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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

The Unraveling of the British / Celtic Union?

Are the ties between England and the Celtic lands which, collectively form the United Kingdom, fraying?
Are the ties between England and the Celtic lands which, collectively form the United Kingdom, fraying?

Welcome to the finale! The past two posts have examined the question: Is it possible to be both Celtic and British? To read part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

Today’s post is the third and final part of the series. I ended last week’s post with the comment: So the Celts found themselves British—whether they wanted to be or not. This week’s post looks at efforts by the Celts (and even some British) to end the union, or more specifically, to break away from England. Now, there’s quite a long history of such attempts, enough to fill books. So I’m just going to mention a handful of events from the 20th century then discuss current break-from-Britain movements.

First up is a Celtic land I haven’t spent much time on during this series: Ireland. Again, the English-Irish relationship has a long, complex history. The essential thing you need to know (if you don’t already) is that in the 13th century, Pope Adrian IV gave the English king, Henry II, his blessing to invade Ireland. Why? He said it was so England could help improve the morals and virtues of the (apparently) depraved Irish. This, he added, was in the interest of “the advancement of the Christian religion.” I’ll leave a reflection on the irony to you. At any rate, the invasion and occupation of Ireland didn’t end with Henry II. It continued for centuries. The Irish were not happy about the English coming and killing their people, taking their land, enacting laws which kept the natives in a cycle of poverty, and so forth. So they responded periodically with violent uprisings. There is only one that I’m going to discuss: The Easter Rising of 1916. In itself it was an utter failure but it was the catalyst to a series of events which led, ultimately, to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.

The Easter Rising

A wreath-laying ceremony commemorating those who died as a result of the Easter Rising.
A wreath-laying ceremony commemorating those who died as a result of the Easter Rising.

When: Easter Monday, 1916

Where: Dublin, Ireland

Why: to establish Irish independence from the UK.

What happened: a group Irish nationalists (about 1,600 in number) took over the post office in Dublin and declared the establishment of the Irish Republic. The UK government responded to this declaration with violent force. The uprising was put down in a week. In the end, over 2,000 people were dead or injured. The leaders were arrested and, on May 15th, they were executed. Initially, the general response of the Irish populace was anger and resentment at the death, destruction, and disruption caused by the uprising. However, the harsh response of the British government quickly changed Irish attitudes. The British instituted martial law and kept it in force until the autumn of 1916. More than 3,000 Irish who were suspected of directly or indirectly supporting the rebellion were arrested. Of those, 1,800 were transported to England and imprisoned without trial.

All of this led to an anti-British sentiment among the Irish and gained support for the cause of independence. Two years later, there was an election for members to be sent to the UK Parliament. Sinn Fein, a pro-republic party, won the majority of seats. The newly elected members protested by refusing to sit in the parliament in Westminster. Instead, they met for a single session in Dublin in 1919 and declared Irish independence. Concurrently, the Irish Republican Army instituted guerilla warfare against the British government in Ireland.

In July of 1921, a cease fire was declared. This was followed by the signing of a treaty which called for the creation of the Free State of Ireland, a self-governing member of the British Commonwealth. On Easter Monday, 1949, that free state became the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign nation completely independent of the UK.

Map of Ireland with Northern Ireland marked with the British flag.
Map of Ireland with Northern Ireland marked with the British flag.

The Six Counties and Partition

But neither the free state nor the republic included all of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is comprised only of 26 of the 32 counties which existed at the time of the treaty. Six counties in the northern part of the island remained part of the UK. These six counties are known as Northern Ireland, an area which most readers will know suffered considerable unrest and violence during the 20th century.

In December of 1920, before the Free State of Ireland was even established, the partition of Ireland was created by the Government of Ireland Act, passed into law on December 23, 1920. A hard border was set up between the six counties in the north and rest of Ireland. The border was 310 miles long and had barbed wire and watch towers manned by soldiers with machine guns. This border and the requirement of having to go through border checks in order to travel between the north and the south continued until the signing of the Belfast (aka Good Friday) Agreement on April 10, 1998. As a condition of this agreement, the hard border was dismantled. Since both the Republic of Ireland and the UK were a part of the EU by that time, movement between Northern Ireland and the republic became unencumbered and the Irish became used to having one Ireland.


The threat of re-establishing a hard border in Ireland arose in 2016 when the UK voted to leave the European Union. Working out the details of that divorce was no easy matter and the UK found itself embroiled in a political migraine for the next few years. One of the biggest causes of that headache was the question of what to do with the border between Northern Ireland and the republic. The Republic of Ireland had no intention of leaving the EU. Since Northern Ireland was a part of the UK, however, and the UK was leaving the EU, the inspection of goods moving between the UK and Ireland suddenly became a problem. The idea of re-constructing a physical border with checkpoints was frequently floated and hotly debated. Really hotly debated. The Northern Irish had gotten used to not having a physical border and they didn’t want one back. Some people expressed their opposition to the idea violently.

In addition to the border issue, the Northern Irish weren’t happy about the idea of leaving the EU either. In the 2016 referendum on the issue, the people of Northern Ireland had voted with a nearly 56% majority to remain in the EU.

The poster above alludes to Brexit headaches arising from the N.I. border issues as well as 800 years of British occupation.
The poster above alludes to Brexit headaches arising from the N.I. border issues as well as 800 years of British occupation.

As of February, 2021, the idea of bringing back a hard border has been dispensed with and a special trade protocol has been established so that goods coming from Great Britain are checked in Northern Ireland then moved without a further check down to the republic. Nevertheless, the experience of free movement throughout the whole of Ireland and the Northern Irish preference to remain in the EU have brought about real consideration of N. I. leaving the UK and joining the republic. Will a united Ireland, completely free of Britain, come about? Polls on the topic and the election of an increasing number of nationalist politicians who support a united Ireland make it impossible to dismiss the idea. Still, realistically speaking, it would be economically challenging. Due to post length constrictions, I’ll leave it up to you to research why.


The Scots also have given serious consideration to the idea of breaking with Britain and establishing an independent Scotland. In 2014, they held a referendum on the issue. With 84% of eligible voters showing up at the polls, the result was 53% for staying in the United Kingdom and 45% for an independent Scotland.

As with Northern Ireland, Brexit changed things. In 2016, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU. Only 38% voted in favor of leaving it. Even so, the UK decided to exit the EU. The Scots were not pleased and the years of debates in Parliament only made things worse. MPs and everyday Scots felt their voices were ignored by Westminster. Dissatisfaction and resentment grew and, in March of 2017, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, called for a second referendum on Scotland’s independence. Theresa May, the UK’s Prime Minister, denied the request, saying it wasn’t “the right time.”

In 2019, the Scottish Nationalist Party, with independence for Scotland a main part of their manifesto, won 48 of 59 seats in Parliament. Sturgeon said this demonstrated a “strengthened mandate” for a second referendum, and she made a formal request for one to the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He turned her request down, saying the first vote for Scottish independence was “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

A sea of Scottish flags and a few YES signs are carried at a 2018 rally to call for Independence for Scotland.
A sea of Scottish flags and a few YES signs are carried at a 2018 rally to call for Independence for Scotland.

Whether or not Scotland actually needs Westminster’s approval to hold a vote on an independent Scotland is a matter for debate and has not been tested in court. Still, Sturgeon prefers to obtain it in order to allay any question about the legality of the results of a second referendum.

In the meantime, a grassroots movement to force a second referendum is growing. More than 20 polls taken over the past year indicate that, if the referendum were held today, independence for Scotland would win by a good majority.


What about the third Celtic nation in the United Kingdom? During the Brexit tensions, Welsh MPs in Westminster made noises about independence but, as of yet, there has been no official movement in that direction.

So what do you think? Will the United Kingdom hold together or are the Celtic fringe ready to stop being British?

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post. Please LIKE and SHARE. To SUBSCRIBE for FREE, just click on the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of the page.

Note: I'll be off next week. The next post will be on March 19th. Have a Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Slan go foil!

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