I shared the scepticism of others about the #IrelandsFuture event, that it seemed a bit pointless having an event were everyone agreed with each other. But I went along to check it out and I was glad I did.
The turnout was astonishing. The hall in the Waterfront conference centre has a capacity of 2000, and it was full. We are happy when we get 100 in the Dark Horse for our Slugger events so to see so many people gather for a political event was an impressive sight and a credit to the organisers.
I had the preconceived notion that the event was just a Sinn Fein proxy campaign and while all the SF top brass were all there, there was also a wide range of people from all sections of society as well as quite a few SDLP politicians. It was particularly interesting to see so many from the professional classes, who traditionally do not like to be so public about political matters.
I don’t think the DUP fully appreciate what a Pandora’s box they have opened by backing Brexit. For a lot of nationalists, a United Ireland was a vague aspiration, like eradicating poverty or world peace. The surveys always show that nationalists are generally happy enough in the Union; they had gotten used to the free NHS and next day Amazon deliveries. But Brexit has changed all this and has awakened the emotions of even the most moderate nationalists. The basic mood in the hall yesterday was f*ck this Brexit sh*t we want an All Ireland.
Over the past few decades, there has been a Unionist brain drain leaving all those nationalist graduates that Queens and UU are churning out every year an easy path up the ladder of the various professions and levers of power in Northern Ireland. Before Brexit most of these people were quite happy with the status quo in Northern Ireland. They had good jobs, good schools for their kids and a high standard of living. Why rock the boat? But with Brexit they are suddenly very angry and energised for change.
An example to illustrate. Twenty years ago Queens was mired in controversy over the playing of God Save The Queen at its graduation ceremonies. Queens was also being hauled over the coals about its employment discrimination practices. Roll forward 20 years and the biggest reaction from the crowd yesterday was to Professor Colin Harvey, one time Head of the School of Law and an all-around big cheese in the Academic world. To quote from his speech: “We will not apologise – and we will not be seeking permission – for seeking to get rid of the border in Ireland and seeking to unite our own country!”. Wow.
Another vibe in the room yesterday was that people are fed up with their culture being disrespected and mocked. To go one further they are fed up with their children being mocked. Many professionals send their kids to Irish language schools and all that curry my yoghurt stuff is putting their backs up no end. Put simply: They will just not do a deal with Unionists who do not respect them.
Another worrying aspect for Unionists is there is very little appetite to get Stormont back. To quote Allison Morris from our end of year review in December, “Nationalists are so over Stormont, all the focus now is on a New Ireland.”
The only way Northern Ireland can survive in the Union is for soft nationalists to give their consent. That Arlene Foster and the DUP have so alienated the nationalist middle classes is a real turning point. To quote Yeats: ‘All changed, changed utterly’. We are living in very interesting times indeed.
I help keep the good ship Slugger afloat by managing the business and techy stuff.