Why this mother doesn’t want her children returning to Northern Ireland – By Breidge Gadd



I always had the hope in my mind that one day maybe one of my three children (two in London, one in Dublin) might return with their family to live in Northern Ireland.

Over the past year, the last few months especially, I now find myself hoping that they don’t. This change in attitude quite shocks me, a person who over the past 50 years has been impressed with how this country has moved on. All my life, even in the worst times I was always optimistic about the future. Now though, instead of a slow but sure rolling out of the peace process, my head and heart tell me that that carefully crafted process might unravel and worse – we return to turmoil and even violent times .

What has caused such a dramatic change in my mind?  Well, Brexit of course; but not just Brexit. The timing of this referendum for several reasons was in my view, disastrous for Northern Ireland.

How so?  Well, let’s look at the state of things prior to the Brexit vote in June 2016.

At least 30 years into a peace process which first planted the seeds of hope in the 1980s, if not 1970s, Northern Ireland was slowly coming round to the idea of liking itself and even developing a sense of separate identity. The short lived, ill fated political party, NI 21 caught a mood and epitomised a feeling – that we could indeed be both Irish and British – and even culturally and racially different: we weren’t just Irish, nor British, we could name ourselves with some blossoming pride as Northern Irish.

Surveys and polls were beginning to illustrate that more people, the young especially, were happy with the ‘Good Friday’ status quo, and notwithstanding  the Stormont politicians stumbling  from mediocre spat to spat,  in many other ways especially regarding  economic, and social developments, Northern Ireland was moving into the 21st century, as part of a modern Europe. It was becoming a place where others might choose to live because of the rich quality of life and the relatively low cost of living.

This sense of acceptance that Northern Ireland was a part of the UK but everyone living here, as well as being British, could be Irish and European was a critical part of the sense of identity.

While a generation born after the Good Friday Agreement may not have been familiar with its terms, this international treaty’s safeguarding of parity of esteem certainly seemed to satisfy many nationalists and even some republicans who in previous years might have had a vista of a united Ireland – that their Irishness could be nourished here and they could be at ease with the Stormont status quo.

Even with this  growing sangfroid there were always going to be challenging times ahead which would make the next decade or so sensitive, tentative and potentially explosive.

The biggest threat to peace and stability, always present, and irrespective of Brexit, is the inexorable and inescapable demographic change in population in this country.

Northern Ireland since its inception ‘a protestant land for a protestant people’, where the border was drawn in the 1920s to copper – fasten the majority unionist vote of approximately two thirds of the people, has slowly but surely been changing in its population composition so that in a few years time there will be a majority of people who could be described as broadly from the catholic/nationalist community in political background if not current inclination.

Where this ‘middle ground’ given the population change will sit post Brexit is now the looming question?

Two years ago polls and surveys indicated that, as I’ve postulated above, a significant number of that catholic/nationalist population felt at ease with Northern Ireland remaining in the UK – however I believe with one critical underpinning caveat – as long as their aspirations and rights continued to be supported by the GFA.

Now Brexit changes everything. As the Conservative government pulls away from and out of Europe and inevitably develops ‘ourselves alone mentality’ many nationalists are both dismayed and bereft. They grieve for that comfort position so optimistically developed a few short years ago, of being able to regard themselves as Irish, and European, while still living in the UK.

It didn’t help their shock about the Brexit vote to hear and see some unionist politicians crow with delight that Brexit meant the potential for closer links with the mainland and a consequential distancing from the still feared Irish Republic across the border.

Brexit, with all its huge uncertainties about hard/soft borders, freedom of movement not to mention ongoing confusion about the future for trade, tourism and travel, has thrown a total wobble into what NI21 aspired to develop.

The growing nationalist people, soon to become a majority in a straight headcount will recoil at anything that distances them from being Irish and European.

Don’t forget either, that if a border poll were to happen, many would take their cue from the UK referendum and consequent response of strident Brexit leavers; that the majority vote in a referendum (e.g. 51%) requires the will of the majority to be implemented without any consideration of the wishes and fears of a sizeable minority.

It isn’t hard to see the turmoil caused by Brexit and underpinned by the population shifts, which could happen in the immediate years ahead.

Ah, but you might say – opinion polls show that a critical number of ‘nationalists’ would still opt to remain in the United Kingdom.

After Brexit I’m just not so sure. The gloomy picture I foresee could have been prevented, might still not be inevitable, if unionists across all elements of the political spectrum applied brain not brawn to strategy and faced up to the implications in the demographic changes in Northern Ireland.

Given the inevitability of losing their previously inbuilt majority, one could argue that, instead of incessant curmudgeonly verbal sniping at anything perceived as Irish – especially Sinn Fein promoted Irish, it would seem obvious that they should have, and if it’s not too late, still should mount a charm offensive to woo those of a mildly nationalist persuasion into designing this province into a place which retains and continues to develop its essential Northern Irishness. In any future referendum about the border these particular votes will be critical.

Given the deep rooted fear of unionists of an Irish take over, this is an almost impossible ask and task, and one which since Terence O’Neill’s time has caused even far seeing and inspirational unionist leaders to bite the dust.

No-one yet has the courage and the leadership qualities (maybe except Paisley – perhaps with the reasons behind his volte face – his power sharing deal, being his understanding of and preparation for the inevitability of future demographic changes) to unpick the implications of population changes for the future of the British union, and to face intransigent unionists with the probable negative outcomes of hanging on to a past.

Challenging your people, relentlessly filled with fear and dread of that well instilled horrific scenario – the bogey men from Dublin taking over, is not an easy challenge. As far as getting in the votes goes, it is easier to pretend that the future looks just like the past and our place in the UK is secure.

Peter Robinson dipped his toe into this contentious water before he stood down as First Minister, suggesting that it was critical to persuade ‘soft nationalists’ that their future was brighter in the UK.

His successor regrettably while best placed to prepare her people for inevitable change, sometimes appears to stoke the tremors of fear and pretend to supporters that the harder the Brexit, the safer the British connection. The opposite is true.

While many across the political and social range anticipate a difficult scenario unfolding and are prepared to work selflessly at all kinds of peace and reconciliation, it seems to me that the only people who can bring about the positive sea change necessary are the unionist people themselves. Other inputs trying to assuage fears, especially by the Irish government or nationalist parties here, are heard as patronising and false.

It seems to be imperative that the broad unionist family look at all the potential future scenarios honestly and courageously and that they devise intelligent political strategies which might best protect their unionist desires. This would seem to require firstly some acknowledgement of changing demographics and all the implications including the Brexit factor therein.

This future needs a very different story than the one currently being told.

Is unionism up to this challenge? I’d love to think yes but I fear the answer is no.

4 thoughts on “Why this mother doesn’t want her children returning to Northern Ireland – By Breidge Gadd

  1. Breidge,
    Self-proclaimed moderate British Unionists fail to appreciate their stance often contributes to the tensions in our divided society. Instead of respecting our differences as set-out in the GFA (many of us will forever adopt a solely British or Irish nation(al) identity), too many so-called moderates believe that foisting a British colonial hybrid ‘Northern Irish’ identity upon us all is the answer to our problems.

    Would you tell a bisexual or homosexual citizen that they must embrace a heterosexual sense of identity? Would you tell a Muslim or Jewish citizen they must embrace a Christian way of life? Or, should you not instead be advocating that we all learn to respect our differences and nurture a society that accommodates our differences? Our commonality doesn’t need to extend beyond being civilised fellow human beings occupying the same island.

    Suggesting to Irish people that “we weren’t just Irish” is deeply offensive and patronising, as is contending we embrace some ‘separate identity’ and in particular ‘some blossoming pride as Northern Irishness’. No!!! Like many, I will never accord any allegiance to the gerrymandered Northern Ireland state and I am Irish, strictly IRISH, and British Unionists must acknowledge and respect this reality.

    With respect, British Unionists of your mindset are as much of the problem as is the supremacist British Unionist DUP and UUP mindset… genuinely acknowledging, respecting and accommodating our differences is the only way viable forward.

    • The fact we argue about how different we all are is the main issue. Our economy is interdependent and we all generally want the same things in life – health, education and the opportunity to prosper. We are all lucky to be born into a first world country, where we take for granted things that others in the third world do not have- basics such as free education, running water, a welfare state, free healthcare. Wake up people!!!!

  2. Breidge,

    I read this piece a few days ago. I have since heard you on Talkback with William Crawley, alongside (I must say) the rather belligerent David McNarry, who seemed intent on misrepresenting your thoughts. At the other end of the political spectrum we have the comments above mine, referring to you as “a British unionist” – an obvious attempt to get a rise out of you, perhaps for merely suggesting that you (someone from the Nationalist community) had, until recently, been quite content living in a Northern Irish state. Be assured that there are surely many others within the great chasm of the middle ground in Northern Ireland who consider your comments more thoughtfully.

    As someone from the Unionist community who refuses to vote for the UUP or the DUP, I broadly agree with the points you are trying to make. The main problem with Unionist politics is that, until very recently, they have never had to try to convince anyone of their political vision. The hard sell to the unconverted, has never needed to be made. It has always been a numbers game, but more specifically a fight between the different flavours of Unionism to get the most votes from the Protestant portion of the electorate.

    For example, while Nationalists might rightly take umbrage over Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yoghurt” comments or Arlene’s fear of “feeding crocodiles”, such outbursts actually had very little to do with Nationalism per se. They were not directed at Nationalists (because the DUP has never respected you enough to care what you think), but at Unionists as part of the same old trick – to rouse them from their slumber, garden centres or wherever else to vote for the DUP. Despite the continual doom-mongering since the days of a young Ian Paisley, it has always been a given that Unionism wins the fight and gets its way, until now. After a century of strong arm tactics, Unionism will need to begin to learn the art of persuasion if the Union is to survive. Under the current political structures, where extremism within one’s tribe reaps the greatest rewards, I cannot see how or where the requisite leadership within Unionism will emerge. They will continue barking at their own to get the most votes, because that is all they have ever done.

    You point to the demographic trends being in Nationalism’s favour. While this is true, surely the real elephant in the room is the disappearance of the bogey man, the Irish Republic, from the equation. Until 20 years ago, Unionists could rightly point towards the economic backwater south of the border, so steeped in the traditions of the Catholic Church that even things like divorce were outlawed until recent years. Nowadays, in comparison to London, we almost look to Dublin as the progressive voice, even the ‘adult’, in the discussion. Indeed, if I was from the Shankill Road – but also from the LGBT community, and I saw that here, within the United Kingdom, my rights were still being denied, then what exactly would I have to fear from voting for a United Ireland? In the narrowing numbers game that the DUP are intent on playing, such votes could make all the difference.

    Regarding the main theme of your article, the disrespect of ‘Irishness’, you are correct. It saddens me that we continue to see the use of “Irishness” and “Britishness” as the exclusive means of defining ourselves. I’m more than happy to call myself both Irish and British, yet this seems to be anathema for most in Northern Ireland. Personally, my issue with an Irish Language Act is the total lack of detail coming from Sinn Féin about what it would entail, leading me to also believe that the whole venture is really just political opportunism that has spilled over into something that Sinn Féin no longer has the answers to. However, the desire to have an ILA in itself seems quite reasonable to me, if only we could see some details.

    Unionism needs to learn how and when to pick its battles. The blank refusal to even countenance an ILA is baffling. It harms no-one and does not need to dilute anyone’s identity. Their vision for Britishness needs to embrace Irishness, or it is going nowhere. I am similarly reminded of the flags protest at Belfast City Hall. Upping the ante over this trivial issue was absurd, and the subsequent grievance at only being able to fly the Union Jack on designated days (the same number as the rest of the UK) equally so.

    In short, Unionism needs to drop its hang ups on symbolism, if it wants to hold on to its biggest prize – the Union itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *