When it comes to Northern Ireland, Great Britain is looking the other way, and the Westminster body politic is generally to be found gazing at its own navel, located in the South of England. Yet, in the EU Referendum only Northern Ireland and Scotland, (debatably the UK’s head and hands,) joined David Cameron’s London-centric umbilicus in wanting to stay and fight for its place in Team Europe, while various other parts of the UK’s torso conclusively voted with their feet to leave.
The Prime Minister’s monumental gamble to corral his Conservative and Unionist Party into the EU went so wrong because the UK Government lost sight of what it felt like to be left behind in the remoter reaches of the electorate, neglected, and more importantly, powerless. When given the chance, these areas voted to “Take Back Control” - by leaving the EU. Southern England had no need to do so because it has the attention of Westminster, but Northern Ireland with its meagre 3% of the UK electorate, 18 MPs, (around 40% of whom do not take up their seats,) and geographic remoteness, has comparatively little influence there. Rather, Northern Ireland did not need to “Take Back Control” because it had Stormont, and because its people felt they had as much of an affinity and economic future with Brussels as they did with Westminster.
Admittedly, another factor may have been the common lack of impact felt from the “freedom of movement”, with Northern Ireland’s migration being the lowest in the UK and the issue being less controversial in an already multinational London. But this is a mere aside; the crux of the matter is that Northern Ireland did not feel swayed by the Leave campaign’s Take Back Control message, because when it came to Westminster, it never really had any control in the first place.
Perhaps it was in deference to Northern Ireland’s wish to remain part of the EU that the term Brexit was coined? But no, it turns out that Brexit DOES NOT mean Brexit, it means “UKexit”. The problem for Northern Ireland is it is the only part of the UK which has a land border with Europe, but Great Britain is looking the other way, and more of that later.
Ask a working class eighteen year old Englishman like me, from Surrey, what they know about the challenges facing the youth of Northern Ireland, and the answer you’ll get will be poorly informed at best – unless they had visited this site of course! I have; been active in national politics since being elected to the British Youth Council’s National Scrutiny Group, helped to found the NHS Youth Forum in 2013, and recently become an undergraduate on Oxford University’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics course, which has been called “the Oxford degree that runs the country”. This would suggest that I have above average political literacy, yet I have little meaningful knowledge of what life is like for the average Northern Irish youth.
Few in Great Britain would read a history of the political and economic interrelations within the United Kingdom. Nor would they be likely to learn specifically about the problematic history between the English and the Northern Irish without the source of that knowledge tainting its message, and even if they did, it is unlikely the cultural complexities of having lived through it would be effectively conveyed. Irrespective of whatever historical baggage an English person may have acquired, any mention of the contemporary Northern Irish context such as James Brokenshire, MLAs, or RHI boilers, and you might as well be speaking Ulster-Scots to most English people.
There lies a challenge for the people of Northern Ireland, how to; have awareness of its issues raised, have its voice heard, and have these addressed as an integrated part of the United Kingdom.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has not functioned for most of 2017, and neither has the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, which has been suspended since March 2017 in order to address perceived operational deficits. Issues of representation also apply to the young people of Northern Ireland and the youth voice is not being heard. So the situation has worsened since the referendum of June 2016, Northern Ireland now has no devolved legislature, Britain is still looking the other way, and the UK is leaving Europe.
Awareness was briefly raised in June this year when Theresa May threw away the Conservative’s overall majority in the House of Commons, but then stymied Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of forming a Government by jumping into bed with Arlene Foster, to form a truly UK alliance. Britain was illuminated, pretty much for the first time, by news stories about who the DUP were and what they stood for, and about how much in financial terms the new PM’s confidence and supply agreement “was going to cost the country”. Even when propping up a UK Government, Northern Ireland was being reported in Britain as though it was not part of the UK!
The contract between the Conservative and Unionist Party and the DUP, throws doubt on James Brokenshire’s impartiality in the process of trying to kick start Stormont again. It may even eventually become to be seen as the New Northern Ireland Agreement; the one which broke the Old Northern Ireland Agreement which encapsulated an open border between Eire and Northern Ireland. The PM cannot carry her party with her while the UK remains a part of the single market, so freedom of movement of goods and people will have to stop at a border somewhere. Although the EU are willing for the open border to continue between the Republic and the UK, the DUP will not countenance support for a Conservative and Unionist Party which places the customs border on the dividing line between Great Britain and the United Kingdom.
It should be clear from reading this that the distinctions and pecking order of interest and importance has been long established; England first, then England and Wales, followed by Great Britain, and finally The United Kingdom.
Now I must confess to having slightly misled you at the beginning of this piece, which I did in order to simplify my “body” metaphor, and to allow me to make one final observation. Actually, there was one other place which voted to remain in the EU which I did not mention, and you probably give it the same level of thought that the average English person gives Northern Ireland, it voted by an overwhelming majority, 96% in favour of remaining in the EU… Gibraltar. Sovereignty issues have already been raised, and there is a history of the UK defending its territory when the actions of a Westminster Government have seemingly invited foreign claims to small rocks near Spanish speaking nations. So that needs watching.
The parallels with Northern Ireland are plain, and while Northern Ireland cannot be blamed for any of the EU related troubles, nobody in Britain wants to revisit the old Unionist versus Nationalist history. We just couldn’t face it, and that may be our saving grace.
This is the view as it appears from Britain, and Britain is looking the other way.
Rowan is an 18 year old social activist and a PPE undergraduate at University College, Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @rowanmunson