AI model suggests Troubles in Northern Ireland with a hard border

Justin Lane
5 min readSep 13, 2019
One of the iconic murals of Northern Ireland

Last year, myself and my colleagues published a paper outlining how we could use a new AI approach to better understand intergroup violence. We focused our study on two cases, one of which being Northern Ireland, and what we found has direct implications for Brexit today.

Effectively, the system we devised demonstrated that the tit-for-tat retaliatory style behavior that defined the violence in Northern Ireland for 40 years can be thought of as the result of people protecting the key beliefs that define their group. From a cultural and psychological perspective, one of the key beliefs that defines being “Irish” to the nationalist community is the island of Ireland itself.

While Ireland has been divided for decades, the open border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (in the EU), has been the keystone to the 1998 “Good Friday Agreement” that has kept relative peace between the Catholic and Protestant factions ever since.

The current threat of any form of Brexit that would see a hard border return between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland activates the same threat mechanisms that resulted in violence in our AI model. Put simply, the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a “Sacred Value” to the nationalist community that is taken with religious-like zeal and faith, and any violation of that value will be protected in kind. As the open border with Ireland is related to the very identities of many in Northern Ireland (particularly on the “Republican” side that is generally against London’s effective rule over Northern Ireland), building a hard border on the island increases the likelihood of a resumption of violence on the island — albeit by new agents with (1) a new religious zeal to the removal of a central tenant of their identity and (2) the weight of Irish revolutionary history which extols the necessity of each generation to take up arms against the forces of occupation; often referred to as “blood sacrifice” in the past 1.

The rumbles of a reignition of the Troubles (the term commonly used to refer to the period of violence in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants for the latter half of the last century) can already be heard again as Brexit has drawn closer. This can be seen in the bombing attack in Derry/Londonderry in February, and the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in April by Republican paramilitary organization the “New IRA”, one of several paramilitary organizations that do not acknowledge the cease-fire agreed to in the late 1990s.

Iconic image of “free Derry”

The current state of Brexit, which has been made even more uncertain by the current changes in approach after the departure of Theresa May, have (to an extent) been a rallying cry for the New IRA, who have stated publicly that Brexit is giving them a mechanism for fresh recruitment. Effectively, the new tactics, which have but the non-negotiable topic of a hard border and abandoning the “backstop” that would preserve the Good Friday Agreement, are calling for a return to violence. And because of geographic location, it appears likely that Derry will be the epicenter of these new actions. In the past, the Troubles of Northern Ireland were focused in Belfast, Derry, and Armagh. Belfast is situated on the coast with its closest “border crossing” being the ferry to Scotland, which has itself seen issues with protests in Glasgow related to Irish Unity movements generally. Meanwhile, Derry and Armagh are close to the border with the Republic of Ireland, making it likely that these cities — particularly Derry, which is effectively on the border — will be epicenters for future instability.

For many, this is an immensely important issue, that is not given the weight it deserves. However, our computer simulations suggest that there could be significant personal, cultural, or financial impacts related to how Brexit effects Northern Ireland. For example, Ireland has become a home to many of the world’s multinational companies because of its tax rates, English speaking population, cultural heritage, and access to the EU (the world’s largest single market); this is particularly true for American companies it would seem. As such, any instability in the Northern part of the island is likely to have repercussions for the rest of the island, bringing into question the stability of any investments in areas such as Dublin, which have increasingly situated themselves as tech hubs for American multi-nationals in the sector, and for financial companies who are utilizing its location for beneficial tax arrangements in interaction with other countries. Instability in the North puts all the advancements associated with peace and economic stability of this into question.

1. Heaney, J. Chesterton, Pearse, and the Blood Sacrifice Theory of the 1916 Rising. Stud. An Irish Q. Rev. 103, 307–317 (2014).

* I’d also like to add a special acknowledgement of thanks to Dr. Michael J. Gantley for thoughts on an earlier draft of this piece.



Justin Lane

I'm a researcher and consultant interested in how cognitive science explains social stability and economic events. My opinions are my own and only my own.