For my entire lifetime, and the lifetime of my parents (perhaps even my grandparents), there has been one question dividing the Northern Irish population: Are we British or are we Irish?
The troublesome Irish border
There are those of us in Northern Ireland who believe that we should be part of the rest of the island, with whom we share a geographical and cultural heritage. And then there are those amongst us who believe that we should be part of the United Kingdom, as we have been officially for almost 100 years now. The division is split pretty evenly between the Catholic or Nationalist community, who overwhelmingly believe we are Irish, and the Protestant community, who believe we are British. These divisions go deep. Right down to where we went to school, what are family name is, and even the passport that we use (though Brexit has seen a lot of proud Northern Irish Brits apply for an Irish passport for ease of travel once the transition period ends).
So that brings us to the question over the Irish border. In an article I wrote two years ago, I called for the British Government to be honest about the Irish border — they had been repeatedly claiming that it was possible to have a hard border with the EU whilst having no border or checkpoints on the island of Ireland, or in the Irish Sea.
The reality always was that we were going to have to choose whether checks would occur between the two halves of Ireland or between Ireland and Great Britain. Even during the 2019 election campaign, when treasury documents were stating that some checks would be necessary on the Irish Sea, Johnson repeatedly rubbished these claims and declared:
‘If somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the prime minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin’.
The issue becomes, for those of us in Northern Ireland, an issue of identity. A border between the North and the Republic of Ireland indicates that our relationship to Britain eclipses our relationship with the rest of Ireland (and vice versa for a border in the Irish Sea). That neither one of these scenarios carries more importance for Northern Ireland was a crucial part of the Good Friday Agreement that helped forge the tentative peace, allowing in turn both devolution and the Northern Irish economy to flourish. We are a nation of two distinct identities and cultures forged into one — neither British nor Irish. In the same way that Hong Kong feels neither British nor Chinese, but distinctly its own. Which brings us back to this issue — regardless of which choice is made regarding where tariffs and checks are applied — of the government at Westminster choosing for us which relationship is more important. They are dictating from on high that the relationship to Ireland (for geographical and technological ease, I suspect) should take precedence over our relationship with the rest of the UK internal market.
The identity war
The problem is that these issues of identity are still fraught and disputed. Don’t believe me, after simply removing the Union flag from Belfast City Hall just a few years back, there were months of ongoing protests, clashes with police, and wholly unwelcome violence over the symbolism of a flag. For those not familiar with the issue (or those who need a refresher) the flag was set to be flown only on designated days — as is the case across the UK. This sparked weeks of violence, which included a death threat against East Belfast MP Naomi Long and councillors’ homes being attacked in Bangor and Newtownards.
With a ‘light-touch’ border now being proposed in the Irish Sea, it seems Boris & Co have made up their minds — Northern Ireland is more Irish than British. It remains to be seen now how businesses in Northern Ireland will handle these extra checks and costs, and how the Unionist (pro-British) side of the country will react to this symbolic severance.
By Josh Hamilton, Editor-in-Chief at www.thejist.co.uk