost everyone is happy to not be violent in that status quo).

The Democratic Unionist Party is currently propping up the Conservative government in the UK. If Irish unification happened, that Government would fall, and there would be the chaos of a change of Government right as the UK is trying to negotiate the impossible.

So there is simply no way that the UK Government will allow such a referendum, and given the power the Democratic Unionist Party has at the moment it's probably impossible.

And frankly I don't think the Irish Government, if they were open and honest about it, want it either. There was a report that unification would cost 15% of Irish GDP. And there would quite probably be a resurgence of unionist paramilitaries and hence violence in the republic.

Once the current Brexit drama is over, and once the Democratic Unionists lose their place in bed with the Prime Minister, I suspect there will be that referendum. I suspect it will lead to unification, and hence the UK will lose that economic and social millstone around their neck, and Ireland will inherit it, and probably some violence to boot.

EDIT: I've looked up the conditions that are needed before the referendum can happen. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland needs to be confident that the referendum would pass before (s)he can call for it. I've no doubt that the current secretary - the Conservative MP Karen Bradley - has no such confidence, as if she did have that confidence she could be the one who ends up precipitating the collapse of the UK Government (which is primarily a Conservative Government). It's hard to have confidence in something which kicks you out of power just as you need it the most to try and deliver Brexit!

  • Regarding your last paragraph, do you mean to suggest the British actually have a say in unification? Isn't it the case that only the people on the island of Ireland have a say by the Belfast agreement?
    – JJJ
    Oct 18, 2018 at 21:31
  • I'm not sure how you are deducing that the British have a say in unification from my last paragraph. Frankly I don't know how a unification referendum is triggered, but I suspect the conditions for triggering it will exist post-brexit (economic chaos in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists no longer in bed with the Prime Minister etc). Oct 18, 2018 at 21:37
  • OK - just looked it up. Reunification will happen when it is voted for both North and South. A vote in the North can only be called when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believes it could pass. So yes the UK Government has a say in the potential timing of unification. If it were called in the North, the Irish Government would undoubtedly call for one in the south, which would almost certainly pass. Oct 18, 2018 at 21:40
  • 1
    Why is the DUP-London relationship relevant? I think it's not. Part of article 3 of the GFA (see full text in the link) says 'by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island'. The island is the island or Ireland, which doesn't include the rest of the UK. So I doubt the UK is a party in the referendum. As such, I'd say the UK-DUP relationship is not really relevant (in case of a referendum).
    – JJJ
    Oct 18, 2018 at 21:44
  • 2
    I mean I don't think there will be a majority in the North asking for a referendum before Brexit. After Brexit, yes, but not before. Why? Because Brexit will likely be an economic disaster for the UK, which would be felt most by those in Northern Ireland. Oct 18, 2018 at 22:36

They won't write out such a referendum, because PM May needs the DUP in order to have a majority. The DUP is against all ways of giving Northern Ireland a special status (or independency) of any kind after the Brexit. Which means that, would May organize such a referendum, the DUP drops the coalition and the UK would fall into a consequential political crisis, ending up with new elections and a very long negotiation to create a coalition, because neither one of the parties would probably end up with a majority in the house, and the only party that wanted to partner up with the Conservatives over Brexit is the DUP. Which would inadvertently harm the position of the UK Brexit negotiators.

TL;DR: The DUP is against treating NI any different from the rest of the UK, May needs the DUP (which is the Northern Irish unionist party) and therefore won't write out a referendum.


I want to add that if it could be done in good faith then there is nothing in the structure that could not be done.

A good example is the Faroe Islands that isn't part of EU whereas Denmark is.

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