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Is this the end of binary Northern Ireland?

NI'S LONG AND WINDING ROAD: King George V and Queen Mary arrive for the opening of the parliament of Northern Ireland in Belfast, on June 23 1921 - Credit: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

As Northern Ireland passes a low-key landmark, Irish author and journalist MATT COOPER sees signs that the 100-year-old country is moving away from the tribal scars of its past, even if that complicates its future

One hundred years on from the political partition of the island of Ireland and a Northern Irish identity seemingly is taking hold at last among the people who live in the six counties of Northern Ireland.

This is something that further complicates things when it comes to formatting and agreeing a shared vision for the future of it and the entire island, as well as the future relationship with Great Britain.

Optimistically, it may also serve to reduce the ever present tensions between those who want a United Ireland beyond all else and those who would never agree to the sundering of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

A major opinion poll conducted on both sides of the border last week by Kantor on behalf of the Sunday Independent newspaper in Dublin found that one third of respondents felt that they were British and that 28% described themselves first and foremost as Irish. However, 33% identified as Northern Irish, something that would surely complicate any future plans for changes to existing sovereignty and local power sharing arrangements, if this new centre was to hold or gain ground.

Partition didn’t just divide Ireland into two, one an independent state, the other a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, all done on an illogical, gerrymandered basis that left many nationalists isolated the north of the border and, although largely ignored and then forgotten, unionists on its south.

This mainly unpopular arrangement, although popular with unionists who went from being a minority on the island to a majority on a corner (and some) of it, created all sorts of binary distinctions. People in the North were lumped into boxes with convenient labels attached.

It divided and defined them as British or Irish, unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. Individual identity was defined by membership of one of these collectives. You were one or the other, with seemingly no in between.

One side always had to win, the other lose, at least until power-sharing was belatedly introduced after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 (which included measures for the de-militarisation of the border region and the free movement across it without encumberment).

But if a growing number of people now see themselves as Northern Irish, and don’t believe that their religious affiliation (if they even have one) automatically defines them as British unionist or Irish republican, then who represents them politically? And do those representatives want to encourage some kind of a new status for Northern Ireland instead of remaining within the UK under the direct rule first introduced in 1972, either as part of a 32-county Ireland or as independent state either within or outside the EU?

Brexit, of course, has complicated the situation dreadfully, as now has Covid. A clear majority in the North voted no to Brexit. It did so because among the majority there was a realisation of the trade benefits for exporters, the inflow of funds from the EU and the threat of a restoration of the hard border on the island if the UK left the single market and customs unions as part of Brexit. There would have to be border checks on trade but this would create enormous inconvenience for those travelling across the border on a daily basis.

Northern Ireland’s unique situation was of no interest to almost everyone in Britain during the Brexit referendum debate. Those who tried to bring it up were told that the UK would remain in the customs union and single market even if the vote was lost and that therefore no border checks between North and South would be needed. And even the possibilities had been correctly explained it is likely that few would really have cared, certainly not enough to change their position because of Northern Ireland.

The leaders of the DUP apparently decided to turn Brexit into a ritual of proving their own Britishness ahead of all else. They enjoyed a brief period of proximity to power when Theresa May needed their votes at Westminster after her disastrous 2017 election but decided, ideologically instead of pragmatically, to throw their weight behind Boris Johnson and his hard-Brexit cronies. It was one of a series of inept decisions.

Arlene Foster is yet another woman to pay the price for believing Johnson, who couldn’t be told that he was not to be trusted. Instead the now ousted DUP leader believed him when he said that a trade border down the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland would never happen under a Tory government and most certainly not one under his watch as British prime minster. He promised her something he couldn’t even deliver and inevitably, reality intruded with their fantasies.

Unionists of all shades are now worried and angry. The Irish Sea border is a concession that provides for a bigger one economically – the access to the EU market on better terms than the EU enjoys – but it does play to the idea of a diminution of sovereignty. Northern Ireland appears closer to being split off from the UK, if not now at some stage in the near future.

But has Covid changed that? Northern Ireland suffered a terrible 2020 because of the DUP wish for the Northern Executive to almost slavishly follow the decisions of the Johnson government, one that many outside the UK would describe as inept in its handling of the outbreak of the illness. The total of 125,000 confirmed Covid related deaths in the UK – probably much higher – will go into the history books as a damning indictment of his performance.

For much of 2020 the Republic looked as if it was performing much better than the North in containing the numbers of ill and dead. Many shouted for an all-island approach for the common benefit. But then the Republic was badly hit by the second wave post-Christmas and the relative performances of the vaccination programmes changed many perceptions on both sides of the border.

People of all political and religious persuasions and none in the North were delighted to have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine quickly because of the actions of Johnson’s government. They contrasted this with the much slower roll-out in the Republic, which they blamed to the poor performance of the EU.

This may be a bump in the road to those – almost all in Sinn Fein – who wanted to use Brexit disquiet as an opportunity to push for a United Ireland referendum. A United Ireland received 67% support south of the border in the Kantor poll but just 36% in the North. That latter figure, and a deeper dive into the numbers, suggest that not all Catholics would automatically vote for a United Ireland. NHS services and economics would come into it too.

In the South the expectation is that romance would trump reason. The older cohort surveyed were more worried about the potential for violence. The younger, either ignorant or persuaded by Sinn Fein propaganda that much of the terrorism was justified, don’t seem to have the same cares or fears.

The likelihood is that most people south of the border have not given the idea of a United Ireland much thought because it is not regarded as something that will happen soon. Covid, jobs and other issues grab their attention. And there is not the same level of anti-British reflex either that was more prevalent once in Irish society.

The TV broadcast of the recent Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got more than twice the viewing numbers in Ireland that a major debate on a United Ireland did the following Monday evening. The political programme had Taoiseach Micheal Martin, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald as participants – and it produced a lively and informed 90 minutes – but they couldn’t offer the draw to viewers of that particular turmoil in the House of Windsor.

What does that tell us about attitudes in the Republic of Ireland to the monarchy? Well, those figures suggest many people are a lot more interested in that real life family drama than they would admit publicly, just as they watch TV soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders and follow football teams like Liverpool, Manchester United and Leeds United.

For all the scoffing from those republicans who like to disparage as “West Brits” those interested in what happens in our nearest neighbours, many people in Ireland take a keen interest in cultural, sporting, economic and political Britain. They are not put off by the use of the “West Brits” phrase, one that has a nasty xenophobic undertone, seeking to cast doubt on the Irishness of those who can look beyond our island.

But it doesn’t mean either that Irish people are disinterested in the future of the northern part of the island. The numbers who watched the RTE broadcast of that debate were sizeable for a political programme, capturing a one-third share of all of those watching terrestrial television that evening. The rest will engage when a referendum is put in front of them.

If there is to be a unity referendum it is be hoped the two main lessons of the Brexit referendum will be factored in. One is that a 50% plus one majority is a recipe for creating great tensions with those on the ‘losing’ side, that in any Irish historical context that creates the potential for future violence. The second is that any referendum question asked must be on the basis of a clear outline of what the result will mean.

Northern Ireland’s current border dilemma is a clear example of what happens when things are not thought out or considered in advance.

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