Driving over the Northern Ireland border as a Catholic family during the Troubles was an unnerving experience. My father, with his thick Cork accent, would roll down his window to take questions from an English soldier dressed in khaki and carrying a machine gun. We were coming from a country that is militarily neutral, so the sight of the weapon was shocking.
We were going to visit our Protestant unionist family – our mother’s roots. One of Northern Ireland’s greatest achievements is a choice on nationality – Irish, British, or both. Mum chose to be Irish, whereas her husband and children were born into it. That made her identity more meaningful.
But the Northern Irish identity is complex and misunderstood. There are nationalists who would like to see a united Ireland under the Republic. There are unionists who would like to see a united Ireland under the UK. And there are hardline loyalists like the late Ian Paisley who want a complete segregation of the North from the Republic.
That is a lot of baggage for a country with a population of just 1.8 million.
The Ulster plantation
The separation of the six counties – Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone – began with the plantation of Ulster in 1610. The British monarch, James I, bombarded the region with English and Scottish who were given a mandate to clear the area of native Irish. This drove the Irish to the extreme north-west, into Donegal, which today remains part of the Republic and a strong Gaeltacht.
The plantation was a success but plans to replicate it across the country were not. By the time Michael Collins signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921, the ancestral division between the two states was fully entrenched. That same day Collins foresaw his assassination for failing to secure unity when he wrote:
“ Think – what have I got for Ireland? Something she has wanted these seven hundred years. Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this – early this morning I signed my death warrant.”
Nationalists had wanted Collins to secure sovereignty for the entire island, home rulers had desired self-governance, while unionists were against any separation from the UK. So in trying to please everyone, Collins pleased no one and paid the price with his life. The ensuing Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ from 1968 was the longest running conflict in Europe since WWII, with a death toll of over 3,600 men, women and children*.
Under Brexit, Ireland faces a restoration of the border. The consequences of this have been glossed over in British media. There are two key reasons why: most British people do not understand the Irish situation, and more significantly, do not care. Indeed, many believe the island of Ireland is part of the UK because the media uses the terms Ireland and Northern Ireland interchangeably. It is also a reflection of the English education system, which fails to teach pupils about the history between Ireland and Great Britain.
By comparison, people in Ireland are extremely nervous about a reintroduction of a border. Not because of issues with immigration or trade and investment, but because of the symbolism. It is easy for the British to overlook cultural divisions with Ireland, but over the centuries that Britain celebrated imperialism, Ireland experienced it. This has culminated in a vastly different outlook between the two islands.
The fragility of peace in Northern Ireland is a consequence of that conquest and border controls would only serve to undermine that peace, which was established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. When the English and Welsh voted to leave the EU, they voted for borders and division. The Scots and Northern Irish were more sensitive to the repercussions.
The end of the union
Only time will tell if the split in the vote will lead to a break up of the UK. But there are already signs of strain between Irish and Northern Irish politicians. NI First Minister Arlene Foster has rejected Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s proposals for an all-Ireland forum to deal with the negative effects of Brexit.
If it the UK does dissolve, it will almost certainly reignite conflict in Northern Ireland. And it is difficult to see how this could be managed peacefully, although an independent Northern Ireland would probably be the most viable way forward.
With all the turmoil in British politics at the moment, the establishment does not need a sectarian revival in a territory it has never prioritised. But the fact that Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers campaigned for Brexit is indicative of the Conservative party’s complete disregard for the region. The situation in Northern Ireland remains on a knife-edge and British politicians ignore it at their peril.
When I was growing up, English accents often aroused hostility. But that attitude has worn off over the past twenty years. And now when I cross the border to visit my family, the first sign of division is a reminder that the speed limit is in miles and not kilometres. We no longer lock the car doors for fear of a carjacking.
I love Northern Ireland because of the people it has given me. And all of the people of this island would be devastated by a revival of futile tensions that send us backwards, not forwards. Britain ignored this threat because it has no real bearing on its health. But a return to the Troubles would be the single biggest blow dealt by Brexit because it would transcend economic chaos: loss of life is the greatest tragedy. Now is not a time for apathy.
*A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes, Jonathan Bardon