Breidge Gadd: Many nationalists in NI were happy with the status quo until Brexit

Many nationalists were happy being both European and Irish within the United Kingdom, writes BREIDGE GADD. The British referendum decision to leave the EU, however, changes everything and unionists need to respond to that challenge:

Wednesday, 1st November 2017, 3:43 am
Updated Monday, 11th December 2017, 11:15 pm
DUP MP Sammy Wilson (second from right) celebrates with Leave supporters at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast, after the Leave campaign claimed victory in the EU referendum on June 24 2016. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
DUP MP Sammy Wilson (second from right) celebrates with Leave supporters at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast, after the Leave campaign claimed victory in the EU referendum on June 24 2016. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

I always had the hope that one day maybe one of my three children (two in London, one in Dublin) might return with their family to live in Northern Ireland.

But over the past year, I now find myself hoping that they don’t. This change in attitude quite shocks me, a person who over the past 50 years has been impressed with how this country has moved on.

All my life, even in the worst times I was always optimistic about the future. Now though, instead of a slow but sure rolling out of the peace process, my head and heart tell me that that carefully crafted process might unravel and worse – we return to turmoil and even violent times .

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Brexit changes everything

And what has caused such a dramatic change in my mind? Well, Brexit of course; but not just Brexit. The timing of this referendum for several reasons was disastrous for Northern Ireland,

How so? Well, let’s look at the state of things prior to the Brexit vote in June 2016.

At least 30 years into a peace process which first planted the seeds of hope in the 1980s, if not 1970s, Northern Ireland was slowly coming round to the idea of liking itself and even developing a separate identity.

The short-lived political party NI21 caught a mood and epitomised a feeling –that we could indeed be both Irish and British – and even culturally and racially different: we weren’t just Irish, nor British, we could name ourselves with some blossoming pride as Northern Irish.

The border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK will become the external frontier of the EU

Surveys were beginning to illustrate that more people, the young especially, were happy with the ‘Good Friday’ status quo, and notwithstanding the Stormont politicians stumbling from mediocre spat to spat, in many other ways especially regarding economic, and social developments, Northern Ireland was moving into the 21st century, as part of a modern Europe.

It was becoming a place where others might choose to live because of the rich quality of life and the relatively low cost of living.

This sense of acceptance that NI was a part of the UK but everyone living here, as well as being British, could be Irish and European was a critical part of the sense of identity.

While a generation born after the Good Friday Agreement may not have been familiar with its terms, this international treaty’s safeguarding of parity of esteem certainly seemed to satisfy many nationalists and even some republicans – who in previous years might have had a vista of a united Ireland – that their Irishness could be nourished here and they could be at ease with the Stormont status quo.

Breidge Gadd, former chief probation officer NI and former Big Lottery Fund NI chair. Picture by Stephen Wilson

But even with this growing sang froid there were always going to be challenging times ahead which would make the next decade or so sensitive.

The biggest threat to stability, and irrespective of Brexit, is the inexorable demographic change in population in this country. Northern Ireland since its inception ‘a Protestant land for a Protestant people’, where the border was drawn in the 1920s to copper-fasten the majority unionist vote of approximately two-thirds of the people, has slowly been changing in its population composition. In a few years time there will be a majority of people who are from the Catholic/nationalist community in political background if not current inclination.

Where this ‘middle ground’ given the population change will sit post Brexit is now the looming question.

Now Brexit changes everything. As the Conservative government pulls away from Europe and develops ‘ourselves alone mentality’ many nationalists are dismayed.

Brexit changes everything

They grieve for that comfort position so optimistically developed a few years ago, of being able to regard themselves as Irish, and European, while living in the UK,

It didn’t help their shock about Brexit to see some unionist politicians crow that Brexit meant the potential for closer links with the mainland and a distancing from the still feared Irish Republic across the border.

Brexit, with its uncertainties about hard/soft borders, freedom of movement and confusion about the future for trade, tourism and travel, has thrown a wobble into what NI21 aspired to develop.

The growing nationalist people will recoil at anything that distances them from being Irish and European.

Don’t forget too, that if a border poll were to happen, many would take their cue from the UK referendum and response of strident Brexiteers; that the majority vote in a referendum (eg 51%) requires the will of the majority to be implemented without any consideration of the fears of a sizeable minority.

Ah, you might say – opinion polls show that a critical number of ‘nationalists’ would still opt to stay in the UK. After Brexit I’m not so sure.

The border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK will become the external frontier of the EU

The gloomy picture I foresee might still not be inevitable, if unionists applied brain not brawn to strategy.

Given the inevitability of losing their majority, one could argue that, instead of incessant verbal sniping at anything perceived as Irish –especially Sinn Fein promoted Irish – they should mount a charm offensive to woo those of a mildly nationalist persuasion into designing this Province into a place which continues to develop its essential Northern Irishness. In any border referendum these votes will be critical

Given the deep-rooted fear of unionists of an Irish takeover, this is an almost impossible ask, and one which since Terence O’Neill’s time has caused even far-seeing unionist leaders to bite the dust.

No-one yet has the courage and the leadership qualities (maybe except Paisley – perhaps with the reasons behind his volte face being his understanding of future demographic changes) to unpick the implications of population changes for the future of the Union, and to face intransigent unionists with the probable negative outcomes of hanging on to a past

Challenging your people, filled with dread of the bogeymen from Dublin taking over, is not an easy challenge.

Peter Robinson dipped his toe into this contentious water before he stood down as first minister, suggesting that it was critical to persuade ‘soft nationalists ’ that their future was brighter in the UK

His successor regrettably while best placed to prepare her people for inevitable change, sometimes appears to stoke the tremors of fear and pretend to supporters that the harder the Brexit, the safer the British identity.

The opposite is true.

It seems to me that the only people who can bring about the positive sea change necessary are the unionist people themselves. Other inputs trying to assuage fears, especially by the Irish government or nationalist parties here, are heard as patronising and false.

It seems to be imperative that the broad unionist family look at all the potential future scenarios honestly and that they devise intelligent political strategies which might best protect their unionist desires.

This future needs a very different story than the one currently being told.

Is unionism up to this challenge? I’d love to think yes but I fear the answer is no.

• Breidge Gadd is a former chief probation officer and former chair of Big Lottery fund. A longer version of this article first appeared on eamonnmallie.com

Breidge Gadd, former chief probation officer NI and former Big Lottery Fund NI chair. Picture by Stephen Wilson