Northern Ireland turns 100 amid renewed worries tied to Brexit

Youths in the dark in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Nationalist youths face a police line blocking a road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 8, 2021. Protestant and Catholic youths in Belfast hurled bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs at police and each other.
(Peter Morrison / Associated Press)

Northern Ireland was created 100 years ago Monday, but the day passed with little fanfare.

Part of the reason for low-key commemorations was the coronavirus, with disease precautions putting a damper on large gatherings. But part of the reason was that few were certain of what exactly to celebrate.

The six counties that make up the island’s northeast quadrant are certainly far more peaceful now than during “the Troubles,” some three decades of violent sectarian conflict that largely ended in the late 1990s. But now a big new question mark hangs over the future of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Brexit — Britain’s exit from the European Union, which took full effect in January — carried Northern Ireland out of the bloc as well. However, it left behind a host of questions about how to demarcate where the EU leaves off and the U.K. begins, a highly charged question on both sides of the sectarian divide.


And the past is never far behind. A bout of street violence in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, in late March and April, though brief, stirred memories of the bloody events of decades past, and illustrated the simmering tensions that remain today.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II both used the same phrase — “complex history” — to commemorate Northern Ireland’s creation. While Johnson is a political leader known for hyperbole and Elizabeth is a monarch famous for understatement, both were right about that: It’s complicated.

Johnson acknowledged it was not a particularly unifying occasion.

“People from all parts of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and across the globe will approach this anniversary in different ways, with differing perspectives,” he said.

The queen, for her part, expressed hopes for “reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding.”

Here is some background about the province that the partition of Ireland brought into being, and what might lie ahead for it.

Why did Northern Ireland, a century ago, become a separate entity from the Republic of Ireland?


Ireland as a whole was ruled by Britain from the 13th century onward, and long struggled to break free. But proximity to Scotland played a role in the destiny of the North. In the 17th century, an organized colonization known as the Ulster Plantation brought thousands of mainly Protestant settlers from southern Scotland, as well as from England, to Ireland’s northeast, which was then largely rural and Catholic.

After the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein declared an Irish republic in 1919, Britain divided the island between what had become the predominantly Protestant northeast and the mainly Catholic remainder to the south and west. Northern Ireland’s formal creation came on May 3, 1921, when the Government of Ireland Act took effect.

But just as with Monday’s centenary, there was little ceremonial pomp surrounding the original date. Most of the hoopla came with the subsequent opening of Northern Ireland’s new parliament in June of 1921. Britain’s King George V went to Belfast for the occasion, putting a royal seal of approval on the province’s tie to Britain.

What were the Troubles?

Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, facing discrimination in employment, housing and other areas of life, embarked on a civil rights movement in the 1960s, but a harshly repressive response led to escalating violence.

Starting around 1968, the conflict raged for roughly 30 years, devolving into a many-sided civil war fought in civilian neighborhoods. It was propelled by militias on both sides, and by the presence of British forces.

Unionists, mainly Protestants who are loyal to the British crown, wanted Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom, while predominantly Roman Catholic nationalists wanted the province to become part of the Republic of Ireland.


Although the fighting broke down along sectarian lines, historians say it was not a religious conflict per se, but one rooted in deep cultural, social, political and economic divides. Even now, separate social codes govern everything from which sports teams to root for to what to order at a pub.

The Troubles, which cost some 3,600 lives, were largely ended by a painstakingly negotiated accommodation known variously as the Good Friday accords or the Belfast Agreement, struck in 1998 by the British government, the Irish government, and Northern Ireland’s political parties. Under it, the foes agreed to disarm and share power.

How does Brexit threaten this peace?

Because the Republic of Ireland remains in the EU, Britain’s departure from the EU raised the specter of physical checks and infrastructure along the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, across which people and goods travel freely as part of the Good Friday accords. It is now the only land frontier between Britain and the bloc.

Under pressure from the EU, Ireland and the U.S. Congress, Johnson agreed not to undermine the watershed agreement by seeking to make that land border a customs chokepoint for goods between the EU and Britain.

Instead, the border is effectively in the Irish Sea. But Northern Ireland’s unionists, who had been assured by Johnson and other politicians that the province’s status as part of the United Kingdom is inviolable, feel betrayed by this formal division between the province and the British mainland.


New protocols involving Northern Ireland are still being negotiated by Britain and the EU, and to the irritation of the bloc, Johnson pushed the expiration of a grace period on some trade requirements back to October, instead of the end of March as previously agreed.

“We do not trust Boris Johnson’s government,” Manfred Weber, a European parliamentary leader, wrote late last month on Twitter.

Will all this add to pressure for a vote to unite the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Probably not any time soon, experts on the region say. Britain would have to approve the holding of such a referendum, which Johnson’s Conservative government is considered unlikely to do, in part because of its longtime ties with unionists. A change in sovereignty would have to be approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Brexit could give greater impetus to efforts to hold a referendum at some point, regional experts said. While Britons as a whole narrowly voted to leave the EU, Northern Ireland voted to remain in it. Now, unionists’ feelings of betrayal at the hands of Johnson’s government could change the dynamic of a vote on Irish unity.

Among Protestants, a majority in Northern Ireland, there are fears of a loss of culture and status if the island were united. But economic opportunity and EU citizenship would also be attractive to many middle-class professionals.

Robert Savage, the director of the Irish studies program at Boston College, said a vote was probably inevitable at some point, but that even the prospect of one could bring bitter divisions to the fore.


“Say it happens, and 51% say yes, what does that say for the 49 that don’t?” he said. “Then you have a minority that’s going to be alienated.”