Everything has changed in Northern Ireland. But what does that mean for the century-old question of partition?
This wasn’t the first time that I’d asked people on Church Street in Coleraine to stop for a chat. Nor is it the only occassion that I’ve spent a day talking to locals in central Derry. But everything in the north of Ireland is changing fast and deeply now. And so it was time to return.
I first got to know Northern Ireland in the same way that I first got to know England. For a few months in 2003/4, I worked as a peripatetic chugger. I’d stand in the centre of a different town every day, for six days a week, and ask people to pay £5 a month to whichever charity I’d been given. And for two of those weeks, my employers put me on a team they were sending across the Irish Sea, to try and persuade the locals to join Amnesty International.
I learnt some important things on that trip. In Omagh, a large man approached my female colleague, pointed down the road, and said, a little too close to her face, “see down there? That’s where the bomb went off. That’s because of people like you.” The most deadly attack of the Troubles had happened in the town only five years earlier, and or course we all knew about it. But none of us was quite sure why it was our fault.
Later that week, our question was answered. In Coleraine, our team leader picked up the same colleague in a fireman’s lift to physically remove her from a group of men who were complaining about Amnesty’s role in Northern Irish politics: angry that the organisation had opposed the internment and torture of Irish Republicans. So that's what it was about.
In Derry, on the other hand, we were warmly welcomed. I distinctly remember focussing to understand the accent as a man in the city centre explained to me that Amnesty had been there for him, when he was inside. And so he would be there for Amnesty. But then, when I asked him for bank details, he apologised and explained that he didn’t have an account. Most conversations I had that day ended the same way. One of the many lessons you learnt as a travelling fundraiser in the early noughties was how many people Blair’s Britain was leaving behind.
Another thing you learn from standing on busy streets across the country and talking to people about charities all day is that almost everyone everywhere is essentially kind and peaceful. Even in the most Loyalist of towns, just a few years after the Good Friday Agreement, a group of us in our teens and early twenties could stand in bright yellow jackets emblazened with the logo of an organisation which had publicly defended the rights of members of the IRA, and more people gave us money than hassle.
And that basic fact is symbolised by one of the things that’s changed in Derry since then. In 2011, a beautiful foot bridge was built across the Foyle. “The Peace Bridge”, curls in an S shape over the river, symbolising the bends in the road to peace. On the East bank, you find flapping Union flags, the local offices of the Democratic Unionist Party and signs saying "Londonderry". On the West is Sinn Fein’s office, Irish flags, and the famous "Welcome to Free Derry" mural. And beside the bridge is a plaque with the stary logo of the EU: “European Regional Development Fund, investing in your future”.
This month, the local paper published an April Fool: “Derry’s Peace Bridge to be demolished because of Brexit”. But it’s a more than a little poignant. 78% of people in the constituency voted “Remain”, the third highest percentage in the UK (cf the "liberal elite" myth) and, interviewing locals on the Peace Bridge as Article 50 was triggered gave a sense of how they’re feeling now. You can see my conversations with those who were up for being on camera below.
I watched the evening news that night with the locals in a bar in Bogside. To enter the area, you walk past the Bloody Sunday memorial and the famous “You are now entering Free Derry” mural, which between 1969 and 1972 represented the start of a no-go zone for the British army. Various houses and railings are adorned with laminated copies of newspapers and similar, lamenting key moments of British army brutality and family tragedy. One home, with a clipping reading “April 20th 1982, plastic bullet kills 11-years-old boy”, still has a bouquet of fresh flowers attached to the wall.
Free Derry corner itself is marked not just by the now free-standing gable end with the famous graffiti, but by a number of murals, a sticker reading “No borders, no Brexit”, posters calling for an end to British policing, and a sign demanding freedom for the prominent Republican Tony Taylor, whose return to jail last year on the order of then Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has caused some controversy. Lamp posts nearby carry the Irish tricolour, a Scottish saltire, and what I think (there wasn’t much wind) is a modern variant of the starry plough, symbolising James Connelly's quote “The Irish people will be free when they own everything from the plough to the stars”.
In the bar, a quiet older man insisted on buying me a pint and showed me round a collection of photos taken during the Free Derry era. Pointing to one figure in a picture of a group of balaclavaed men with rifles and a bomb, he said “that was me… We were only nineteen.” He also told me, in a hushed tone, that he had spent seventeen years in jail, and talked about how many people in the area saw Martin McGuinness as a sell-out – though he didn’t express his own opinion on the matter.
When the news started, announcing the triggering of Article 50, the locals looked away from their horse-racing and, as the cameras broadcast conversations between MPs standing in Parliament Square, we shared a mutual confusion about why anyone would want to be run from there. Scotland, they suspected, would leave the UK. But would Ireland be united within a decade? None of them thought so – though Brexit, they agreed, did change things.
The next day, I had a chat with a Sinn Fein official about the state of the talks attempting to reconvene the Northern Irish Executive, which collapsed with the resignation of the now late Martin McGuinness in February, triggering the recent election, and which has led to an ongoing impasse. The Good Friday Agreement requires a cross-community government, and Sinn Fein have been clear that they won’t support the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, who is currently embroiled in the astounding half-billion pound Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.
One of the stories unfolding in this context is that the British government's increasing fear of the UK breaking up is pushing it to an increasingly hard-line unionist position, which makes it impossible for the Northern Ireland secretary to act as a neutral facilitator of any negotiations. As the source put it, Theresa May has herself said in recent days that her government will “never be neutral” on Northern Ireland. “If that is the position on the north of Ireland, how can they claim to be neutral in negotiations in the north of Ireland?”.
A poster from the Conservative Party NI in the recent Assembly elections. The party advertises itself as "a centre-right alternative to the sectarian politics which has failed to deliver". It got 0.3%.
Peter McColl, the Northern Irish former rector of Edinburgh University, has suggested a theory about Sinn Fein's strategy with regards to the Assembly. He argues that that the collapse of a Northern Irish Executive is likely to lead to shared rule from both Dublin and London – what’s called condominium. And in that context, the British government would likely only appoint a minister or two to sign off on whatever civil servants proposed. The Irish government, on the other hand, would probably tell each minister to simply add the north to their brief. The result would be as close to a united Ireland as you’re likely to get in the next few years.
While they didn’t exactly confirm this, neither of my conversations with two different Sinn Fein men did anything to shift the sense that this theory has a ring of truth about it. And people I spoke to across the Northern Irish spectrum tended to agree that Martin McGuinness’ death removed the person in the party most committed to making the institutions of devolution work.
After a beautiful coastal coach journey, I was met with the flags of Ulster, the Union, and the local Orange Order: Coleraine is more than 60% Protestant. The chat on the street there was slightly different in character, but perhaps more interesting. Again, you can watch the video below.
Speaking to people in the street can teach you both a huge amount and not very much. It gives a sense of complexity and nuance – more than a poll or even focus group, you can begin to get a sense of people’s internal conflicts, of the complex things that they believe and which they feel are important to say; how they frame things and the logical leaps they make. They tell you what those confident and opinionated enough and with enough time to stop and chat to a journalist think: and these sorts are often the opinion setters in their friendship networks. They don't give you the views of that majority which doesn't stop for a chat (I had a frustrating period outside an FE college in Lisburn, the heart of Unionist Ulster, where almost no one would express an opinion). And they don’t give you is a statistically significant sample of opinion representative of the population as a whole.
A poll in 2013 asked people whether they wanted a United Ireland “now”. Then, only 3.8% of peolpe said they did. It also asked if they wanted it “in 20 years”. Only 23% did. In November 2015, another poll asked if people in Northern Ireland wanted to be run from Dublin in the “short to medium term” only 13% of people, including only 27% of Catholics. And only 30% in that poll supported such a change “within my lifetime”. By November last year, the number who said they’d vote for Irish unity in a referendum now had surged to 31%.
Perhaps all that this indicated is that Brexit has pushed everyone who liked the idea in the long term to want it now. But my sense from my much less formal conversations – both those in the above clips, and more off camera – is that something else is going on too. Lots of young people on both sides of the traditional divide are softening to the idea of a united Ireland. The sorts of people who would previously have dismissed such a notion as the absurd dreams of their fathers or as the dangerous desires of some folk they didn’t go to school with are now actively considering it as a practical option. In a way, this is a similar demographic as that which moved towards Scottish independence in the months before the 2014 vote, and took a big chunk of the country with it.
In Belfast, I went for a drink with my old colleague Robin Wilson. And much of the nuance of what people told me in the street can be summed up by something he said: there are now roughly three groups of people in Northern Ireland: nationalists, unionists and cosmopolitans. With Brexit, the cosmopolitans are beginning to side with the nationalists.
The result is a reversal of the situation when Northern Ireland was partitioned from the Republic in 1921. Back then, Belfast was a globally significant centre for ship-building, thriving at the heart of the British empire. The protectionism offered then by the emerging Irish government in Dublin, whilst potentially good for farmers in the south, threatened to cut the protestant ship-builders in the north off from their market as well as their cultural roots. And so they demanded to stay in the UK.
These days, manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the UK’s wave of de-industrialisation, only to be replaced with credit fuelled consumption. And while the economic model there is no better, Brexit means that Dublin at least offers access to international markets and the internationalist identity that many young people in Northern Ireland are keen to escape to. The border and possibility of customs bring with them real threats to jobs, and the gutting of British social security means that, apart from health care, you’re better off being unemployed in Ireland than in the UK… and as the NHS is gutted, the remaining incentive to maintain London rule evaporates too.
Changes south of the border are important too. In the last couple of years, the Republic has emerged from its economic crash, and retained a GDP per capita of more than $10,000 higher than the UK (it tells you much about Britain that, when I tell people here this simple fact, they almost never believe me). The collapse of the Catholic church in a wildfire of scandal and generational shift means the old accusations that Dublin rule was equivilent to Vatican rule has disappeared. The success of the equal marriage referendum, and likely victory of the movement to repeal the eight amendment, which forces women to go through with unwanted pregnancies, both symbolise Ireland's generational tranformation.
It is in this context that Sinn Fein have the capacity to whip up a harsh political wind demanding a United Ireland. While, as the third party, they are unlikely to lead a government any time soon, they are managing to creating a dynamic, also described to me by Peter McColl. Because the main opposition party, Fianna Fail, is afraid of losing votes to Sinn Fein, have to triangulate towards them on the national question. This, in turn, puts pressure on the ruling and scandal ridden Fine Gael to move in that direction. As ever, politics moves from the edges, and, while there is no significant force pulling in the opposite direction, the movement for unity in the Republic is building momentum. Three university campuses recently voting for the idea in campus referendums, and it's a surge of support in the polls.
Vitally, Ireland currently has two vetos over the UK. First, it has a veto over any final deal the EU does with the UK over Brexit. And second, the Good Friday Agreement requires that decisions relating to Northern Ireland be made by agreement of both governments. How Enda Kenny's Irish government intend to use those vetos – and how the direction of the current political wind will push him to use them – will be vital watching.
It's important not to down play the extent to which Northern Ireland is still astonishingly divided, as this great piece of data visualisation from The Detail shows. And the astounding demographic shift is hugely important: it seems likely that the 2021 census could show more Catholics than Protestants there for the first time ever, despite only making up a third of the population when Northern Ireland was created in 1921. But the fact that the majority of Catholics have ended up treating their constitutional choice more as a pragmatic decision than a demand of their identity shows that these questions aren't always about which nation you feel most connected to.
Finally, though, questions about Northern Ireland aren't always settled in high politics and broad cultural and political trends. It seems impossible to escape from the thought that any quick move to unite the north with the Republic would lead to Loyalist paramilitary violence. While the last two decades have seen relative peace, attacks have never entirely stopped. And I can never forget a long conversation at a house party in East Belfast in 2015 with a young man – a passionate DUP voter despite the fact that the party was opposing his right to mary his male partner. "I know we need to move on from this, but would rather die than be run from Dublin." He made clear that he would be willing to kill, too. And while he certainly isn't in the majority, violence never happens because it is the will of the majority.
In this context, hasty predictions that the north will simply sign on the dotted line and leave the UK are probably premature. More likely in the short to medium term is that we'll see another flavour of fudge, where the different parts of Ireland find themselves ever more entwined, and the north gradually shifts away from a UK which seems to care little about its fate. What will be the precise recipe for this fudge? There are some sugestions floating around, but few seem to have much detail. And does the British government have the skill, interest or humility to ensure that such a model is a success? It's hard to be hopeful.