As the drama in Westminster continues, it’s fair to say that in 2019 and beyond, Northern Ireland’s often petty and tedious politics will be interesting, as an international spotlight passes over old scars and immense change looms once again. At times, it feels like we are back on a familiar shore, where the waves grow bigger and the very sand is moving below our feet.
Brexit, now, is like a meteor landing in the distant sea. Suddenly, many of the defences which the Good Friday Agreement so admirably built risk being overrun: the border largely irrelevant; the comfort of being partners in a common political and economic union with the Republic secured; the fate of our constitutional arrangements and preferences in our hands and upheld by the rigorous impartiality of a largely distant British government. The constitutional question was finally solved – or at least diluted enough to barely matter.
Today, the GFA lies like a crippled giant on life-support, an unwanted obstacle in the great Brexit path, and whose contents seem to be news to people pushing towards it. Incredibly, several ministers, including an actual former Brexit secretary, have admitted to never having actually read it, and yet, in such monumental times, we are sent a Secretary of State who admitted much the same. Constant ignorance like this almost feels surreal, and yet, we can only watch as horrified bystanders as this epic farce continues.
Time is almost up, and the border problem remains as problematic as we all knew it would be. Like it or not, people representing constituencies most of us have never heard of are now rewriting our futures – safe from the issues that define us and the consequences that will soon shoot up from under our feet.
In two years, around the same time the UK at least still plans to leave the EU’s structures, Northern Ireland will celebrate its own centenary – a date unlikely to unite its people as it is, never mind the PM’s promise to the DUP of a special “Union Day” to celebrate it. Faith in the Union, and the benefit of Northern Ireland being in it, seems in more doubt than ever, and with talk of a “New Ireland” gathering pace, it seems that question may come to us sooner than we thought. And if it does, those of us whose vote is not yet cast should start by looking at what we currently have and asking the following: Can you be proud of Northern Ireland as an entity? Do you think things can get better? And if not, what makes you think they will get better in this New Ireland?
The answers to these can only be subjective, but what follows is my own honest views, as true and as personal as I can make them.
Pride in a country often starts with its origins, but famously, we can’t even agree on whether Northern Ireland is actually a country. Unlike even Scotland and Wales, we don’t even have a flag or anthem we can all identify with, and for many people, what identities we do have look to other places entirely.
Whatever we actually are, I can’t be proud of how our state was created, nor the fifty years of discrimination and religious exclusion which darkened its door. Nor the forty years of violence that followed, or the divisive and retrograde politics that continues to blight us today.
I can’t be proud of our decline as a once-proud economic force, our status as the UK’s poorest region, and the shame of needing Westminster’s handouts to even stay afloat. That’s before I look to the South, which is now one of Europe’s big economic successes. Its people – statistically at least – are generally richer, happier and better educated, and its road and transport network would shame our own. To cap it all, Dublin sits proud as a peacock as a real European capital city, offering opportunities that even London is now struggling to compete with – never mind Belfast.
We’re sadly the poor neighbour now, and the one still stilted by religious identity and conservative outlooks. We have a right to want better than this.
This is not to say that there is nothing in Northern Ireland that we can be proud of. Our beautiful scenery and coastline, our stoicism, black humour, down-to-earth attitudes, our unique character, and all what we have gone through together – we can all be proud of that. I love the city I am from, and the people in it. I can be proud of the Good Friday Agreement, and the ray of hope it so memorably gave us. I am proud of what people from here have sometimes achieved. But I am not certainly proud of Northern Ireland as a political construct, as the “country I’m from”, and doubt I ever will. Living abroad, I dread being asked about it, and the awkward questions and explanations which often follow.
As to whether things could one day be better, when I think of Northern Ireland politically, I just feel so weary about it, like I have given up completely. Deep-down, I feel the past will always stalk us. Like it or not, it’s as much a part of Northern Ireland as the causeway coast or the light of the Mournes. Yes, a new century could mean a fresh start, but we’re tired of those too: we tried the last one in 2015, and it’s merely the latest in a long-line to now lie in a big political graveyard. Brexit seems likely to snuff out the small flame we have spent almost twenty years kindling, but even if it doesn’t, we all know we’ll just have more depressingly gutter politics regardless. More embarrassing scandals like RHI. More squabbles over marches and bonfires, more sectarian bun-fights on the Stephan Nolan show, and more tribal votes between two big fish who seem to have grown too big for the same little pool. When we can’t even agree on Christmas card messages from City Hall never mind forming a stable local government, the hope really does just leave you – and the absence of hope will kill this place completely.
For the third question, for the first time, it seems a compelling and strategic case can finally be made for it. Compared to what we have now, it at least it carries hope that things may be better, that we can share and add to Ireland’s success as well, that we can matter once again. And yes, while much work remains to define what it could be, there are at least people out there trying to do so, and to reach across the traditional divides, if we are only prepared to listen. Most of all, it brings some much-needed optimism, and a potential, if done right, to bury our divisions for good in a way that Northern Ireland may never let us escape from.
Some may dismiss that as a nationalist fantasy. And yes, I come from a “nationalist” area in North Belfast, but I’ve never given any serious thought to a United Ireland before, and couldn’t tell you who I would vote for. When I was growing up in Belfast, supporting Celtic, speaking Irish or playing Gaelic football were as unfamiliar to me as Orange Parades and loyalist songs. The South was something of an unknown place too, and the balance between the Irish and British sides was finally good enough for a majority to accept. Crucially, until Brexit, it never really seemed to matter.
Part of this change is also living abroad, which makes you look through a different prism, and can change you completely. Part of it is also actually meeting people from the Republic, discovering how similar we are, and realising that outside of Ireland, we’ve a lot more in common than we think. We congregate together like penguins in the cold here, playing football, enjoying a pint and some craic together in a way I never really felt when I lived in England. When we play rugby, we all cheer for the same team, and it frequently wins: as good a symbol as any of the potential we have when we combine our strengths together. What’s more, I’ve seen Northern Protestants fit into groups like this with ease, more than they do with the British expats. I knew someone who even played Gaelic in Paris, and loved it. It broke my heart when he later told me he tried to keep it up when he went back home, but just felt he wasn’t welcome. On both sides, we clearly have a lot to work on.
I appreciate that defining, and creating, a New Ireland will not be easy. But that is a job for the politicians, and at this point, I am almost waiting for the right ones to come along, to reach out to people who are sceptical, north and south, green or orange, and to give us all something to hope for and that’s capable of breaking our sectarian divides for good.
First we need to start with a belief that this can be done, and that it will be worth it, and see where that takes us. I think I have that belief now, and I wonder if enough other people will too.
Even in Northern Ireland, we have to believe that flags can’t define everyone forever. For a decisive segment perhaps, the question will be settled on bread and butter issues. The economy and job prospects. Their personal security. Education. Transport and infrastructure. Prospects for their children. I am one of those people, and when I think of these now, it’s hard to say Northern Ireland comes out on top hard in almost any category.
With Brexit particularly, a massive contrast in how far people in Britain and the Republic seem to even care about Northern Ireland has been revealed. This seems significant too. Perhaps the circumstances we are in means we almost have to be asked this soon, to legitimise the impending change, to face it rather than run away from it. And if it’s not the answer some of us want, then equally, perhaps we have to accept that too.
Back on the shore, the water is still lapping around our feet. The sand is still moving, but at least we know the choice is simple. We either stand still as they hit us, or we choose to ride the waves instead. There is no right course of action, only risks to assess and a decision to be made, as we cannot stand on moving sand forever.
Chris Mckee is a 33 year old lawyer from North Belfast, now living and working in Germany. Likes cake, cheese and the occasional blog. Frequently misses soda bread and a good cup of tea.