Jonathan Powell, the former chief of staff to prime minister Tony Blair and the lead negotiator for the United Kingdom during talks with Sinn Féin in the late 1990s and early 2000s, makes this wry observation in the New European on the cognitive dissonance which characterises unionist politics in the UK-administered north-east of Ireland
I still remember Ian Paisley coming into No 10 in 2001 at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis which was preventing Northern Irish farmers moving their cattle – even though there was not a hint of the disease in the province – banging the table and proudly shouting ‘our people may be British but our cows are Irish!’
While examining the destabilising impact of the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum on the Irish-British peace process the ex-diplomat notes a possible change in attitudes among the otherwise obdurate pro-union population in the disputed region, albeit within a less than representative circle of opinion:
…consider this: what if the economic and political costs of Brexit become increasingly clear to the people of Northern Ireland in the next two years?
Even now, you hear middle class Unionists in the rugby clubs and the golf clubs saying ‘I never thought I would hear myself saying it, but perhaps we would be better off in a united Ireland if that means staying in the EU’. This is still a minority view, but when they see Scotland proceeding to an independence referendum and quite possibly voting to leave the UK, more may join them.
A similar insight comes from Adam Ramsy, co-editor of the Open Democracy politics’ website in Britain:
Lots of young people on both sides of the traditional divide are softening to the idea of a united Ireland. The sorts of people who would previously have dismissed such a notion as the absurd dreams of their fathers or as the dangerous desires of some folk they didn’t go to school with are now actively considering it as a practical option. In a way, this is a similar demographic as that which moved towards Scottish independence in the months before the 2014 vote, and took a big chunk of the country with it.
In Belfast, I went for a drink with my old colleague Robin Wilson. And much of the nuance of what people told me in the street can be summed up by something he said: there are now roughly three groups of people in Northern Ireland: nationalists, unionists and cosmopolitans. With Brexit, the cosmopolitans are beginning to side with the nationalists.
However the following is a sober reminder that notions of national identity among individuals can trump all other considerations, even where they are manifestly self-harming.
…I can never forget a long conversation at a house party in East Belfast in 2015 with a young man – a passionate DUP voter despite the fact that the party was opposing his right to marry his male partner. “I know we need to move on from this, but would rather die than be run from Dublin.” He made clear that he would be willing to kill, too.