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I’m still a European Unionist… and proud!

A pro-European activist with European flags - Credit: PA

JANE MORRICE is a former deputy speaker of the Northern Ireland assembly and helped to implement the Good Friday Agreement. In a very personal essay, she explains how she sees her British, Northern Irish and European identity, in the wake of Brexit.

A ‘European unionist’ is everything the name suggests. In the broadest sense, it could be anyone who believes in the value of the European Union as a project for peace, prosperity and progress in Europe. It is also someone who respects European citizens’ rights, responsibilities and freedom to live, work and retire in any EU member state. With nearly 450 million people from 27 countries, speaking 23 different languages, the EU extends these rights to European citizens, young and old, living on a continent stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean and from Eastern Europe to the Iberian peninsula. Their national identities are protected, their minority languages are supported and their rights as workers, consumers and citizens are defended by the EU institutions set up to act in their best interest.

In the context of Northern Ireland, the term ‘European unionist’ has different connotations. While the UK has withdrawn from the EU, there is still a majority of people in Northern Ireland who remain committed to the European project. In the 2016 referendum, the vast majority of Irish ‘Nationalists’ in Northern Ireland, who generally believe in a United Ireland, voted to stay in the EU, while a majority of British ‘Unionists’, who believe NI should remain in the UK, voted to leave. However, there were a number from a unionist background who voted for the UK to remain in the EU. These are who I would describe as ‘European unionists’. But, going back to the broader analysis, the term could also define those Northern nationalists who believe their place is within the EU. Confusing, convoluted, complicated perhaps, but the 100 year history of a part of the UK on the island of Ireland which has been in the eye of the Brexit storm since the referendum has never been simple.

The UK decision to no longer be a part of the EU, was the UK’s choice. For me, as a British/Irish/European citizen living in Northern Ireland, it is as much a regret as it is a challenge. The EU brings together European leaders, parliamentarians and civil society representatives in a meeting of minds to shape their collective destiny in a coordinated effort to confront the challenges ahead. Countries as little as Luxembourg, as large as France, as powerful as Germany and as influential as Ireland gather as equals at the EU negotiating table. They may have different voting and representation rights depending on their population but they have similar values based on democracy, justice, human rights and equality. Solidarity is their driving force which explains the UK’s inability to penetrate their unified stance in the Brexit negotiations. If the term ‘European unionist’ applies to one, it applies to all.

A new ‘European unionism’ which unites true believers in the European project, Europe-wide, with those experiencing the negative impact of Brexit in the UK and Ireland and those who regret their decision to vote Leave could be just the tonic to bring an end to toxic euroscepticism which has bedevilled the EU since the UK joined its ranks. With the UK gone, the EU now has the opportunity to consolidate its energy, grow its membership through further expansion to the east and work towards its desired goal of ever-closer union. To this end, the EU must place its citizens at the very heart of the project. Freedom of movement of capital, goods, services and people is important in a single market but the EU is much more than a marketplace. It is a meeting place built from the rubble of world war to bring the nations of Europe together to create the greatest peace project in modern European history.

My decision to self-identify as a ‘European unionist’ is based on my experience of the Northern Ireland conflict, my appreciation of EU support for our peace process and my conviction that, as a microcosm of the European story, Northern Ireland has a vital role to play in the future of Europe. I was a teenager when the Troubles started and hated the violence, sectarianism and bigotry which was a daily part of our young lives. I studied EU affairs at Ulster University starting in 1973, the year we joined the EU, and, as soon as I graduated, ‘escaped’ to continental Europe to work as a journalist in Brussels. I left before Boris Johnson joined the Brussels press corps so didn’t witness his ‘bendy banana’ stories first hand. I returned to work for BBC Belfast as a reporter while the Troubles were still tearing the country apart and went on to represent the European Commission as head of the NI Office in 1992. In that role, it was helping initiate the first EU PEACE programme after the ceasefires which led to my involvement in peace politics. As a founder member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, a cross-community party involved in the Good Friday negotiations, I was elected to the first NI assembly and deputy speaker in 2000.

Having been involved in the politics of peace-building at home and abroad for many years, I remain convinced that the EU continues to have a vital role to play in our peace process. While serving as NI representative to the Brussels-based EU civil society forum (EESC), I specialised in peace building and authored several reports on the key role of the EU in the peace process. My EESC position came to an abrupt end in 2020 when the UK left the EU but thankfully the EU PEACE programme did not. EU support for cross-community and cross border peace building will continue for years thanks to the backing of EU institutions including, in particular, the European parliament. In a career involving many highs and lows, I can say the best day of my life in politics was the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The worst was the day the UK voted to leave the EU.

In the critical years since, I have continued campaigning to reduce the negative impact of Brexit on my country. I have welcomed, as second best, the NI Protocol, which directly reflects the petition I launched after the referendum to keep NI in the EU as part of the UK. This may go some way to offering NI the ‘best of both worlds’ but it is still a far cry from full EU membership. Never one to give up, I support impressive new thinking about potential cooperation between Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland if Scotland should win its independence and move to join the EU. A type of ‘Celtic Association’ could offer the two UK nations which voted to remain, a way back into the EU. It would also give all three nations a significant role in Europe similar to that played by the Benelux countries which were the founding members of the EU.

Given my background, it is should be no surprise that the description ‘European unionist’, fits well with my experience, my areas of expertise and my ambition for my country. In political terms it reflects a conviction that NI is best served, for the time being at least, remaining in the EU as part of the UK. Quite apart from the generous financial support provided by London keeping our health service free at the point of entry and guaranteeing unemployment benefit and a state pension for all, I am reluctant to disown the part of me that has always felt British because of my upbringing, my education and my community background. At the same time, my appreciation for all things European and my conviction that the EU is good for NI, especially its support for our peace process, means I would never want to renounce my European identity.

Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, this is something I will never have to do. According to the GFA, citizens of NI can identify as British or Irish or both which means we can remain European if we so chose.

Since the Brexit referendum, thousands of British citizens living in NI and beyond have activated their right to remain European by obtaining Irish passports. I got my Irish passport before the referendum for a very different reason. I had been thinking of doing so for some time but didn’t until after my husband died. On his sad passing, I received a beautiful letter of condolence from the president of Ireland at the time, Mary McAleese, who had known him through his work in BBC Belfast. Her gesture gave me a real sense of belonging to Ireland, a feeling of being Irish and prompted me to officially embrace my Irish identity.

This dual, even triple, citizenship is unprecedented in the history of the British/Irish isles giving Irish passport holders living in the UK more rights, more protection and more freedoms than their British counterparts. This was an important part of the GFA which served well in the Brexit negotiations leading to the Northern Ireland Protocol. The ‘constructive ambiguity’ which has been described as the master-stroke of the Good Friday Agreement, undoubtedly helped in the Brexit negotiations. In keeping with the notion of constructive ambiguity, the term ‘European unionist’ is both constructively ambiguous and ambiguously constructive. In simpler terms, it ticks all the right boxes for me at least and others perhaps.

I could of course chose to describe myself as Northern Irish. Born and bred in the capital city, I see Northern Ireland as my home and a have a profound love for all things from this corner of the British/Irish Isles. From Van Morrison to Mary Peters, Seamus Heaney to Jimmy Young, the Ulster Hall to the Ulster fry, our history will always be sore but our heroes and our ‘craic’ will always be mighty. If I decided to self identify as Northern Irish, I would be joining the growing numbers of those who have chosen to move away from the traditional ‘orange’ and ‘green’ labels. But, given my story, I feel this does not embrace the fullness of my multi-layered identity. With allegiance to Belfast, Brussels, London and Dublin, I see the term European unionist as the best was to describe my true self. This can however be an ever-moving ebb and flow, depending on political change, and I am no King Canute.

Whatever lies ahead, my heart will always be where my home is and where my son was born. As strange as it may seem, I live on the island of Ireland in a place closer to Scotland than Ireland. That is on the north east coast of the island, 45 miles from the UK/Irish border, 15 miles from Belfast in a town by the sea with a view of Scotland from my front room window, 25 miles away.

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