Why can't Northern Ireland just have a stay/leave referendum?

  • 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?

  • 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.

    I'm accepting your answer as the most comprehensive one so far. It makes me think of the Scottish independence referendum, which the rest of the country did not vote in but accepted; but then I remembered also the Falklands Island independence referendum which Argentina certainly did not accept. Further 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)?

    @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.

    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

    You answer implies that the existence of the EU had something to do with the ability to cross the border, the Common Travel Area agreement predates that, and is why the UK/Ireland had to join the EU at the same time. The border checkpoints weren't for immigration control from the Republic, as anyone born there is entitled to live/work/vote in the UK.

    @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.

    Not necessarily the same kind of checkpoints, unless terror comes back in a big way. It's also my understanding that most of the checkpoints were RUC operated, and encountered going into Northern Ireland, more so than trying to go into the Republic. Once it becomes an external EU border, there's an obligation on the Republic to prevent entry. Whereas the UK can set their own requirements for going north once they're out.

    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).

    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 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.

    @PaulJohnson thanks for this very informative answer! I'm aware that it dates back to 2018, but it would be great if you could add a short comment on the situation as of 2021. I suppose what we ended up with is pretty much what you described as "option 3"?

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM