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A map showing the Ireland – United Kingdom border.

The Republic of Ireland – United Kingdom border is the international boundary between the sovereign states of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is also referred to as the Irish border (Irish: Teorainn Éireannach) or —on the island of Ireland— simply as the Border (an Teorainn).

The border runs for a total of 360 kilometres (224 miles) from Lough Foyle on the northern edge of the island to Carlingford Lough in the east on the Irish Sea, and is the only land frontier in either Ireland or the United Kingdom. In common with many international borders in the European Union, it is very inconspicuous and open by world standards. While both countries are outside the European Union's Schengen Area, they do share a common travel area resulting in an essentially open border.


Establishment: secession and partition

The border was created in 1921 under the United Kingdom Parliament's Government of Ireland Act of 1920, legislating for Home Rule in Ireland, with separate parliaments for Southern Ireland and what became Northern Ireland.[1] Six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland were assigned to Northern Ireland, and the rest of the island of Ireland to Southern Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, which led to the creation of the Irish Free State (a Dominion established for the whole island of Ireland on 6 December 1922), retained the 1920 border as a provisional frontier.

Originally intended as an internal frontier within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the border became an international frontier in December 1922 when the Parliament of Northern Ireland exercised its right to opt out of the Irish Free State. The Irish Free State was largely independent of the United Kingdom from its creation, with this status being formalised by the adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. An Irish Boundary Commission met to draw a border between the two jurisdictions, based on the demographic make-up in the north of Ireland (including the counties now in the Republic of Ireland). However, its recommendations were not favoured by either side and the boundary was agreed formally, without changes from the 1920 demarcation lines. The Boundary Commission Report has never been published.

The Irish Free State was succeeded by a new state, Ireland (Irish: Éire) in 1937 which, eleven years later, formally declared that it was a republic under the Republic of Ireland Act 1948.

Customs and identity checks

Customs controls were introduced on the frontier shortly after the establishment of the Irish Free State. These controls were maintained, with varying degrees of severity, until 31 December 1992 when the European Single Market came into effect. There are no longer any operational customs posts along either side of the border.

Whilst it has never been necessary for Irish or British citizens to produce a passport to cross the border, during the 1970s troubles, security forces regularly asked travellers for identification. Smaller border roads were cratered at the border to prevent people crossing; a list of "approved roads" was drawn up. In recent times (since the early 1990s) such controls have not been in operation on the border and the craters have been filled in.

In October 2007, details began to emerge of a United Kingdom government plan that might end the Common Travel Area encompassing the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (and also the Isle of Man and Channel Islands) in 2009, possibly creating an anomalous position for Northern Ireland in the process.[2] In a statement to Dáil Éireann, the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern assured the House that "British authorities have no plans whatsoever to introduce any controls on the land border between North and South. I want to make that clear. All they are looking at is increased cross-border cooperation, targeting illegal immigrants."[2] This immediately raised concerns north of the border. Jim Allister, a former Democratic Unionist and then Member of the European Parliament told The Times that it would be "intolerable and preposterous if citizens of the UK had to present a passport to enter another part of the UK".[2]

Possible reinstatement of border controls announced

In July 2008, the British and Irish governments announced their intent to resume controls over their common border and the Common Travel Area in general. Each proposes to introduce detailed passport control over travellers from the other state, where travel is by air or sea.[3] However, the land border will be 'lightly controlled'.[4] In a joint statement, Jacqui Smith, the British Home Secretary, and Dermot Ahern, the Irish Justice Minister, said:

It is crucial that our two countries work closely together to ensure our borders are stronger than ever. Both governments fully recognise the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Both governments reaffirm that they have no plans to introduce fixed controls on either side of the Irish land border.[3]

The Times reports that another consultation paper is to be published in the autumn [of 2008] on whether people travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom should be subject to further checks.

One proposal is expected to suggest extending the electronic borders scheme, requiring travellers from Northern Ireland to provide their personal details in advance. This would mean residents of one part of the UK being treated differently from others when travelling within the country, something to which Unionists would object.[3]

The Troubles

The Troubles in Northern Ireland required that attempts were made from the early 1970s until the late 1990s to enforce border controls. Many smaller cross-border roads were cratered or blockaded with the intention of making them impassable to regular traffic. Bridges were also destroyed to prevent access at unauthorised border crossings (known officially as "unapproved roads"). In particular, the border area in south Armagh was dominated by British Army surveillance posts. Despite these measures, the border was simply too long and had too many minor access roads to enable control of the majority of cross-border movements. In any case, authorised crossing-points on the border remained open to civilian traffic in both directions at all times although vehicles and their occupants were subject to detailed searches while some crossing points were closed to vehicle traffic at night when customs posts were unstaffed.

Difficulty in patrolling parts of the border and large taxation/currency differences (particularly during the 1980s) led to widespread smuggling. However, greater European integration has led to roughly similar tax rates on most items and easing of restrictions on cross-border trade. Smuggling nowadays is mostly limited to fuel, livestock and a seasonal trade in illegal fireworks (which are strictly regulated in the Republic[5]).

While it still exists, the border now creates fewer impediments than before. This has been mainly due to the Common Travel Area between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as a sharp reduction in terrorist activity. European integration has also played a part. Following the Northern Ireland peace process, military surveillance has been substantially scaled down.

Border settlements

The following cities, towns and villages are located on the border or not far from it (listed from Lough Foyle to Carlingford Lough):

Since ferry serives between Omeath and Warrenpoint have recently resumed (and the recently proposed construction of a new bridge) it is hoped that there will be revived interaction with the other side of the lough since these two towns are 20 km (13 miles) apart by road.

Ongoing maritime border demarcation dispute

The exact division of territorial waters as between Northern Ireland and Ireland was a matter of some controversy from the very outset. Section 1(2) of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 defined the respective territories of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland (Southern Ireland being the territory of the modern-day Irish state) as follows:[7]

...Northern Ireland shall consist of the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry, and Southern Ireland shall consist of so much of Ireland as is not comprised within the said parliamentary counties and boroughs.

At the time of that Act, both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were to remain parts of the United Kingdom. Perhaps because of this, the Act did not explicitly address the position of territorial waters although Section 11(4) provided that neither Southern Ireland or Northern Ireland would have any competence to make laws in respect of “Lighthouses, buoys, or beacons (except so far as they can consistently with any general Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom be constructed or maintained by a local harbour authority)”.

When the territory that was Southern Ireland ultimately became a separate self-governing dominion outside the United Kingdom known as the Irish Free State, the status of the territorial waters naturally took on a significance it had not had before. Northern Ireland's Unionists were conscious of this matter from an early stage. They were keen to put it beyond doubt that the territorial waters around Northern Ireland would not belong to the Irish Free State. In this regard, Captain James Craig, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland put the following question in the British House of Commons on 27 November 1922 (the month before the establishment of the Irish Free State):[8]

Another important matter on which I should like a statement of the Government's intentions, is with regard to the territorial waters surrounding Ulster. Under the Act of 1920, the areas handed over to the Governments of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland respectively, were defined as the six Parliamentary counties of Northern Ireland and the twenty-six Parliamentary counties of Southern Ireland. I understand there is considerable doubt in the minds of lawyers and others as to whether these Parliamentary counties carry with them the ordinary territorial waters, extending three miles out from the shore. It has been asserted in some quarters that the Parliamentary counties only extend to low water mark. That has been exercising the minds of a good many people in Ulster, and I shall be glad if the Government in due course will inform the House what is their opinion on the subject and what steps they are taking to make it clear..... Am I to understand that the Law Officers have actually considered this question, and that they have given a decision in favour of the theory that the territorial waters go with the counties that were included in the six counties of Northern Ireland?

In response the Attorney General, Sir Douglas Hogg, said that “I have considered the question, and I have given an opinion that that is so [i.e. the territorial waters do go with the counties]".

However, this interpretation that the territorial waters went with the counties was later disputed by Irish Governments. A good summary of the Irish position was given by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Jack Lynch, during a Dáil debate on 29 February 1972:

...[W]e claim that the territorial waters around the whole island of Ireland are ours and our claim to the territorial waters around Northern Ireland is based on the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. This Act is so referred to in the 1921 Treaty that the Northern Ireland which withdrew from the Irish Free State is identical with the Northern Ireland defined in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, and defined as consisting of named counties and boroughs. It is, I think, common case between us that in English law the counties do not include adjacent territorial waters and, therefore, according to our claim these territorial waters were retained by the Irish Free State.

A particular dispute arose between the Government of the Irish Free State of the one part and the Northern Ireland and UK Governments of the other part over territorial waters in Lough Foyle.[9] Lough Foyle lies between County Londonderry in Northern Ireland and County Donegal in the then Irish Free State. A court case in the Free State in 1923 relating to fishing rights in Lough Foyle held that the Free State’s territorial waters ran right up to the shore of County Londonderry.[9] In 1927, illegal fishing on Lough Foyle had become so grave that Northern Ireland Prime Minister, James Craig entered into correspondence with his Free State counterpart, W. T. Cosgrave. Craig indicated to Cosgrave that he proposed to introduce a Bill giving the Royal Ulster Constabulary powers to stop and search vessels on Lough Foyle. Cosgrave asserted all of Lough Foyle was Free State territory and that as such a Bill of that nature would be rejected by the Free State and its introduction would create “a very serious situation”.[9] Cosgrave then raised the matter with the British government.

It appears that the territorial waters generally are no longer disputed between the two states but the territorial dispute between Ireland and the United Kingdom concerning Lough Foyle (and similarly Carlingford Lough) may still not have been settled. As recently as 2005, when asked to list those areas of EU member states where border definition is in dispute, a British Government minister responding for the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs stated: "Border definition (ie the demarcation of borders between two internationally recognised sovereign states with an adjoining territorial or maritime border) is politically disputed [between] Ireland [and the] UK (Lough Foyle, Carlingford Lough—quiescent)"[10] It appears moves have been made on the Irish side to settle the issue. During Dail debates on the Carlingford Fisheries Bill, a contributor to the debate stated that he welcomed "the Bill’s aim of defining the area of jurisdiction over the Foyle."[11] However, it appears that the Carlingford Fisheries Act 2007 ultimately remained silent on the point.

Identifying the border

A bilingual traffic sign in County Louth, in the Republic of Ireland, warning drivers travelling south across the border that metric speed limits are used in the Republic, whereas the United Kingdom uses imperial units.

Unlike other borders in the EU, the Irish border is not officially marked by either government. This can make identifying the border difficult for those unfamiliar with landmarks known to locals as the crossing point. At some crossings, there are signs welcoming visitors to the relevant local government authority district or, occasionally, reminding motorists of the need to ensure that their insurance is valid in the relevant jurisdiction. Generally, signposts in the Republic of Ireland which indicate distances to destinations are bilingual (in Irish and English) and give distances in kilometres while such signposts in Northern Ireland are only in English and give distances in miles. In Northern Ireland placename and street/road name signs are usually (but not always) English only and street/roadname signs are more standardised and extensively used. There are other immediate indicators when crossing the border: differences in the design of road signage and a change in road markings. The hard shoulder in the Republic is marked with a yellow, usually broken, line. The same marking in Northern Ireland is white and usually continuous. In Northern Ireland, roads use A (major) and B (minor) route prefixes, whereas the Republic's route prefixes are N (major, standing for national) and R (minor, standing for regional). Road signs in the Republic of Ireland are mostly black/yellow and diamond shaped (similar to those in North America and Australia) whereas those in the UK are mainly black/white/red triangles or circles (the same as the rest of the European Union).

By rail, there is no immediate sign of crossing the border, but the trackside mileage markers change from Irish-style markers at the 59¾-mile post (from Dublin Connolly railway station) to black-on-yellow markers, common to the rest of the United Kingdom, at the 60-mile (97 km) post, between Dundalk and Newry stations.

Since the adoption by the Republic of metric speed limits, warning signs have been placed on either side of the border to alert motorists to the change to or from miles or kilometres per hour. As the United Kingdom does not use the euro, advertised prices for service stations and shops will change currency on crossing, although many places along the border will accept cross-border currency informally (albeit usually at a rate favourable to the trader).

Other typical signs of crossing a European border are also noticeable. These include subtle differences in the technical standards for materials in road surfaces and pavements, changes in the colour of postboxes (green in the Republic, red in Northern Ireland). Likewise, language differences between the two jurisdictions will mark a change from one to the other. Signs have subtle difference in colouring and fonts.

Mobile phone roaming charges

As in most places, radio signals from the cellular networks on both of the border sides often travel several kilometres across it. This is a source of annoyance to those resident in border areas as roaming charges are incurred with most service providers if the phone connects to the "wrong" network when making or even receiving a call.[12][13] It is believed that one third of mobile phone users in Northern Ireland have been affected by this.[14] Discussion between the relevant communication regulators in the two jurisdictions is under way in an attempt to resolve the issue with Irish operator Meteor abolishing charges for receiving calls in Northern Ireland, once their customers roam on T-Mobile there, and creating a special Northern Ireland roaming tariff for both Post and Prepay customers. O2 Ireland are also introducing an "all Ireland tariff". UK mobile networks have yet to provide this service to their Northern Ireland customers.


  1. ^ The island of Ireland was partitioned into two distinct regions of the United Kingdom, by Order in Council on 3 May 1921 (Statutory Rules & Orders published by authority (SR&O) 1921, No. 533).
  2. ^ a b c Sharrock (2007)
  3. ^ a b c Britain and Ireland agree to tighten border check
  4. ^ Strengtening the common travel area: a consultation paper (PDF) "We are clear that we will not introduce fixed immigration controls on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or on traffic from the Crown dependencies to the UK. However, mirroring activity in the Republic of Ireland, the UK will consider increasing ad hoc immigration checks on vehicles in order to target non-CTA nationals on the Northern Ireland side of the land border."
  5. ^ In both countries there are restrictions on the types which can be used and a licence is required to possess/use fireworks but in the Republic such licenses are almost never issued to private individuals
  6. ^ Picture: N3 Northbound [sic]] (with yellow margin lines) becomes the A46 (with white margin lines and speed limit in MPH. At 54:28:38N,8:05:54W
  7. ^ Section 1(2) of the Government of Ireland Act 1920
  8. ^ Hansard – Commons Debate on Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Bill, 27 November 1922
  9. ^ a b c Division and Consensus By Michael Kennedy, Institute of Public Administration (Ireland)
  10. ^ Hansard report of House of Commons Debate on 13 January 2008
  11. ^ Dáil Éireann - Volume 629 - 14 December, 2006
  12. ^ "Cross-border telecoms issues", Report of ComReg/Ofcom Joint Working Group, 19 January 2005
  13. ^ "Follow O2 roaming move - Dempsey", RTÉ News, Wednesday, 8 February 2006
  14. ^ "Mobile users take border roaming hit", RTÉ News, Wednesday, 19 January 2005

See also


External links

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