Northern Ireland’s place, in Britain and EU, has never been so uncertain

Posted By: March 23, 2017

Brexit will be triggered next Wednesday

 Allison Morris. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, March 23, 2017

 THERE has been understandable Unionist panic since the election results earlier this month starkly highlighted the clearly changing demographic of Northern Ireland, making it a long-term unsustainable entity.

 That’s not to say we’re months or even years from a United Ireland, but we are looking at a changing island, impacted not only by a growing Catholic population and a seemingly unworkable devolved assembly but most critically by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

 The Border is now top of the agenda, not because of British army checkpoints and an IRA bombing campaign, but because of the economic uncertainty brought about by Brexit.

Money talks and there is now a debate on Irish reunification that does not start and end with a romantic depiction of identity, either British or Irish, but very real questions about where we would be financially best served as a nation.

 Since the election, there have been headlines about hordes of Catholic four-year-olds taking over the earth, or at least making up half of the population of Northern Ireland, all feeding into Unionist insecurity.

 The announcement that Theresa May will trigger Article 50 next week caused the financial markets to fluctuate and the value of the pound to drop, again.

 The rush on Irish passports alone is a sign that people’s identity takes a back seat when that identity threatens to change their lifestyle.

 Middle-class Unionists, with holiday homes in France or Spain, now realize they can quite happily be Irish if being Irish secures them free healthcare in Europe and does away with pesky queues at airports.

 The issue with the land Border, hard, soft or where the sun doesn’t shine, has caused massive debate, with no-one able to definitively say what it will look like or who will pay to police it.

Former Bank of England governor Lord Mervyn King said this week that there should be “an imaginative discussion about where we should go” in relation to the land Border between north and south.

He said there might be a “way of shifting the tax and tariff border, from the land frontier to the sea frontier while not disturbing the political arrangements.”

 What that would mean is special arrangements to financially protect cross-Border trade, by reunifying Ireland by the back door, the border would be the sea, the sea surrounds the island, the island would be one.

Even the suggestion of such an arrangement by such a senior British establishment figure must strike fear into the hearts of Unionists.

The Good Friday Agreement secured the future of the Union but was never sold as such by politicians who used fear of rampaging Nationalist horde to keep their voters suitably terrified.

 The reaction by some loyalists to the death of former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness this week is an example of how no gesture of reconciliation will ever be enough for those conditioned to believe in ‘them and us.’

And that is perfectly understandable.

If fear of the other side is all you have ever known then, of course, an election result that removed the Unionist majority at Stormont for the first time since the formation of the state will feel like Armageddon.

But identity is no longer the substantive threat to the Union.

 All the talk of Britishness or Irishness, or what flag flies over what building on what day, pales into insignificance when people’s livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened.

 Rather than be seen as a defeat, though, there is a very real opportunity to unite working class communities at a time when public services are under attack from cuts and austerity.

It is a chance to take a real look at the financial implications of leaving or remaining in Europe, or leaving or remaining part of the UK for that matter, and what that will mean in our lifetime and in our children or grandchildren’s lifetimes – to detach ourselves from the flag and the passport and think imaginatively about what the seismic political changes of the last few years mean to us as people and a nation.

 Brexit changed everything; the Border debate is no longer about whether we see ourselves as British or Irish as part of a European Union or remain as part of an increasingly divided UK, with Scotland already one foot out the door.

 ‘Project Fear’ has turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and as we enter into two years of Brexit negotiations, Northern Ireland’s place, be it in Britain or in the EU, has never been so uncertain.