A recent LBC poll conducted in Britain has found that more British people ‘would rather leave the EU than keep Northern Ireland in the UK.’ Now that is one of the most damning post Brexit statements that has emerged since the referendum result last June.
Clearly Northern Ireland is an afterthought in this whole process. Was it mentioned properly throughout the referendum campaign? No. Were our Westminster MPs (excluding Sinn Fein due to their abstention policy) tricked into believing Brexit would strengthen the Union? Yes. Is it even more of a disaster than the usual disasters that affect Northern Ireland? Absolutely.
There are various reasons for all of this and they can only be seen after one has left Northern Ireland for a few years. No one in England knows that Northern Ireland exists or the complicated history that led to its creation. That is a major problem. There is no possible way for anyone to understand the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland without actually knowing what it is.
Having lived in England for four years, I can confirm it isn’t disdain or malice that has caused the ‘Irish Question’ in regards to Brexit to either be forgotten or seen as an inconvenience by people in mainland Britain. It is a lack of education. It isn’t taught in schools and is rarely on the national news. Therefore, very few people from mainland Britain understand the nuances of our little proxy state.
As a student at an English university and now working in a Students’ Union, millennials don’t understand what it means to be republican, nationalist, unionist or loyalist is. All they see is an Irish person. I have seen unionist students embrace being Irish as the British can’t understand how they consider themselves British.
Setting the lack of understanding of our identity to one side, we then move onto the beast that is known as Brexit. Trying to explain to someone who has grown up in London their whole life what that referendum now means that, without an open border, some people in NI will have to show ID to go to work is difficult.
These people have a bus arrive every 5 minutes from their front door that we carry two currencies, that some people switch phone networks in different rooms in their house or that your nearest town might be over the border. They just can’t comprehend.
It isn’t even worth attempting to explain how Brexit also means the loss of EU Peace grant money which supports so many community groups. It means the loss of money to improve our already under invested infrastructure. It means the loss of subsidies which keeps many of our farmers afloat which will then lead to a higher cost of living.
It also means a loss of educational opportunities. No more Erasmus exchanges. Less money for innovative research. These things will all affect young people disproportionally. And we didn’t get a say. And to make things worse, Northern Ireland will be the worst region affected as well.
Now, as a young person describing the DUP to progressive liberal students is difficult. A party that wants full alignment to Britain except with abortion, same-sex marriage, party donations etc. and who campaigned to leave the EU despite Northern Ireland voting to remain.
It’s these sort of uncertainties and contradictions which make educated people ignore Northern Ireland never mind the uneducated. As a young person born and bred in Northern Ireland I struggle to understand it most of the time, others are hardly expected to understand it either.
As a young person this is just not good enough for me. We are not being represented in this argument and it will affect us the most. The DUP have their own political agenda, Sinn Fein literally don’t represent us in Westminster where half of the Brexit negotiations are happening and Stormont is non-existent so there is no local opinion on the matter.
This is before I have even touched on how the Good Friday Agreement which was accepted by 71.1% of Northern Ireland is even brought into the equation. Now only is this between the UK and Irish governments but is also underpinned by the EU and UN. So let’s face it is a right mess and just not acceptable by any standard.
The Good Friday Agreement also confirms the idea of dual citizenship, something again most young people on mainland Britain fail to grasp. If Brexit does go ahead this will clearly be problematic as Ireland is in the EU and Britain will not be. That is a huge issue. The idea of the Common Travel Area will also need to be examined between Britain and Ireland.
Let’s face it, the young people of Northern Ireland have just been ignored and let down. No one in Britain who has anything to do with Brexit engages with young people in Britain on their concerns. This disillusionment is easily shown at the NUS conference last week where the Vice-President Higher Education, Amatey Doku, called for a national demonstration opposing Brexit as young people aren’t been listened to and this call to action was met with rapturous applause from the 1000 delegates present.
The consequences of Brexit, even a good Brexit, are immense and will take years to reverse. It will then be up to us young people who will rise up to leadership positions to sort out this absolute mess.
As young people we need to take this issue by the scruff of the neck and own it and oppose it at every juncture. We need to realise that this issue is going to affect our job prospects, standard of living and just about every aspect of our society for the foreseeable future. Surely there is nothing more important than this.
Conal is Students’ Union President at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He is interested in ensuring education can be accessed by all and things around student voice and representation.
He is moving back to NI to study MA Conflict Transformation and Social Justice in the QUB Mitchel Institute in September 2018. He is writing in a personal capacity.