Future Ireland: Where Can The North Thrive?

For some masochistic reason, I feel umbilically connected to the soil and the soul of this island.

Especially this messed up northern corner of it.

But there is no point in drawing borders in the soil, and driving flags into it, when it only has 60 more years of harvests left to give.

It occurred to me recently that the best case scenario for Northern Ireland, as things stand, is to have a mediocre Brexit, for Stormont to limp back, for orange and green politics to trundle along – outraged, binary, stuck. To ditch the petition of concern, squeak through equal marriage, and get some kind of limited abortion rights. To keep passing on cuts with a two year delay.

Surely we can do better than this?

My kids will be in their 60s when the soil packs in, unless something changes. They’ll have lived lives very different to mine. Digital, virtual lives. Entwined with artificial intelligence. They may not go to university like I did – who could afford it? Their work may be even more precarious than mine, if there is much work left for humans to do. Many of their friends will be refugees, or refugees will live behind a wall. Because that is what our current geo-politics and climate tipping-point suggest. 

I see my job as training my kids up to navigate this brave new world, to help the heart of it beat, or at least not to be the assholes. 

Literally the only question we should be asking in Northern Ireland right now, is how can we face this uncertain future best? How can future people live well here?

I am taking our overlapping identities and relationships here as given. We, as people, are so much less divided than our politics would have you think. Most of us actually like each other. We want to know each other better, and want pretty similar things for our kids’ futures.

I know it may not always look like this. That it benefits political parties to play identity politics. And that we’re numb to it now. But we actually don’t have time for it.

I’ve always been an armchair Dissenter. A Protestant who feels Irish and who wants Irish unity. But something has shifted. I now feel the need to say it out loud.

It’s not for unity’s sake. Or because I think Irishness is a superior identity. Or Brits out. Because there are many things I like about Britain. And part of me is that Brit.

It’s because this place of Northern Ireland has ceased to make sense to me. We are terminally neglected, happily corrupt and economically sinking. Our divisions have been artificially frozen by our governance. We exile many of our young, our creatives, our queers, our entrepreneurs, our thinkers. And who could blame them for going?

My politics is shaped by a desire for grassroots decision making. And so a lot my hope for Irish unity is about having a smaller unit of democracy. People being bigger fishes in a smaller pond. Inside a state that vaguely gives a damn.

It’s rooted in observing how Ireland has learned to have civic conversations with itself over the last decade. Its openness to changing its mind.

Some of it is environmental – seeing the island of Ireland as an ecological unit in a likely future of food and energy insecurity.

Some of it is Brexity. I want my EHIC card dammit. To be part of something outward looking rather than inward.

There are deep problems and ironies embedded in this kind of argument for unity. The Irish state is as broken as other European states. Like the UK, Ireland is big on corporate tax breaks and riven with deep inequalities. Climate chancers. No-one I know can afford to live in Dublin. Every air punch for an Irish success is followed by a face-palm.

But Ireland is changing. It’s a small open democracy, economically nimble, capable of grown-up civic dialogue and rapid cultural adaptation, as its current disentanglement with Catholicism shows.

There is people power afoot. The Citizens’ Assembly, referendums, the water charges movement, housing activism, divestment from fossil fuels. Successive Irish governments may not like it, but they’re slowly being forced to respond.

There are also positive things happening in the British left, that could change a lot of lives. But if there’s one thing we agree on in Northern Ireland, it’s that we’ll never be a priority for Britain. Brexit – estrangement by a thousand cuts – makes this clearer than ever.

But there is no point in talking about the future of Northern Ireland if we are not having a conversation about why we want unity or the union. If and how things could be better. We need to shape a conversation that places Ireland in the future not just the past. To talk about industrial strategies, ageing populations, renewables, housing co-ops, automation, mental health, food security, privacy and surveillance, universal basic income…

At this crossroads, unity makes sense to me. But ultimately we need to decide what will help future people thrive.

We can talk about who owns the soil all day long, but I’d prefer to know if anything will actually be able to grow in it.


*We’ll be running an open-ended series of articles on the topic of Future Ireland: Alternative Conversations about Unity and the Union over the coming months. More info coming soon.

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