Northern Ireland: The next 100 years?

The people of Northern Ireland deserve the abundance of citizenship options they now have – but the sea border must go, writes David Montgomery

A man walks past freshly painted loyalist graffiti in Belfast city centre on January 31, 2021(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The legend is that as soon as the British think they’ve found the answer to ‘the Irish Problem’ the Irish change the question.

And so it goes with the current Brexit protocol thrust upon the island of Ireland.

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This week marks the centenary of the foundation of the state of Northern Ireland. No one is quite certain which actual day marks the anniversary and given the history of the last hundred years more than a few other events may be best forgotten.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland is a special place, worthy of respect and indeed to be celebrated, despite its troubles.

The Northern (some might prefer the lower case) Irish have a unique character, whatever their religious or political background.

Today, they can be and are Northern Irish, or just plain Irish. They can be and are British and many, probably the majority, are European citizens as well

The fluke of Brexit combined with the Good Friday agreement bestowed on the Northern Irish an abundance of citizenship choices and indeed riches.

There is nowhere on earth enjoying such benevolence when you throw in the host of anti-discrimination laws and the financial support of UK, US, Irish and European Governments plus the considerable devolved powers for the Northern Irish to govern themselves.

Northern Irish people deserve it. They are generally decent and hard-working as is their united northern tradition, underpinned by Sunday worship and fellowship. Unlike the rest of Ireland and the UK, the churches are full.

With typical Ulster humour, not confined to Ted Hastings in Line of Duty, the joke is that the Northern Irish love everyone - they just hate each other.

But this is simply not the case. There has been a real transformation since the end of the troubles. In a generation society has become less divided. It is no longer a stigma to inter-marry or for children of different religions to share a classroom.

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In the business world and the civil service you can tell by the names (yes, some things don’t change) that there is more equality in leadership roles.

There is respect for both Irish and Orange culture and heritage, a recognition that Catholic and protestant have more in common with each other as northerners rather than affinity with the South or England.

In short, a united middle class wants to make a go of it together.

This weighs against the less privileged and less reconciled who cling to their traditions and their suspicions of betrayal.

This delicate balance has recently been upset by the Border in the Irish Sea. The British, and the Europeans, got the answer wrong. How could Unionists not be angry and feel threatened when Northern Ireland was excluded from normal trade with the rest of the UK.

The right answer is to remove the externally imposed conditions that prevent the parties at Stormont trusting each other sufficiently to operate good and effective government.

That means all manifestation of borders must disappear as was the case post the Good Friday Agreement. The UK and the European Union should banish the protocol to a low key administrative centre in Leeds, Sunderland, Edinburgh, or even - Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey - Brussels.

The point of the peace deal 23 years ago was the unionists felt British and secure and nationalists felt Irish and equal. The deal has held for almost a quarter of Northern Ireland’s history. It deserves a further chance.

For full coverage of Northern Ireland’s centenary, visit our sister title, The News Letter

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