You’re in Great Britain and you mention Northern Ireland to someone. What do they think of? More optimistically, they might think of Game of Thrones or maybe the Titanic. If they give you a political answer, it’s unlikely to be positive – often cited will be differences in social policy: abortion or gay marriage perhaps. Or in the past year, the infamous billion pound DUP bung keeping Theresa May’s Tory government in power.
It’s now coming up to twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement. If you asked the same question over twenty years ago, I dread to think what answers would have been given. However, for us millennials, we’ve only grown up in a time after the Good Friday Agreement. I was born in England in 1997, in a world where I only knew of peace-time Northern Ireland. When Martin McGuinness died, people struggled to choose pathway through his legacy - a good man or a bad man? We were only around for his huge reforms of Northern Ireland. We don’t have that first hand experience of the Troubles that older generations have. It’s hard to separate two such differing pathways that affected so many so positively, and yet so negatively.
Part of the reason for the difficulty in choosing this pathway is the very nuanced view that people from Great Britain have of Northern Ireland. On the news, we only hear a snippet about a piece of Northern Irish politics, or maybe a brief tweet. We quickly move on: there’s another headline or another tweet about a far more important issue. An issue that seems to matter to the everyday life of those in Great Britain. Northern Irish political stories seem to evoke the same attitude every time “There they are disagreeing and arguing yet again.”
However, everything changed in June 2017. Everyone with the slightest bit of interest in politics, became an expert in Northern Irish politics overnight after the 2017 general election with the Tory government being propped up by the DUP. Those headline writers didn’t seem to take any interest whatsoever in Northern Ireland at the time of the 2017 assembly election, but the general election was a different matter. Only when Northern Ireland was, for once, influencing the politics of Great Britain was it a big deal. The DUP prevented an enthused Labour party membership getting their way. Instead, they had a Tory government supported by a party whose views, according to Green Party co-leader, Caroline Lucas, were pre-historic and from the age of the dinosaurs.
The 2017 election heralded an important moment: maybe for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland was having an impact on Great Britain. It was certainly the first time many millennials had even noticed that the DUP had seats in the House of Commons. Before the Good Friday Agreement, the typical view seemed to be to demonise nationalist politics after their associations with atrocities in Great Britain: the bombing of the Conservative party conference, the Warrington bombing, the Manchester bombing and many others besides.
Nowadays, the major nationalist party in Northern Ireland are seen as the party who champion the rights of those in society. Sinn Fein’s calls for gay marriage to be introduced for instance. Or the Irish language act. Or their waverings towards allowing abortion in certain cases. Changes to these views would allow Northern Ireland to be aligned with the rest of the UK. Whether it be gay marriage from the Conservative government. A Welsh language act. Or abortion, part of social policy in Great Britain since 1967.
The growth of Labour party, to become one of the largest progressive movements across the whole of Europe, has made it popular for millennials to become involved and interested in politics: They are a party seen to be championing the rights of all those in society.
However, there is a question of whether Northern Ireland is ready to jump upon this progressive bandwagon, driven forwards by Jeremy Corbyn. It's all well and good championing these rights, but for those of us who haven’t lived a pre-Good Friday agreement Northern Ireland, we may struggle to understand the exact social politics of Northern Ireland. A brief news report cannot possibly provide such a detailed context that spans the course of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. That singular tweet cannot truly reflect the exacting intricacies of the communities of Northern Ireland, many of which were very much caught up in the Troubles.
When we increasingly see other countries moving on whether it be gay marriage in the UK, US or the Republic of Ireland (with its upcoming abortion referendum as well) it’s difficult to compare these places to Northern Ireland. After all these places are all in the Western world where we presume everywhere else should hold the same liberal views as us.
Northern Ireland is still a very different place. A quick tourist trail to Belfast or the North Coast doesn’t situate you within the lives of those affected. Not till I started to live in Belfast did I begin to fully understand Northern Ireland. Yes, things may have moved on, but Northern is still different from the rest of the UK.
Peter is a 20 year-old English student at Queen's University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. He has aspirations of becoming a journalist upon graduation in 2019.