38

In following the ongoing Brexit drama, it seems everything is resolved except the question of the Norther Irish border, which is very difficult indeed to solve.

Idea: draw a new border that splits Northern Ireland into two pieces of roughly 60:40 in size (this is based on a guesstimate of what the proportion of both sides are; adjust if this is inaccurate). Get all nationalists to the 40% side, all unionists to the 60% side. The 40% side joins Ireland and becomes one of its provinces; the 60% side stays in the UK. Then implement a hard border. There'll be mechanical problems to this of course (e.g. it would necessarily involve a lot of people having to buy new houses) but those should be temporary. Meanwhile if this works, it would separate the two infighting populations and hopefully solve the problem permanently.

Such a solution would not necessarily have to involve forced population transfers - one could choose to stay put, and then agree to identify with & abide by the laws of the country one ends up in (whichever that is).

I am wondering if can plausibly resolve the conflict. If yes, has it been seriously discussed? If no, why not?

Related: Would it be plausible to solve the Irish Border issue by unifying Ireland?

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    I'm guessing we don't hear much about it because historical examples were not terribly happy events, e.g. Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of WWI and more one-sided transfers as European borders were redrawn after WWII... – Fizz Sep 18 at 7:45
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    Or indeed the creation of NI itself... Partition – Jontia Sep 18 at 8:04
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    See also the partition of India for a good example of why this is probably a very bad idea. – Steve Melnikoff Sep 18 at 10:26
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    To the downvoters: even though partition would not be an effective solution to the problem, an articulate and thoughtful question about partition deserves upvotes because it gives an opportunity for articulate and thoughtful answers explaining why partition would not solve the problem. – phoog Sep 18 at 15:14
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    There's a term for coercing people to vacate their homes based on their identity: Ethnic Cleansing – T.E.D. Sep 18 at 22:41
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No, repartition will not solve the problem.

In 1994 the Ulster Defence Association, a loyalist terrorist organisation active during The Troubles, threatened that if the British Army withdrew from Northern Ireland they would "repartition Ulster", falling back to majority Protestant areas, and ethnic cleansing any Catholics left.

Repartition has been suggested now and again, usually with less genocidal intent. In 1984 Margret Thatcher was briefed on the possibility of repartition, but it was and still is a ridiculous proposal. It would result in unworkable areas, like West Belfast becoming a walled ghetto. Belfast is a patchwork quilt of areas with are mostly Protestant, mostly Catholic, or a mix.

See below map, it's from 1991 data but is close enough to contemporary circumstance.

With regards to population transfers... with the possible exception of some small villages along the border, this is impossible. West Belfast for example has a population of 94,639 (2016), and is a republican stronghold. This was the heartland of the Provisional Irish Republican Army's Belfast brigade, and is still overseen by their Army Council through the PIRA (which like all terrorist organisations from The Troubles still exists) and Sinn Fein.

This is one of the most republican communities anywhere on the island of Ireland, north or south of the border. There is absolutely no chance whatsoever of them agreeing to move, much less to placate loyalists. This point is of critical importance; Irish Republicans believe wholly in a United Ireland free from British influence. This means the very suggestion of population transfers is antithetical to their cause.

religious map of belfast

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    This is a good answer to the repartition question, but frankly the OP was asking about population exchanges (Before some rather uninspired title changes by others, this was even more clear.) Population exchanges would avoid exactly the patchwork... at other human costs though. – Fizz Sep 18 at 15:57
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    @Fizz Edited to clarify point, thanks for the comment. – inappropriateCode Sep 18 at 16:24
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    Wow, at first glance I thought that was a map of Manhattan and its surroundings, and thought this answer was going to use New York as an analogy to illustrate some point. – phoog Sep 18 at 16:26
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    I'm accepting this answer because one of the links (to the Wikipedia article on repartition of Ireland) answers the question in the OP very well, with links to further references if needed. – Allure Sep 19 at 4:19
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    One thing that may be worth mentioning in your answer, is that not everyone in Northern Ireland is either Unionist or Nationalist, and that it is probably that this number will increase in the future (due to immigration, secularization, and newer generations just being fed up with the division, etc.). This makes the idea of repartition even less realistic. Also there will be families and couples comprised of both Uniosts and Nationalists, further complicating matters. – JeroenHoek Sep 20 at 6:25
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"Northern Ireland" itself was created by a variation of that process: there was a referendum on whether to become independent after the Irish War Of Independence, and those electoral regions which voted to remain in the UK were assembled into a unit.

Forced population transfer is usually considered to be a crime against humanity and is included in the UN definition of genocide. Don't forget that most people living in NI are currently entitled to hold both UK and Irish passports and therefore entitled to live wherever they like in either country.

Also, regardless of that, the Good Friday Agreement still applies, and it is very unlikely Ireland would ever agree to this scheme. Remember that until the GFA Ireland's constitution claimed the entire island.

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    Modern scholarship on the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey (for example) indeed points out that the post-1950 international law, the Convention on Refugees in particular, makes a solution like that most likely illegal as it would almost certainly not be entirely voluntary at individual level (even if the two the countries involved agree at leadership level). The Convention conveniently only came in force/being after the post-WW2 forced population transfers (which took place mostly in Eastern Europe) were fait accompli. – Fizz Sep 19 at 0:20
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    Probably the best known example of the latter where there was bilateral movement (and agreement) was between Ukraine SSR and Poland. – Fizz Sep 19 at 0:29
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    I don't understand the 3rd paragraph: 1) If the UK attempts to do this, can they argue that it's interior to the UK (although Ireland could veto the new 40% province joining Ireland, in which case they presumably become independent)? 2) if Ireland's current constitution no longer claims the entire island, why would they disagree with the scheme? – Allure Sep 19 at 0:44
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    @Allure: The GFA has a referendum provision (with no date set), which would allow Irish [re]unification. The demographic trends make it somewhat probable in the future. bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-43823506 – Fizz Sep 19 at 10:51
  • Please link to the relevant source where 'forced population transfer' is considered genocide. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Sep 19 at 16:48
43

The problem of Brexit for Northern Ireland isn't what you think it is. It has little to do with the distribution of the population. It's about cross-border trade and co-operation between Protestants and Catholics, which repartition would do nothing to fix and would be more likely to harm. Many businesses in the north run by Protestants/Unionists trade extensively with the south, and many in the south trade extensively with the north (this is why even in the Unionist community there was significant support for remaining in the EU, particularly among the educated and middle classes, despite what Unionist politicians wanted). Putting in barriers to that trade will be deeply damaging: this may include checks on agricultural products, and tariffs on components, as well as tariffs on finished products. Here is a report by InterTradeIreland, the intergovernmental body responsible for cross-border trade which sets out the degree of inter-relatedness.

In addition there are many services shared between Protestant and Catholic communities (e.g. health services) that would be affected by a split: they couldn't be moved or repartitioned. Even things like free movement of horses for horseracing would be affected. (Report on Brexit impact study)

A peace based on repartition has been proposed in the past, but the practical difficulties and expense would be enormous, as would the upheaval, and it's not clear it would satisfy idealogues on either side. It would also create as many grudges and resentments as it would solve. And despite what the OP thinks, the communities are not in a state of out and out war: they more or less live side by side most of the time without significant trouble, so it's not worth a big costly change for a small benefit.

21

The only reason a peace deal exists today is because it was a deal that let everyone in Northern Ireland act as if they were living in the country of their choice, with the citizenship of their choice. That worked because the open borders made it almost moot whether a bit of territory was Irish territory or UK. Ireland and the UK were effectively sharing Northern Ireland (with the UK technically having temporary ownership).

Without open borders, that deal simply cannot exist. However, getting rid of the EU's open borders and regulations was pretty much the entire point of Brexit. The border is required to enforce the regulations, so if the UK leaves and doesn't follow EU regulations, the border has to be closed there. Therefore Brexit inherently destroys the Good Friday Agreement.

There is no partition you can make that won't displease or displace anyone. Partition was in fact the entire intractable problem that the accords fixed.

  • 2
    Honestly, IMHO a much better solution would be for the UK to simply hand over NI to the RoI. I refuse to assume voter ignorance, so Brexit voters had to know what they were voting for would screw up NI, and just didn't think that was important enough to change their vote. If they don't care about NI, they should hand it over to a country that does. – T.E.D. Sep 18 at 20:40
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    This is nonsense. Ireland and the UK have always had free movement and the right to trade, live and work in both countries, since independence. The EU added nothing to that. – Ben Sep 19 at 7:56
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    @Ben: You seem to miss that Ireland and the UK joined the EU at the same date. This is critically important. The EU external border never ran through the British Isles. Before 1973, both countries were outside the EU, afterwards they were inside. Brexit will cause the first internal border. – MSalters Sep 19 at 8:48
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    @RossThompson - As I touched on in the answer, it might be comforting to think people who voted a way you disagree with were just ignorant, but I reject that both because falling into insults is too comforting, and because it lets the guilty off too easy. The necessary info was there before they voted. If they didn't want to listen to it, then clearly they didn't think it was important enough to consider against what they wanted out of Brexit. That's a voter's right, and the human consequences they didn't consider important are their responsibility. – T.E.D. Sep 19 at 20:57
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    @T.E.D. I don't disagree with your conclusion. However, the fact that people didn't consider the NI problem is a recorded fact, with even pro-Leave politicians expressing surprise at its existence a year after the referendum. Remain literature also didn't touch on it before the referendum, either because they also didn't think about it, or because they thought other arguments were stronger. Yes, voters have a responsibility to educate themselves before voting, but I don't think we can insist that someone is "ignorant" just because they haven't spent days considering every possibility. – Ross Thompson Sep 20 at 14:40
19

There is only one way to unify Ireland without causing even bigger problems and repartition isn't it

AS other answers show, repartition is impractical because the populations are too mixed and forced repartition would have potentially catastrophic effect because of the disruption that would result (in addition to being a violation of many people's basic rights that we no longer consider acceptable). And partition didn't work in the long term to solve the last Irish problem (after WW1).

But there is a route to achieving it without disruption. The Good Friday agreement allows a majority vote of the people of the North to trigger union with the south. All sides agreed to this (that's why it is called an agreement).

if the people of the North were so pissed off at the mess ensuing from Brexit (not totally impossible) this would likely swing the vote in favour of union. More remarkably a recent opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft suggested that the current situation is balanced on a knife edge. In other words the whole population is split 50:50 on whether to vote for reunion even before they know what will happen if there is a hard Brexit.

So, not only would repartition not help, it might not be necessary.

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    @MikeScott The point of the GFA is that the unionists signed up to it. If the majority vote to rejoin the republic they have no argument. And if the unionists switch their vote because their businesses are far worse of under Brexit than a united Ireland, then why would they complain? – matt_black Sep 18 at 20:10
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    Most sensible answer here (although without looking at any recent polling, this seems unlikely to pass in Northern Ireland). However, I think there's nothing in that agreement preventing the UK from just giving NI away unilaterally. If they really want Brexit enough to not care what happens in NI as a result, then that seems the easiest solution to accomplish it. – T.E.D. Sep 18 at 20:54
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    @T.E.D. Check the poll I linked. – matt_black Sep 18 at 20:56
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    @JackAidley The DUP got into government in NI because they had agreed to the GFA. They might not calmly accept it but they signed up to the deal that made a peaceful unification possible. They might campaign against, but they can't quibble if they lose. – matt_black Sep 19 at 13:15
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    Sorry but I have to comment on your opening sentence. There is never only one way to solve anything. But if you want to talk about absolute, consider this: There was only one way to unify Ireland peacefully and it was being implemented (Ireland joins EU, UK joins EU, Ireland and NI sign the GFA ...). All of this was working fine is apeasing the tensions in Ireland ... until the last referendum :( – Hoki Sep 20 at 10:22
16

This is one of those mathematical answers that doesn't take into account that people are human. Many people have connections to place, to countryside, to geography. History is not something that happened to someone else, it is something they feel as part of their identity. There is no way you can simply "buy them a similar house" and have them move because they have a strong sense of place.

After all, no one will solve the Israel-Palestine problem by offering people a "land just as dry and hot" next door.

  • +1 Actually the British, for a while, thought that was solution in Israel/Palestine. And some Zionists (not in any derogatory sense) were convinced that was the solution even later. doi.org/10.1016/0962-6298(92)90019-P Some variants, which include territorial exchanges, are even discussed nowadays. – Fizz Sep 19 at 11:10
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Partition will not solve the problem. It will create complications that would be difficult to resolve.

I give, as an example, the Partition of India into India and Pakistan,(and later Bangladesh).

  1. It led to communal clashes between Hindus and Sikhs, and Muslims. Thousands died in the clashes.

  2. It led to the Kashmir war. Even today, Kashmir remains a war zone.

  3. It led to the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, which created the country of Bangladesh.

  4. It led to the 1965 Indo-Pak war and the Kargil war.

  5. It led to the growth of Islamic terrorism in Pakistan. Al Qaeda, LeT, JeM all grew in Pakistan. The Taliban is supported by Pakistan. It was Pakistan that harboured Osama bin Laden and helped him pull off 9/11 and other acts of terrorism.

  6. Both the countries are forced to spend a large amount on their defence budget, to effectively counter the other.

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    @Prav Note: The Republic Ireland has the lowest defense budget in in the EU. I think point 6 is very relevent – Lyndon White Sep 18 at 17:46
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    What was the alternative to partitioning India, and would it have led to less violence? – Allure Sep 19 at 0:54
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    What Allure said. Quote from the movie (Nehru to Gandhi with Jinnah standing next to them) "Do you want an independent India and an independent Pakistan? Or ... do you want a civil war?" – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 19 at 7:38
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    @Allure I meant that India could have been united IF the Partition had not happened. Uniting India today would indeed be a difficult(possibly impossible) task. – JERRY_XLII Sep 19 at 10:41
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    Partition had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism. That happened only with American Jihad against Soviets during the 80s and the rest is its legacy. Alqaeda actually grew in Afghanistan and KSA. Pakistan had nothing to do with 9/11 attacks. Taliban are supported by Pakistan as a proxy to check the influence of their archrival since it is imperative for Pakistan that India cannot establish herself on their Western border. I am not entirely sure of why you added that #5 point – NSNoob Sep 19 at 14:22
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No.

In my opinion the only solution that won't cause the two sides to reignite their war is to leave things as they are. Leave that border exactly as is even if England (and Northern Ireland) leaves the EU and Ireland stays. Yes, that will cause administrative problems with Schengen, customs and so on - but they'll all be solvable without shooting anybody or blowing things up like the IRA used to do. Establishing any kind of division on that border will cause violence and loss of lives.

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