Is Ireland a part of Great Britain? And more related questions...

Ireland belongs to England? Ireland is not in the EU since Brexit, isn't it? There is a war with Northern Ireland going on? There are many interesting theories about the Emerald Island in the Atlantic - in this article we want to shed some light on them. Let's start with the status quo:

The Republic of Ireland is not part of Great Britain

The island of Ireland is home to two separate countries. In the north-east of the island of Ireland there is a relatively small area which is not an independent state, but belongs to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a semi-autonomous area - that is Northern Ireland. The vast majority of the island of Ireland belongs to the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is an independent and free state and a member of the EU. Since Great Britain and Northern Ireland left the EU as part of the Brexit, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has become the EU's external border since January 2021.

Tower in Londonderry Tower in Londonderry

Historically, however, this has not always been the case. The island of Ireland has had to endure numerous invaders: Celts, Vikings, Normans, Anglo-Saxons and English - the list of conquerors is long and Irish history is full of wars and occupations. But let's start in the more recent past and shed some light on the Northern Ireland conflict:

Is there a war in Ireland?

There is currently no war on the island of Ireland, nor is there any unrest. While Ireland is one of the safest places to travel in Europe and there is no unrest in Northern Ireland either, it was a very different story in Northern Ireland in the 1970s to 1990s: many of us remember violent unrest reported in the news in the 1970s and 1980s -that was the Northern Ireland Conflict:

Londonderry City Wall near Tower Museum Londonderry City Wall near Tower Museum

The Northern Ireland Conflict:

In the Northern Ireland conflict, Irish-born Catholic republicans sought the secession of Northern Ireland from Britain, and the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.  The English and Scottish protestant unionists, on the other hand, tried to ensure that Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The conflicts escalated into civil war-like power struggles that were violently fought out over many years, from 1969 to 1998. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 finally ended the violent clashes.

Guitar Player in Londonderry Guitar Player in Londonderry

Why Brexit is so difficult to implement in Ireland: 

Due to the recent Brexit, Great Britain, including England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland left the EU. As a result of Brexit, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has become the EU's external border as of January 2021. This has revived the discussion about a possible unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to some extent. The discussion is now largely peaceful, although concerns about a resurgence of violent unrest remain in Northern Ireland.

The two Irish countries have traditionally been very close neighbours. A border is physically hard to even see and the crossing is completely free and unhindered. Northern Irish work in Ireland and Irish work in Northern Ireland. In addition, there are numerous trade relations in both directions. Implementing an EU external border between the two countries would be an organisational tour de force and would put an extreme strain on the relationship between the two countries. It could also provoke possible unrest on the part of the Catholic Northern Irish who would like to see a reunion with the Republic of Ireland.

Houses in Londonderry Houses in Londonderry

In order to prevent renewed unrest in Northern Ireland, special regulations for the implementation of the EU's external border on the island of Ireland were agreed. According to the agreement, the customs border is to be executed outside Northern Ireland, at sea. However, Northern Ireland finds it difficult to implement a customs border at sea, which would then be between Northern Ireland and England and Scotland, because Unionists, who are loyal to England, fear that this would split them off too much from England finally.

And so the implementation of the EU's external border on the island of Ireland or somewhere at sea off the island, which became necessary as a result of Brexit, has still not been satisfactorily resolved and implemented. This is how the long-ago Northern Ireland conflict casts its long shadows into the present.

Pub in Londonderry Pub in Londonderry

Was Ireland once a British colony?

Britain did indeed dominate Ireland in various forms over several centuries. For example, Ireland was last under British rule as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1801 to 1921. In the Irish Wars of Independence of 1919-1921, Ireland forcibly broke away from British domination and in 1922 proclaimed the Free State of Ireland, to which 26 of the 32 Irish Counties belonged. 

The Free State of Ireland, but still part of the British Commonwealth, eventually became the present Republic of Ireland in 1949, finally severing all British ties. The remaining 6 Counties in the province of Ulster remained with Great Britain and became the semi-autonomous British province of Northern Ireland in 1921.

Historic Guild Hall in Londonderry Historic Guild Hall in Londonderry

Thus, the independence of Ireland, had also led to the division of Ireland. But why did today's Northern Ireland remain with Great Britain?

What is it all about Protestants and Catholics - and was the Northern Ireland conflict a religious war?

These denominational issue goes back to England's power politics in Ireland in the 17th century: Since the Christianisation of Ireland in the Medieval Ages, the Irish have been predominantly Catholic. The English denomination is predominantly Protestant. In the 17th century, under English domination, many Englishmen and Protestant Scots loyal to England had been settled in Ireland to better control the ever rebellious Irish.

Londonderry Double Bastion Londonderry Double Bastion

Most of these English and Scots settled in the old province of Ulster in the north-east of the island of Ireland and eventually gained a majority in population there. When Ireland declared its independence from Britain in the course of 1921-2022, these descendants of English and Scottish settlers wanted to continue to belong to their mother country England. As they formed the majority of the population in their counties, these 6 provinces seceded from Ireland and later Northern Ireland was founded, which still belongs to Great Britain today.

Thus, the Northern Ireland conflict was mainly about whether Northern Ireland should belong to Ireland or to Great Britain. It was never really about religious differences.

However, ethnic descent and perceived affiliation to England or Ireland go hand in hand with religeous affiliation and cultural group membership.
Therefore, to this day, people speak synonymously of Unionists, Protestants and Ulster-Scots on the one hand, and synymously of Catholics or Irish on the other hand.

Tourists walking on Londonderry City Wall Tourists walking on Londonderry City Wall

Can you travel safely in Ireland and Northern Ireland on your motorbike trip?

Ireland is one of the safest countries in Europe and you can also take a holiday trip in Northern Ireland without hesitation. As the Republic of Ireland is in the EU, an identity card is sufficient for EU citizens to enter the country. 

The Irish currency is the Euro and road speed limits are indicated in km/h. However, left-hand traffic is the norm throughout the Island, in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. 

As Northern Ireland is no longer in the EU since Brexit, EU citizens should also carry their passport there. Entering Northern Ireland via the open border is completely hassle-free. The Northern Irish currency is the pound and speed indications are in miles per hour (mph).

Irish and Northern Irish people travel completely freely throughout the entire island and we motorbike travellers and tourists can enjoy this freedom of travel just as much.

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Ulrich Knüppel-Gertberg, February 2022

Photo credits:

Data Source: Wikipedia 2022