The History of Ireland is long and complicated, with various invaders and settlers arriving before Ireland set out on an 800-year struggle for independence from England. In the process of finally achieving independence came another complication - the creation of two separate states on this tiny island. As this event and the current situation continues to mystify visitors, let us try to explain what happened and why two different countries exist as a result of the partition between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Irish Internal Divisions through the 20th Century
The road to a divided Ireland started when Irish kings were embroiled in a civil war and Diarmaid Mac Murcha invited Anglo-Norman mercenaries to fight for them in the 12th century. In 1170, Richard FitzGilbert, better known as "Strongbow", first set foot on Irish soil. Strongbow was smitten with the country and a girl so he married Mac Murcha's daughter Aoife and decided that he would stay for good. The fierce fighter went from hired help to literal king of the castle took just a few steps. Faithful to his homeland, the series of events meant that Ireland was (more or less) under English rule from there on out.
While some Irish arranged themselves with the new rulers and continued on a profitable warpath, others took the road towards rebellion. The distinction between the Irish and the English soon blurred, with the English at home complaining that some of their compatriots were becoming "more Irish than the Irish".
In Tudor times, Ireland officially became a colony. The new territory allowed England and Scotland to deal with overpopulation by sending poorer people. Younger (landless) sons of the nobility were also shipped to "Plantations", establishing a new order on the Emerald Isle.
At the same time, the King of England, Henry VIII, had spectacularly broken with the papacy and the new settlers brought the Anglican church with them. The new religious order was simply called "protestants" by the native Catholics. This is when the first divisions along sectarian lines started. These were deepened with the arrival of Scottish Presbyterians, especially in the Ulster Plantations. Staunchly anti-Catholic, pro-Parliament and viewed with mistrust by the Anglican Ascendency they formed an ethnic and religious enclave.
Home Rule - and the Loyalist Backlash
After several unsuccessful nationalistic Irish rebellions (some led by Protestants like Wolfe Tone) and a successful campaign for Catholic rights, the Irish tried a new strategy. "Home Rule" became the rallying cry of Irish nationalists in the Victorian age. This called for the election of an Irish assembly, which meant electing an Irish government and running Irish internal affairs within the framework of the British Empire. After two attempts, Home Rule was to become reality in 1914 but was then again put aside due to the war in Europe.
Home Rule was not meant with much support from the pro-British minority, mainly centered in Ulster, who feared the loss of power and control. They preferred a continuation of the status quo. The Dublin lawyer Edward Carson and British Conservative politician Bonar Law became voices against Home Rule, and called for mass demonstrations. In September 1912 the movement invited their fellow unionists to sign the "Solemn League and Covenant" in protest. Nearly half a million men and women signed this document, some dramatically in their own blood - pledging to keep Ulster (at least) part of the United Kingdom by all means necessary. In the following year, 100,000 men enlisted in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a paramilitary organization dedicated to preventing Home Rule.
At the same time, the Irish Volunteers were set up in nationalistic circles - with the aim to defend Home Rule. 200,000 members were ready for action.
Rebellion, War and the Anglo-Irish Treaty
The Irish Volunteers came to center stage when they took part in the Easter Rising of 1916. The events of the rebellion and the aftermath created a new, radical and armed Irish nationalism. The overwhelming victory of Sinn Féin in the 1918 elections led to the formation of the first Dáil Éireann in January 1919. A guerilla war waged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) followed, ending in a stalemate and finally the truce of July 1921.
Home Rule had, in the light of Ulster's obvious refusal, been modified into a separate agreement for six predominantly Protestant Ulster counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Derry/Londonderry and Tyrone) and a to-be-decided solution for "the South". This came in late 1921 when the Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State out of the 26 remaining counties, ruled by the Dáil Éireann. This split became the basis of the partition.
If you are getting lost in the complicated history, we have another twist that needs to be introduced. When the Treaty actually came into force, it created an Irish Free State of 32 counties, the whole island. However, there was an opt-out clause for the six counties in Ulster and this was invoked, due to some timing problems, only the day after the Free State came into being. So for about one day, there was a totally united Ireland, only to be split into two by the next morning.
So Ireland was divided, with the agreement of the nationalistic negotiators who had fought for freedom for all of Ireland. While a democratic majority accepted the treaty as the lesser evil, hard-line nationalists saw it as a sell-out. The Irish Civil War between the IRA and the Free State Forces followed, leading to more bloodshed, and especially more executions than the Easter Rising. Only in decades to come was the treaty to be dismantled step-by-step, culminating in the unilateral declaration of a "sovereign, independent democratic state" in 1937. The Republic of Ireland Act (1948) finalized the creation of the new state.
The North Elects a Parliament
The 1918 elections in the United Kingdom were not only successful for Sinn Féin - the Conservatives secured a pledge from Lloyd George that six Ulster counties would not be forced into Home Rule. But a recommendation of 1919 advocated a parliament for (all nine counties of) Ulster and another for the rest of Ireland, both working together. Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan were later excluded from the Ulster parliament. Because of their nationalist leanings, they were deemed to be detrimental to the Unionist vote. This, in fact, established the partition as it continues until today.
In 1920, the Government of Ireland Act was passed. In May 1921, the first elections were held in Northern Ireland and a Unionist majority established the (planned) supremacy of the old order. As expected, the Northern Irish Parliament rejected the offer to join the Irish Free State.
Implications of the Irish Partition for Tourists
Whereas up to a few years ago crossing from the Republic to the North might have involved thorough searches and probing questions, the border today is invisible. It's also virtually uncontrolled, as there are neither checkpoints nor even signs!
However, there are still some implications, for tourists and spot-checks are always a possibility. And with Brexit now taking effect, things might get more complicated.
- Northern Ireland is still a part of the UK, the Republic a separate state - this means that you will have to check British and Irish immigration and visa rules before crossing the border.
- There are two currencies in Ireland - while the Republic uses the Euro, Northern Ireland clings to the Pound Sterling.
- When driving through Ireland you need to remember that road signs are different - especially that speeds and distances are posted in miles in the North, in kilometers in the Republic.
- Check with your rental car company whether you are actually allowed to cross the border - occasionally restrictions apply.
- Though Northern Ireland should not be regarded as a dangerous place, the security situation might call for inconvenient measures from time to time - traffic diversions being the most obvious.
- Prices can vary wildly between Northern Ireland and the Republic - gasoline is usually far more expensive in the North while groceries might be cheaper there.
Plans for the Irish Partition after Brexit
The withdrawal of the UK from the EU (Brexit) officially occurred on January 31, 2020. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is not. Even as Northern Ireland plans to leave the European Union, the Republic will remain a part of the EU. The partition has had a rather porous border, but one risk is that it will become a hard, patrolled border in the future. It remains to be seen how Brexit will influence the partition, if at all.