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When the results of the EU referendum were announced in June 2016 the responses were, to say the very least, varied. In my hometown, a border town in Northern Ireland, however, one question popped up over and over again – “What happens to us?”
Northern Ireland (and the Republic, to an extent) has lived in a precarious sort of balance with the rest of the UK since 1998. The establishment of the peace process brought an official end to the violence, but as with any conflict, the scars left behind are slow to fade. Compromises made on both sides opened the doors for a more settled era that was long awaited in Northern Ireland, but that does not make it easier to forget in the eyes of many people. Even my generation, the “children of the peace process”, are not immune to these ideas. Growing up many of us knew that on July 12 you kept your head down, that in certain areas you didn’t tell people what school you went to, and that whatever religion you came from, those on the other side were intangibly “different”, in a way none of us understood or even questioned.
I had always assumed that people in mainland UK knew and understood this part of their history. The troubles, although fought mainly in Northern Ireland, is an intrinsically British issue – one which goes as far back as the border originally being instated in 1921. Even though it was originally shocking to discover that the events that had defined maybe not my life, but at the very least the life of my parents and their generation were of little to no interest to those born in mainland Britain, I never found it quite as frustrating until the last few years.
The words “hard border” are bandied about a lot in the news these days, but do the people watching it really know what that would mean for Northern Ireland? More importantly, do they care? The delicate balance that Northern Ireland has fought for years to achieve is threatened by the decisions of Westminster in the next few years, but it seems that the only increase in interest in Ireland has been in the advantages of holding an Irish passport. The same people who say that Northern Ireland will have to “like it or lump it” when it comes to a hard border are, in many cases, the same people trying to prove that their grandfather was from Dublin, so that they can reap the rewards of freedom of movement in a union that they voted to leave. Of course, it’s worth saying that a lot of people voted to leave under false pretences (I’m looking at you, promise of £350 million more a week for the NHS), and many are now faced with a Brexit that’s nothing like they imagined. In this situation it’s not surprising that people want to keep a connection with the EU in whatever way they can, but the increased pressure this puts on the Irish government, as well as igniting lingering feelings of being taken advantage of by Britain (a feeling that most Irish people are trying to leave behind) is a dangerous game to play.
The more I read and researched into the recent upsurge in application for Irish passports (applications have almost doubled since Brexit), the more this seems to me as yet another way that Britain has exploited Ireland. For hundreds of years, many people in Ireland have felt ignored by a union that they are officially a part of- that their values and culture have at many times been largely ignored. The recent coalition with the DUP has only increased these feelings in many areas of Northern Ireland. An openly unionist party working with the current government has led to increased resentment towards the current situation at Westminster among many of the population of Northern Ireland – if you look into the history and political policies of the DUP, you might understand why. As an Irish person, it’s heartbreaking to realise that the thirty years of violence that have become the defining feature of your country doesn’t seem to have changed that. The rest of the UK should recognise that Ireland is more than a border, a backstop or an avenue into the EU. Irish culture has been largely defined by our relationship with Britain. Now, with Brexit looming over us, and an enormous change seemingly close ahead for Britain, it’s important to remember that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I have no desire to see Northern Ireland regress into what it was thirty years ago, something I’m sure could be avoided as long as this time around when the huge decisions are made, all of Northern Ireland’s residents feel represented.