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A customs border between North and South? What we can learn from Ireland in 1923

Cormac Moore looks at the border erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for 70 years and the effects it had.

IN THE COMING days the UK will make its decision on EU membership. If the UK does decide to leave, there is a real prospect of the re-introduction of customs barriers along the border between the North and South of Ireland, a feature that existed from 1923 until the enactment of the EU Single Market in 1993.

Customs barriers were introduced by the Irish Free State government in 1923 in a bid to achieve fiscal independence from Britain and to generate revenue for the exchequer.

For this fiscal independence to be enforced successfully, it was ‘necessary to surround the Free State with a complete Customs ring’. This posed little problems for goods coming in and out of the main ports. It was the ‘land frontier’ (the boundary between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State meandering some 270 miles from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle) that gave rise to most of the complications.

Pending the findings of the Boundary Commission, the Free State government decided to impose a ‘temporary frontier’ along the boundary line. This ‘temporary frontier’ would last for almost 70 years.

The customs barrier

The decision to introduce customs barriers was announced in late February 1923 to be enacted just weeks later, on April 1st, leaving very little time for people and businesses to prepare.

In practical terms, the importing and exporting of merchandise (other than farm produce) across the border was prohibited except through designated routes and at designated times.

Irish Free State customs certificate for a cake exported Irish Free State customs certificate for a cake National Library of Ireland National Library of Ireland

People wishing to move merchandise across the border had to submit a carrier’s report to customs officials where the actual goods were tracked against the documented amount and the relevant fees were then gathered.

Although there was free movement of people across the border, those who crossed had their person and personal effects examined to prevent smuggling.


There was widespread disapproval of the decision North and South, particularly from those closest to the border. Business groups such as the Chambers of Commerce and the Dublin Mercantile Association vehemently opposed the decision, calling it a ‘suicidal policy’, claiming it would lead to dire economic consequences.

One Dundalk distillery put all of its 150 employees on notice, their employment to be terminated on April 1st unless the customs taxes proposed were modified.

It was generally felt that the new customs barrier would lead to an increased cost of living for consumers, considerable confusion and lengthy delays in the handling of traffic.


As well as being April Fool’s Day, April 1st in 1923 was also Easter Sunday. Traffic was light, and little disruption was caused by the new measures. Once the Easter break was over, the real effects of the customs barrier began to be realised.

The new arrangement led to increased congestion at ports and border controls, with goods awaiting clearance, leading to heavy losses and disruption to businesses. It did result in the closure of some border companies reliant on cross-border trade.

The consequences of the new measures were most keenly felt by the border counties, Donegal economically cut-off from Derry, Down from Louth. Although both jurisdictions opted for a relatively open border, with no barbed-wire entanglement to seal the frontier, it severely curtailed the movements of residents along the border.

Railway services suffered considerable disruptions with some lines zigzagging the border on numerous occasions. Customs examinations were expected for each crossing. A train running from Clones to Cavan crossing the border six times in eight miles.

Common-sense soon prevailed and it was decided to curb the examinations to just the first point of entry beyond the border.

27607186286_91cb7bab7a_o Railway and bridge at Newry National Library of Irleand National Library of Irleand

Lasting impact

Arguably, the greatest impact the introduction of the customs barrier had was to cement partition. Up to this point, partition was seen by many as just an administrative burden – it hardly impacted on the daily lives of people. The introduction of customs barriers made it tangible, made it real.

Movement and trade were now curtailed across the border, impeding long established economic and social ties. It formalised the border, making it easy for the Boundary Commission to retain the status quo in 1925.

The dilemma of re-introducing physical border controls is a real possibility if the UK does decide to leave the EU. It may have similar repercussions to the original customs barrier of 1923 – detrimentally impacting on trade, highlighting the separateness of the North to the South, and re-introducing physical and mental barriers, and with it potentially destabilising the peace process.

Cormac Moore is currently pursuing a PhD at De Montfort University, Leicester and is author of ‘The Irish Soccer Split’ (Cork University Press, 2015) and The GAA V Douglas Hyde: The Removal of Ireland’s First President as GAA Patron (The Collins Press, 2012).

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