Dear GB: Worried About Brexit and Northern Ireland? Read This…

For years now people in Northern Ireland have watched some in GB fret and beard-stroke about Brexit “causing a return to violence”.

The comments continue to this day as if, subconsciously disappointed by the continual failure of war to reappear, saying it more often might make it more true. 

Here’s two bits of homegrown-in-NI advice for those with concerns:

1, That Sea Border 

The ‘sea border’ is the kind of symbolic playground shoving match we’re used to having all the time in NI.

In fact, politics here is such a mess that a portable office in Larne examining cheese or whatever is the kind of problem we’d dream of calling a crisis. Bear in mind that we have a political scandal most Mondays with our morning coffee.

However, there are some major, urgent issues in NI we rarely hear mentioned in GB.

If you genuinely want to help NI, then read on to discover the elephants in the room we have lived with, with relatively little outside interest or help, for years.

2, Bigger Issues Than The Protocol 

Here goes…

• Political collapse as a tactic: Politics in NI is a bit like a child learning to ride a bike. Except the child doesn’t want to learn at all. And the bike is made of rolled up flags. Collapsing institutions and going off in a big huff are often default settings in NI. The kicker? Every time the institutions are allowed to unpause as if one more try, without major changes, will make the slightest bit of difference.

• Covid restriction deniers in NI: You know those folk who convinced themselves that Covid was some kind of 5G conspiracy and took up YouTube epidemiology to avoid wearing a face mask to buy a loaf? They have influence, and significant influence too, at multiple levels of NI politics. And that means that far-right thinking and far-right identity politics have found a proxy way into layers of government. Sound terrifying? You should try living here.

• Wrecking ball Belfast: We love Belfast but it is, frankly, an absolute state. A combination of poor planning, grifty developers and bad decisions have the place in a mess. It’s heartbreaking to see. Yes, the cruise ships and conferences are coming in but it’s like holding a house sale open day before you’ve done the dishes.

• A mixed bag media-wise: We’ll simply say that NI’s national broadcaster is (in my view, YMWV) allowed to pump socially-damaging tabloid hot air into this fragile environment in a way no other region would tolerate. For an extra twist no one can study or quantify this properly as guest and complaint data isn’t FoIable. Oh, and at least one of our newspapers is infected with that far-right, Trumpian, Covid restriction-resistant influence mentioned above. 

• Lack of political leadership: Because short-termism and pantomime politics have been allowed to dominate life here, something like a border poll is going to leave whole communities without capable representation. It will be what we’d call an absolute handling, and we’re sleepwalking towards it. 

• Two box social and political systems: It’s an oddity of life in NI, and a hangover from a well-meaning aspect of the peace process, that government, employment and politics itself are often measured using someone’s ’background’, ie childhood, religion.

Problems with this include its dismissal of societal change (example, the fastest growing political parties in NI generally aren’t based on constitutional view) plus there are so many occasions when it doesn’t make sense in practice. These include mislabelling atheists, people who have changed religion, people whose religion doesn’t match their politics and more. Essentially, it creates division just so it can measure division. Help us with this one. Please.

• Public services: Like GB, our public services are close to collapse. Yes, it might be a sign of the times elsewhere too but in a place with the highest rate of mental health issues in the UK it’s a state of affairs that is undoubtedly costing lives.

• Abortion: A new framework for lawful abortion services came into effect on 31 March 2020, but services in NI have still not changed to provide that legally-enshrined healthcare for women here in NI. Does that sound democratic to you?

• Low pay as the norm: Tourism money hasn’t  reach many pockets in NI and probably never will. And we really, really need proper pay. In 2019 a (very) major local hotel business advertised for a qualified, experienced marketing professional at circa £16,000pa. This shameful conduct and in particular barefaced fleecing of graduates was, and is, often accepted as a norm.

Disproportionate social conservatism: NI folk are, in the main, liberal-minded but years of elections turning into de factor border polls (a trend beginning to lessen, thankfully) has gifted other agendas a free ticket into government. For example, it took until January 2020 for equal marriage to be legal. If you find yourself fretting about a politically convenient “return to violence” but didn’t speak up on this we’d be entitled to wonder what kept you so long. Oh, and a number of our local councils, some as scandal-hit as the rest of our politics, are at times a forum for views that would have being embarrassing in a 1950s gentleman’s club.

This is just a sample, there are many more examples besides.

So, you can see why some extra forms needed to ship stuff to NI isn’t keeping as many people awake as it might first appear. Yes, the Protocol has its problems and it’s politically difficult for some, but a broad failure to either bring humility to the debate by those who supported Brexit as well as a failure to separate themselves from those who would wish the border on their neighbours instead means the campaign is responsible for its own failures. 

But does this constitute a genuine ‘crisis’ or even ‘return to violence’? No. We’ve had, and will have, worse and more tangible political problems on good day.

Still Want to Help? 

There are many more issues like the above and they’re all frustrating, acceptable experiences people in NI are expected to live with as a fact of life. 

Plus, they all have one thing in common: they aren’t the nice easy NI identity debates often allowed to shout the loudest in the news agenda.

If you definitely want to lend a hand and ameliorate the actual lives of people here, we’d love more awareness around these everyday issues and many others along the same lines.

To hear them you only have to listen. 

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