Photo: Rex Features 


It’s never been easy being Northern Irish

Brexit has exposed Northern Ireland – Helen O’Hara’s home country – as the problem child of the British and Irish Isles. She reports

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By Helen O'Hara on

Let’s be honest, neither the UK nor Ireland likes having to deal with Northern Ireland. My province is the problem child of the British and Irish Isles, a source of endless trouble to two countries. But then, we were designed to be just that. And so, it comes as no surprise that there was general outrage this week when a deal on the Northern Irish border fell apart. It was inevitable.

The deal had been between Theresa May, the EU and Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party told May that they would not accept the compromise’s “regulatory alignment” across the island of Ireland that would permit the land border to stay open. Any Northern Irish schoolkid could have told you that the DUP, the party propping up May’s government, would never agree to a result that potentially distanced Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. But if “sufficient progress” isn’t made on this sole land border between the UK and the EU, then the move to trade talks for a post-Brexit deal cannot begin. So British commentators howled their shock, outraged to be held hostage by my small, troublesome corner of the world.

I’m not going to offer a recap of the whole of Irish history, though I’d note how shockingly little people in the UK know about Ireland and Northern Ireland. But to super-briefly touch on a couple of key moments: in the early 1600s Elizabeth I tried to solve two problems at once by stripping rebellious (Catholic) Ulstermen of their land, and giving swathes of it to the (almost as troublesome) Scottish Presbyterians. That’s how Ulster was “planted” with Protestants, and this Plantation gave it a different character to the rest of the solidly Catholic island.

Cut to a few centuries later, when Irish Home Rule or even independence were on the cards, and Ulster Protestants fiercely demanded the continuation of the Union with Great Britain. A compromise solution left six majority-Protestant counties in the UK while the other 26 counties of Ireland became independent. The “Unionists” in charge of Northern Ireland tried to ensure their political dominance, and to maintain it by force in the 1960s against a civil rights movement, so eventually violence sprang up and became the Troubles. That lasted until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which established yet another compromise, one that both Catholics and Protestants (by now less a religious distinction and more a tribal one) could live with.

To be Northern Irish is to be uneasy with yourself, and everyone else

The peace is still young, and fragile, and it relies on that open frontier. I remember as a kid visiting family in Fermanagh near the border, and the flashlights shining through the car windows as armed soldiers stopped us and asked to see my dad’s ID, inspecting the back seat to make sure there were really children under the blankets and not explosive devices. I remember the queues and the overwhelming gloom under the tall towers of checkpoints on the road to Dublin. And soldiers, everywhere soldiers, with machine guns and riding in armoured trucks. I’ve heard bombs go off, and it was standard practice on shopping trips to Belfast to say, “Right, we’ll meet at M&S at 3pm, or Debenhams at 4pm if there’s a bomb scare”. I’m talking about scenes in the UK, within the very recent past. When I came to England for university and passed British policemen in those traditional, ludicrous helmets, I goggled. In Northern Ireland police wore bullet-proof vests and their stations were surrounded by high walls and barbed wire.

The Good Friday Agreement enabled both tribes in Northern Ireland to feel tied to the national home we claimed, not the tiny province we lived in. Those of us who felt Irish could go down to Dublin without passing armed guards. Those who felt British could do the same on their way to London. Neither country really wants us: the Irish can be as quick to sneer at any claim on our part to be simply “Irish” as the British are to sneer generally. You sense that if Northern Ireland vanished, all but a few hardcore Irish nationalists in Dublin would breathe a sigh of relief, but short of miraculous disappearance both countries have to deal with us.

The thing is that when Northern Ireland was created, both English and Irish negotiators (though crucially not Unionist leaders) thought of it as a temporary solution, a sort of 20-year punt down the line until Unionists could be persuaded to accept a united Ireland. That was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Unionists’ sense of Britishness, the same misunderstanding that Theresa May showed this week. Unionists won’t accept a United Ireland of any sort because they are not Irish, just as the largely Catholic Nationalists and Republicans won’t accept a border that once again severs them from the rest of the island because they don’t feel British. That 20-year punt in 1922 is once again biting Britain in the behind because they refuse to understand that by creating a province that is (now) almost 50-50 in its heartfelt political leanings, they guarantee zero easy compromises.

To be Northern Irish is to be uneasy with yourself, and everyone else. I hold an Irish passport, because Ireland’s a country that doesn’t warmonger, the only one in the world that has a musical instrument as its national emblem, and the island on which I was born. I tend to describe myself as Irish, though I sometimes add a qualifier and though I’ve had friends say, “Yeah, but you’re not ‘real’ Irish, are you?” Maybe not. After all, I live quite happily in London.

But being thoughtful and Northern Irish makes me wary of too much nationalist fervour. Oscar Wilde – born in Dublin, educated in what would become Northern Ireland and a London resident – said that, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious,” and that’s always struck me as true. The gentle patriotism of my British friends, the kind built around cricket teams and poppy pride and royal weddings, is not my experience. Patriotism for me is a dangerous, destructive force, as the Brexit result showed, and it’s one that has scarred Northern Ireland so deeply that we’ll never be entirely well, as a country.

But that’s why it rankles when the British are warned that their Brexit referendum risks disaster for the province and tell us, essentially, to sit down, dear, and let England talk. Northern Ireland may be small, awkward, backward and often ridiculous. Now we’re also standing in the way of the UK’s ability to throw itself off a cliff in the name of a dream of national glory. But Northern Ireland is still part of this country, the part on the front lines of the Brexit mess and the part most likely to experience civil war again if negotiations fail. Those complaining about our obstructionism should consider that the province was literally created to quarantine an earlier obstruction; it’s in our DNA to be a roadblock. And still we deserve consideration. If you can’t deliver a Brexit that works for all parts of the UK, then Brexit is already a failure.


Photo: Rex Features 
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