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.