After a Spring and Summer when the British, if not the worldwide, conversation has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of Autumn finds that Brexit is back on the scene. The major topic within the Britain and Brexit conversation is the thorny subject of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Those familiar with this writer will know that I have often argued for the rightful status within the UK of Northern Ireland – otherwise known as Ulster. This argument has included comment on the perplexing nature of Northern Ireland’s British identity. This can be seen in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, where the British government has suggested that there be a UK border with the Irish Republic down the middle of the Irish Sea. Such a suggestion means that there would be no recognisable land border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
So too, the occlusion of Northern Ireland from being an intrinsic part of the UK, can be most brazenly seen when, in recent years, British sporting teams have been called “Great Britain”, or “Team GB”!
Realistically, as well as technically, Great Britain is an island containing the UK countries of Wales, Scotland, and England – but not Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland, though not a part of the island of Great Britain, is a constituent country of the United Kingdom. So Northern Ireland must take its rightful place when teams represent the UK. These teams should not be called “Team GB”! What is wrong with “Team UK”?
This matter reintroduced itself to my consciousness recently when I came across an article, written several years ago, that spoke of the reaction within the UK to the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014. Most of the fall-out from this event had focused on the umbrage that England, the largest partner in the union of the British states, had taken with the promise of more devolved powers for the Scottish parliament. As usual, Northern Ireland opinion, as with the Welsh perspective, had tended towards being ignored, or at least, not heard very loudly.
Northern Ireland has always had close links with Scotland. Many immigrants went to Ulster from Scotland. Scottish west coast seaports are a favoured way for Ulster people to enter the Great Britain mainland. My maternal grandparents left Northern Ireland for Glasgow, Scotland, just before my mother was born. Not surprisingly, my late mother considered herself to be Irish. So, a significant part of my ancestry is Irish.
If, in 2014, Scotland had said “Yes” to independence, then Northern Ireland would have been squeezed between an independent Eurozone state to the south, the Irish Republic (Eire), and an independent and likely Eurozone state a few miles across the sea to the east. The British national flags, conspicuously seen around Ulster, would have been drained of some colour, and the Orange Order on both sides of the Irish Sea may have had cause to question some loyalties.
So, as one newspaper put it, “We had people who believe in the political unity of the island of Ireland supporting the political partition of the island of Great Britain; whilst people who supported the continuing partition of Ireland tramped the streets in support of the unity of Britain”.
To put it another way, Northern Ireland wanted Scotland to stay within the UK, but itself wants no part of the Irish Republic. On the other hand, Scotland had a referendum on withdrawing from the UK, yet wished Ulster to remain as part of the UK and not join with the Irish Republic.
To emphasise the ironical, it seems that a pub on the (Roman Catholic and pro-Irish union) Falls Road in Belfast, paid for a pro-independence (for Scotland) “Yes” billboard. So too, on the eve of the referendum, poll graffiti artists climbed halfway up Black Mountain – a hill on the outskirts of Belfast and visible from almost everywhere in that city – and painted a “Yes Scotland” message. Meanwhile, in support of the campaign of “No” to independence for Scotland, the pro-UK Union, anti-Irish unification, Loyal Orange Order held street marches in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, during the week before the referendum vote.
The British Isles certainly have their fair share of irony. Ironies do, indeed, abound! Yet, one further irony sits quietly in the background, that is, we were told, even if the people of Scotland had voted in their referendum to leave the UK, Elizabeth Windsor, the Head of the UK State, would have remained, at least for the foreseeable future, as Head of State for Scotland!
In the event of Scotland becoming independent of the UK, the remaining union of British countries might well have complained about such things as the continuing use of sterling in the Scottish banking system, the matter of Scotland retaining Scottish oil, border controls and passport requirements, but it seems that there would have been no argument about a British monarch remaining as the Head of State for the independent nation of Scotland! As a republican, and a Scot by birth, I find that to be the biggest irony of all.
Strange people, us Brits!
When I worked in community organising with World Vision UK (WVUK), my office tried to appropriately respond to the volatile sectarian situation in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, by having two concurrent community organising projects – one in the Roman Catholic Falls Road and another at the top of the Protestant Shankill Road. The arrangement seemed to work satisfactorily.
Notwithstanding, I always sought to go the extra mile. So, when I went to Belfast on WVUK business, I was accommodated in the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The cathedral was located on the Falls Road, Furthermore, I had the privilege of staying in the same apartment as the most senior Roman Catholic in the whole of the Irish island – the All-Ireland Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church – when he visited Belfast.
The situation was that of a Protestant minister of religion (as I was at the time), and a republican (as I still am), having a room, not at a neutral, non-sectarian “inn”, but high up in the tower of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in a predominantly Protestant and pro-UK union city! Rather ironic really, but it does indicate that you do not have to be a royalist in Northern Ireland, nor a Roman Catholic, to be respected for being a concerned human being!