Without being clear about their priorities, the British government will only continue to create confusion and resentment in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is somewhere that many on the island of Great Britain have given very little thought since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought peace to the island on the other side of the Irish Sea. We have done Northern Ireland a great disservice by this. I’ve been thinking about Ireland a lot recently for various reasons – Brexit obviously puts things into starker perspective that means we all need to know more about the territory, particularly the fact that Northern Ireland’s unique position on the island of Ireland but outwith the Republic, touches more people than perhaps it might.
My mum, born and raised in Oldham to an English couple, now has an Irish passport because of her heritage. Unfortunately, I missed out on this by one generation, as it was her grandmother that was Irish and that’s the limit to the familial link that the Irish government will recognise. Her family were from the North, and I’ve inherited a certain pale complexion common among Irish people (I got sunburnt in Ireland in April – please hold the applause).
It’s probably unreasonable, but I therefore feel like I have a bit of a stake in Northern Ireland, and have tried to keep up to date with Northern Irish politics possibly more than most, to the extent that I felt I could give myself a pass on knowledge of the topic until Brexit happened. I knew the basics, who the main actors were, and the Good Friday Agreement. Now, I can rant and rave about how the GFA should be sacrosanct and we’ve had at least one government play criminally fast and loose with it lately. Irritating as it may be, this article isn’t about that, however. It’s about something more specific.
I recently met someone from the North, who came from a Catholic family living in a staunchly Unionist community. This person has left Ireland and been away for a good while, though the stories they told made me go into “something must be done” mode, from which I had to calm down.
But one exchange really struck me. Perhaps I am wrong, but it is my genuine belief that the Westminster government has no territorial interest in Northern Ireland. I believe it when it says that it is entirely up to the Northern Irish whether they want to stay in the UK or otherwise, and that as soon as there is a majority in favour of reunification, the government will not seek to stand in its way.
What does the British government actually stand to gain by keeping Northern Ireland? It’s heavily subsidised, difficult and requires a great deal of attention that could be put to other things (look at the present lack of a government in Stormont, which makes direct rule all but inevitable). It makes no sense, strategically, fiscally, or even in terms of international relations, to keep Northern Ireland in the UK, especially if the majority doesn’t want it to. As such I, and I suspect a lot of other British people and politicians, have regarded NI as less a question of politics and more one of demographics. It will happen eventually, and when it does, Northern Ireland will leave with the UK’s blessing and encouragement.
This was not the Irish person’s view. They felt very strongly that the UK sought to maintain Northern Ireland as something approaching a colony come what may. In their eyes, the UK was still exercising its influence on the territory to keep it in the Union despite the wishes of the majority. They were surprised by my perspective, and I hope pleasantly so. For my part, I was also struck by the difference in views, given how much resentment and hostility that misunderstanding is likely responsible for. But it also gave me the realisation that what I believe is the majority view on the island of Great Britain has not really been communicated to communities in Northern Ireland.
Obviously, the Unionist community is as legitimate as any other in Northern Ireland, and I acknowledge for them the Union is not a matter of time, but a matter of survival.
However, until communication about our collective priorities and intentions improves, it would be a falsehood to suggest that Northern Ireland’s future is entirely up to the people of Northern Ireland. If we faced our friends on the island across the Irish Sea truthfully, we would let them know how little we talk about Ireland, rather than keeping them in a limbo of uncertainty and resentment.
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Adam works in the higher education sector and commentates on policy and current affairs.