On a recent episode of the BBC’s daytime quiz show Eggheads, presenter Jeremy Vine asked a contestant: “In which city is the Ulster museum based?” The contestant replied: “It sounds European. I’m going to go with Brussels.” As the Chuckle Brothers would say: oh dear, oh dear.
The real answer is, of course, Belfast. Ulster refers to the northernmost province of Ireland and is another, more ancient way of saying Northern Ireland. For a bewildered contestant in a London TV studio, it’s a bit like not knowing that Scotland is also sometimes known as Caledonia – or forgetting that Wales, you know, exists. But his ignorance is hardly unusual these days. Many if not most of us remain, despite all that has happened there over several decades, remarkably, breathtakingly ignorant about the province. Nigel Lawson once quipped that English Conservatives knew more about the south of France than they did Scotland. Today, your average Brit probably knows more about the dark side of the moon than the small corner of their own state on the other side of the Irish Sea.
As Scotland continues to flirt with the idea of independence, much of the Middle East and North Africa goes up in flames and the UK drifts ever closer to a messy, hazardous exist from the European Union, Westminster and Whitehall – not to mention the UK public at large – have rather a lot on their plate. They are, as they have been for decades vis-a-vis Northern Ireland, distracted, distant and dangerously disengaged. And thus, gradually, quietly, almost imperceptibly, power in Ulster is slipping from London’s grasp. Think the Union as we know it is only under threat in Scotland? Think again.
When Northern Ireland is thought of, when it is thought of at all, by those in London’s corridors of power, it is usually as that peculiar enclave once scarred by sectarian violence, but now merely a drain on Britain’s time and money. ‘The Troubles’ is now a distant memory; a ghoulish, half-remembered nightmare from another time and place. It’s a similar story in Dublin. The remarkable ease with which the Republic, one of the signatories and guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, was persuaded to relinquish its long-standing territorial claim to the six northern counties, was telling. Dublin merely confirmed what many had long suspected – it was no longer interested in the hassle of unification.
For London, Northern Ireland has always been a bit of an afterthought. The province has an even less prominent place in the social or political consciousness of the ordinary citizen on ‘mainland Britain’. Such is the social, cultural and political disconnect that last year Kevin Meagher in the New Statesman asked: ‘Would anyone care if Northern Ireland left the Union?’His answer was a rather blunt, emphatic and uncontested ‘no’. We think and talk and act as though Northern Ireland is another world, never mind another country or, as it in fact is, a supposedly integral unit of our own, shared state. Like the unfortunate, clueless individual shown up on Eggheads, we barely even know where Belfast or Ulster is. Sounds European, foreign, far away, weird.
Those tourists who make the now popular journey to visit Belfast’s Titanic exhibition or the republican murals along the city’s Falls Road are encountering a very different Britain from the one on the other side of the Irish Sea. To the eyes and ears of Cardiffians, Glaswegians and Liverpudlians, Northern Ireland – in a similar way to the global metropolis of London – can seem like a world apart. The most obvious manifestation of this is the ubiquity of the flags – the Union Jack, the red hand of Ulster, the Irish tricolour, the Scottish Saltire, paramilitary symbols – which dominate the streets and skylines of all of the province’s cities, towns and villages and act as potent, emotive symbols in nation-building processes and the demarcation of bitter boundaries between communities.
The assumption in both Dublin and London is that a return to the bad old days is, if not impossible, then certainly unforeseeable. The degree of normality which has been painstakingly achieved has bred complacency. While none of the major political parties wish to see a return to conflict, other groups which are not so squeamish. Dissident republicans are still armed and active. In 2011, a police officer was killed by a car bomb in Omagh. In 2013, bomb disposal officers were called to an average of more than one security alert every day.
Moreover, Northern Ireland’s young people are growing up in a place deeply troubled by poverty and disillusionment. Unemployment and economic inactivity in Northern Ireland are significantly higher than the UK average. Over 21% of young people aged 18 to 24 are not in employment, education or training. The story of poverty breeding frustration and boredom and of frustration and boredom breeding violence is a familiar and dangerous one.
A stagnant economy is not the only challenge facing the province which could threaten long-term stability. The 2011 census revealed that the Protestant population (48%) continues to decline, while the Catholic population continues to rise (45%), leading some to predict that the question of a united Ireland will be inevitably resuscitated. However, interestingly, only 25% categorise their national identity as ‘Irish only’, compared to 40% who identify as ‘British only’ and a growing number who identify as ‘Northern Irish only’ (21%). Increasingly, the province perceives itself as different, psychologically separate. Support for Irish unity currently stands, according to opinion polls, at just under 30%. Unification is not imminent.
Nonetheless, this does not necessarily mean that British power is secure. Northern Ireland has always been different from the rest of the UK, but these differences are deepening. Bizarrely, the most ostentatiously ‘British’ and ‘Unionist’ part of the UK is perhaps the most abnormal part of it. Northern Ireland is much more religious, conservative and patriarchal than the rest of the UK. Its political culture remains utterly distinct, especially on social and religious issues. Loyalism’s fervent devotion to the Queen, Calvinist Protestantism, chauvinistic, anti-Catholic Britishness and the Union Jack is not mirrored anywhere else in the UK. As one Canadian filmmaker puts it, Ulster’s Protestants are ‘loyal to a past the British have left behind’. Whether or not this disconnect, this sense and actuality of difference, is sustainable within a single state is an open question.
According to Andy Pollak of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, it is ‘difficult to overstate the lack of interest there is among people in the Republic these days in Northern Ireland’. Pollak suggests that many people south of the border ‘say that after over 90 years of going their very different ways, the two are separate places, and that is the way to keep them’. Unwanted by both Dublin and London; ignored by the rest of the UK; forgotten or feared by the rest of Ireland – Northern Ireland is becoming ever more disconnected and different from its neighbours. Where, then, in the long-term, is the province headed?
There was, once upon a time, talk on the discontented loyalist fringes of ‘independence from Britain’; that is, an Ulster neither in the UK nor in a united Ireland. Certainly, nations far smaller than Northern Ireland survive and thrive independently. For most, such an idea remains fanciful and unpalatable. But, however unlikely it may seem, the idea possesses a certain logic. As we have seen, neither Dublin nor London particularly wants the power to rule Northern Ireland, loyalists remain as staunchly opposed to Irish unity as ever and republicans appear unable to make much headway on the issue. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s distinctive social, cultural and political consciousness – born at partition, developed during ‘the Troubles’ and entrenched in the new millennium – continues to grow.
At times, Northern Ireland already seems like another country. Perhaps, one day, it actually will be.