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The Irish border: a biography of a 100-year-old institution

A road runs along a stream that marks the border between Northern Ireland (left) and Ireland, at Castleblayney - Credit: Getty Images

At the very moment the Irish border reaches its centenary it is about to enter a new era, as Brexit finally comes into full effect. IAN WALKER presents a birthday biography.

In May 2018, Jacob Rees-Mogg – then chairman of the hard Brexit Tory pressure group the ERG – declared: “I don’t think my visiting the Irish border is really going to give me a fundamental insight into the border beyond what one can get by studying it.”

This indifference to the daily lives of those who would be most affected by the changes that would be brought to that border by the policies he was promoting placed Rees-Mogg in a long tradition of politicians who neither understood Ireland nor cared much about its people.

And among Brexiters, it is not just Rees-Mogg who has made a virtue of not knowing. There is little evidence that anyone in the Brexit vanguard really understands the border. Nigel Farage was accused of comparing Felixstowe to South Armagh, while Boris Johnson suggested it was similar to the border between Camden and Westminster. It’s not surprising that people who live along the Irish border in Ireland have, over the last four and half years, been both irritated and worried.  

This boundary was created a century ago this December with Westminster’s Government of Ireland Act 1920 which separated six north eastern counties with large Unionist populations from the rest of Ireland.

So Rees-Mogg didn’t even get the name correct, as the television presenter Dara O’Briain has said, this ‘Irish border’ is, in fact, the British border in Ireland. It was created in London by an imperial power on the cusp of its own decline, and drawn under the long shadows of the bleak church steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, through distant farms and bogs, across low, dark hills, along country lanes and through remote valleys by people that had little business there.

But it is not enough to say simply that the border was imposed by the British on the Irish. It also marks a line within Ireland that stretches back beyond the point, a century ago, when it was marked on a map, back though the rise of Irish nationalism, and famine, genocide and religious wars, back to medieval land grabs. And this older border was a place of invention.

This line invented how people exist in the world. It invented the Ulster unionists. It sits deep within the creation of the English nation-state, the British sovereign state and the British empire: which means it lies within the invention of both the post-feudal world of nation-states and within the origins of the globalised economy. It is world-historical. 

And the border also existed as a source of political legitimacy in Dublin. Éamon de Valera, the 1916 revolutionary and the dominant political figure in Irish politics in the 20th century spoke of the border as being imposed upon the Irish by imperial legacy. This truth was exactly what his supporters wanted to hear, and, as lip-service, this gave de Valera a political identity within the chaos of Irish politics, and did so as his newly found country stagnated and struggled. For decades, the Irish political class have needed that border, whilst simultaneously hating it.

So here, in this article, for those Brexiters who can’t tell the difference between Armagh and Suffolk, is a very brief history – a biography if you will – of this living border that sits deep within the identities of the Irish and the British.


In 1169, Diarmaid mac Murchadha, the deposed king of Leinster, asked for Anglo-Norman help to regain his crown. Richard de Clare (nicknamed Strongbow – the cider is named after him) came to his aid. This event was the start of English involvement in Ireland and Diarmaid mac Murchadha would become known as Diarmaid na nGall, which is Irish for “Diarmaid of the Foreigners”, a name which identifies him as the man who invited the English into Ireland.

But in Ulster, the Anglo-Normans never got a foothold. Under the O’Neills Ulster remained Gaelic, and if Ireland is essentially Gaelic (and nowhere is essentially anything), then Ulster was the most Irish part of Ireland. 

The Violent Birth of the British Empire

With the Tudors came a series of wars where the English attempted to subjugate Catholic and Gaelic Ireland. This is where we begin to see centralised English political power in a way we can recognise as a modern nation state. And, using Dublin as its base, the English began the process of occupying Ireland, which means that this 16th century invention of the English nation state was also part of the invention of English imperialism.

This moment, the birth of empire, didn’t just take place in Ireland. Across the Atlantic, in the New World, English colonists (and pirates) used plantation, a method of using settlers, to work on large sugar, tobacco and (later) cotton farms. Out of this process grew capitalism, the British empire, a global economy, trans-Atlantic slavery and the United States. And this Tudor and Stuart nascent imperial plantation strategy was also when the demarcation between a large part of Ulster and the rest of Ireland took place.

Plantation had been an English tactic for occupying Ireland throughout the 16th century. But it had failed. However, after being defeated in the Nine Years’ War (1593 -1603), Ulster’s Gaelic chiefs fled. The crown took their estates, and the process of colonisation began.

This was supposed to have been the first step in the eradication of Catholicism and Gaelic culture in Ireland. Presbyterian Scots and English Protestants were settled on the seized estates in the north of Ireland. And importantly, despite there being a significant difference between English Protestants and Scottish Presbyterian (a difference people would kill over), in the Gaelic or Catholic Irish imagination, they were being subjugated by the Scots and the English. You can argue that the British empire, along with the British sovereign state starts here, that imperial Britannia is born in Ulster.

But the eradication of the indigenous Irish culture never happened. Beyond Ulster, Britannia’s attempt to ‘civilise’ Catholic/Gaelic Ireland failed. Instead, there were now two separate Irish identities. 

The Long Peace

Throughout the 17th century these two Irish identities, the indigenous one and the imposed, imperial, one fought, and with Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649, this fighting became genocidal.

But during the following century, there was a period of relatively stable Anglo-Protestant rule in Dublin in an Irish parliament. During this period – the Long Peace – Irish nationalism was as likely to be Protestant (the Anglicised Protestant minority, not the Ulster Presbyterians) as it was Catholic. But what concerns us most in our story of the border is that whilst Catholics had third-class status in the eyes of the British, the Ulster Presbyterians had second class status. So, ideologically and culturally, this group started digging in as being not only anti-Catholic but also increasingly resentful of Westminster. This part of Ulster was taking on a besieged and recalcitrant mentality. 

In 1800, in part to suppress Protestant nationalism in Ireland, Westminster passed the Act of Union which disbanded the Irish parliament. Ireland would now return MPs to Westminster. As far as the border goes, the legacy of this was that the Irish question – Catholic nationalism and Ulster recalcitrance – was now firmly placed at the centre of British politics: that long tradition of Westminster failing to understand Ireland began.

Men in uniform

Catholic Irish nationalism spread after the Great Famine of the 1840s. This famine was a consequence of British economic policy, and it bred anti-British sentiment. Out of this came the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). This political organisation was dedicated to the removal of British rule in Ireland through violent revolution. 

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the IRB was largely ineffectual. The dominant form of Irish nationalism during this period was Home Rule – the recreation of an Irish parliament and self-government within the UK – which many British politicians liked because it would take Ireland’s problems back out of Westminster.

But it couldn’t take Ireland’s problems out of Westminster because the most Protestant parts of Ulster had no interest in Home Rule – which they saw as a threat to their own position – and were prepared to resist it. In 1912, the Ulster Volunteers, a loyalist militia, was created. So, in response, Irish nationalists created their own militia, the Irish Volunteers, which included members of the IRB. 

In 1916, the Irish Volunteers carried out the Easter Rising, a revolt intended not to secure Home Rule but to get the Brits out of Ireland. It failed and its leaders were executed. These deaths triggered a wave of support for Republican nationalism throughout Ireland, though, of course,  not in loyalist areas.

In the 1918 general election, the nationalist party Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 Irish seats at Westminster. On January 21, 1919, instead of taking up their seats in the House of Commons, the Sinn Féin members created their own parliament in Dublin, Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland).

However, in that same 1918 election Unionist candidates won 22 of the 29 seats in the north east of the island. So, while events in what would become the Free State of Ireland were moving to make a compromise with Westminster unworkable, the north east of the country had their own, separate, uncompromising vision of Ireland.

Spike Milligan and the border

The result was the official creation of that border by legislation passed 100 years ago – in December 1920 – running for 310 miles. Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, refused to have any role in deciding precisely where the line should fall. The British initially considered including all nine Ulster counties within the border, but the Unionists there argued that the six counties were all they could realistically ‘hold’. Later in the 1920s, a boundary commission was established to decide on the precise delineation. Nationalists hoped for a considerable transfer of land to the nascent Free State, since most border areas had nationalist majorities. But the commission ended up recommending relatively small changes in both directions, causing controversy on both sides. So it was agreed that the provisional border could remain as it was.

Of course, the border was essentially a consequence of British interference in Ireland, but it was also born of necessity. Republican Ireland could not coerce Ulster into independence if the majority in the north didn’t want it. The border was also a reflection of that hard truth.

As borders go, this one is erratic, it twists and turns its eccentric way along the edge of four of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. In one house, it separated the kitchen from the bedrooms (raising the question is it where you sleep or where you eat that defines you?). In the village of Pettigo, one man found that while his house was in the Republic, his garden was in Northern Ireland, which meant that technically he had to pay import duty on the carrots he grew.

This absurdity is an important part of the border’s 20th century history. The border facilitated smuggling industries, where everything from cattle to condoms were snuck one way or the other. Sometimes this stuff sounded like the subject of an Ealing comedy or a terrible 1970s sex comedy. In 1963, Spike Milligan wrote his only comic novel Puckoon about a fictional town divided by the border.

Putting to one side the slightly uncomfortable comedy Irish voices and stereotypes that Milligan employs, this book is a comedy masterpiece which marks out the border as the absurdity it is. All the certainties – of Protestant and Catholic faith, of the nation state, of empire and republic – are rendered as daft as they are by Milligan’s absurdist humour.

But violence never kept far from the border. The Civil War in Ireland, after the War of Independence, was fought over the degree of British involvement in what was then the Free State. The border was the physical embodiment of that involvement. The Irish Civil War ended with de Valera distancing himself from Sinn Féin (he had been its president) and the Irish Republican Army (which grew out of the Irish Volunteers).

His creation of the Fianna Fáil party in 1926 was fundamentally an act of (temporary) reconciliation to that border existing – even though the party was ideologically opposed to it.

And, perhaps, in subtle ways that are hard to quantify, that border acted as a check on Irish aspirations, as if that border acted as a weight on the Irish imagination. De Valera’s vision of an independent Ireland was deeply conservative and Catholic, and while others, particular Seán Lemass, had a vision of a progressive, modern, egalitarian and industrialised Ireland, it was de Valera’s vision of a land of priests, maidens and families gathered at the farmstead hearth that often dominated. This drove Ireland’s greatest resource, its people, to emigrate in their tens of thousands.

The border strikes back

In the 1950s and 1960s, a desultory border war campaign was fought by the now marginalised IRA. This produced better song and film titles than it did political results. Patriot Game was written by Brendan Behan’s brother Dominic about the conflict. Bob Dylan nicked the tune for his song Masters of War. But then, in the late 1960s, everything that was tied up in this border – Unionist identity, British imperialism and ignorance, and Irish compromise and frustration – all exploded into something horrific.

What started as a civil rights campaign by Catholics in Northern Ireland quickly grew violent. Ulster loyalists formed into militias, and a section of mostly younger republicans broke away from the Official IRA to form the Provisional IRA. 

What followed was a civil war fought throughout Northern Ireland, on the British mainland and in the Republic. And some of the most brutal fighting took place along the border, especially in that area known as the Murder Triangle in Co. Tyrone and South Armagh.  

For many British and Irish people today this period is how the border is remembered; checkpoints and Saracen APCs on country lanes, helicopters moving troops about, watchtowers, barracks and RUC headquarters hidden behind barbed wire and corrugated iron, murders carried out on remote farms, bodies buried in never to be found graves.

All the contradictions that intensified this conflict were tied up in that border. Firstly there was the incompatibility of the two communities, one legitimised by the border the other denied its full status. And then, behind it all was the original sin of British imperial occupation, which, in turn, compromised Britain’s aspired-to role as peacekeeper (this compromise was apparently made real by allegations of members of the British military actively working with loyalist groups, especially murder squads operating in the Murder Triangle). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ireland, as defined by that border, seemed lost. There didn’t seem to be a solution.

Why Tony Blair will always be a better politician than Jacob Rees-Mogg

But a solution was found, and it was Margaret Thatcher, somewhat surprisingly, that helped start the process. In 1985, she and the Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in an attempt to bring the violence to an end. This failed – it actually intensified the Troubles – but what the Agreement did was introduce the idea that the basis for compromise between Ulster Unionists and Dublin could come if Dublin were allowed a say in the running of Northern Ireland, which itself would continue as its own political entity. In this vision, the border would still exist, and it would still give definition to Northern Ireland and Ireland, but it would no longer be a barrier. And, essentially it was this idea of power-sharing that was the basis of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Ireland. 

There were plenty of people involved in making that Agreement work, including some improbable players, former staunch republican and loyalists ended up working together. And the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern did more than most, as did John Hume, a man who dedicated his political life to peace while never giving up on his nationalist instincts. But much of the credit also goes to Tony Blair.

In the chapter in Blair’s autobiography on the ending of the war in Ireland, the former PM explains the meticulous detail needed to bring the various entrenched factions to a settlement. Behind closed doors, for weeks on end, each point of conflict was painstakingly settled, from who could march where and when, to who gets released from prison, to how people would give up their weapons.

It was this insistence on the hammering out of details that made the Agreement work, and it was a rare occasion where a British politician got to grips with the details of Irish politics and Irish lives. Tellingly, Blair begins this chapter by talking about his Donegal family; about mad miserly aunts and endless cousins. Unlike Rees-Mogg, Blair had some insight into Ireland’s border because he knew it and because he made an effort to know the people whose lives were defined by it.

A different way of being

In the years between the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit, this line drawn across Ireland became an intimation of a world that could exist where borders ceased to be barriers and instead became the basis of something else, something creative, something liberating and something peaceful.

Identity, how we are in the world, which is the basis of politics, could still be defined by a border, but these identities were no longer fixed or entrenched by that border. The world opened outwards and for those years the possibility of a better century ahead than the one just left appeared, and it appeared most vividly in the lives of those who lived near the border.


Now, a century after the border was created, it is about to enter a new phase, not just as a frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland but between the UK and the EU. Precisely what the consequences will be of this change remain to be seen. Perhaps they will ultimately lead to the border disappearing altogether, with the advent of the united Ireland. For the immediate future, however, the fears and concerns of those along the border have hardly been allayed by recent events.

Rees-Mogg did end up visiting the area. A few months after displaying his apparent indifference to the people most affected by the threatened recreation of a hard border, he appeared in a Sky News report where he was introduced to some of them. In the report, he typically insisted that it was doubtful that anything about his visit would change his mind. Yet change is coming nonetheless. And it will be left to those living in those towns and villages along the 310 mile to cope with it.

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