On the centenary of Northern Ireland’s birth, let’s imagine a potential rebirth of Ireland

Belfast writer Rosemary Jenkinson on the change blowing in the Brexit breeze across the Border

Change is blowing in the Brexit breeze across the Border. As unionist politicians don’t want to give credence to the prospect of a united Ireland by discussing it, it’s time for Northern Irish writers to step into the vacuum. Even English writers such as Louis de Bernières are speaking out, suggesting the formation of an Irish federation. On the centenary of Northern Ireland’s birth, it feels right to be talking about a potential rebirth of Ireland.

It’s somewhat ironic that, in this centenary year, Northern Ireland has become further separated from Britain through the new customs arrangements. The Irish Sea border represents a psychological division between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but it is not yet insurmountable. Before any Border poll, it would be wise to wait several years in order to assess the full impact of Brexit.

If the North and the Republic are to join together, the worldwide notion of Irishness will have to broaden. It won’t only be nostalgic images of priests and fiddles and sweeping Galway coastlines, but will be pastors, parades and sweeping black humour. Not everyone will appreciate that, but it’s what a culturally fair island means.

I’ve been collaborating this spring with bonfire builders on a new play. One builder told me that a couple of years ago, an RTÉ interviewer asked a 10 year old about the history of his bonfire. On saying he didn’t know, the boy was ridiculed across Ireland as an example of stupid loyalists who don’t even know their own culture. The vast majority of loyalists, however, do know that bonfires guided King William’s ships and many say they wished they’d learnt Irish history instead of British at school to know more of their own story.

You may believe the conflict ended with the Good Friday Agreement, but it merely moved fronts, from military to cultural. In recent years, loyalists have felt that Sinn Féin-led local councils have upped the ante against cultural Britishness by trying to remove more bonfires than ever under the pretext of environmental concerns. In turn, the DUP refused to endorse an Irish Language Act which has alienated nationalists.

So, these are very recent scars making unionists and nationalists more sensitive than a burns victim. This means we’re psychologically different from you. Communities are ghettoised, closed and self-protective. And because we’re a bit damaged, in any united Ireland, we’d like to hold on to our NHS and our free prescriptions too.

Most of us observed how you toed the line over Covid rules much more effectively than we did or ever could. There is a lawlessness about us. That applies to Northern Catholics, but even more so to Protestants because we’re from a dissenting tradition and have more varieties of church than you could shake a big stick at. We don’t even agree with ourselves, never mind anyone else!

At the same time, all you need see is how Protestant churches have been transformed into cultural centres on the Falls and Antrim Road to realise the communities that have been lost and replaced. My grandfather grew up in Alexandra Park Avenue which is now an interface.

I received my first Irish passport in 2003 under my Irish name Ros Maire Loinnear Nic Sheinicin. My Irish-speaking friend said there was no direct equivalent for Lynn so he rechristened me Loinnear which means sparkling – much better than Lynn! I’m happy to call myself Britirish, but my first identity was British. I lived in England for about 10 years, and, more than that, it felt during the Troubles as though Britishness was besieged and so it became all the more precious. It almost goes without saying that all Northern Irish citizens should have the right to retain their British identity within a united Ireland. It’s funny how you use the term “West Brit”, yet North Brits would be joining you.

Much as I find the two-tribe Stormont dysfunctional, it seems counterintuitive to give up governmental power to Dublin, almost as if we were a commodity or a baby transferring from the ownership of London. To deal with these questions, unionism needs to modernise fast. The DUP lost credibility among younger voters with their stance on gay marriage; a young bonfire builder recently told me that the DUP and UUP may as well be Sinn Féin for all he relates to them.

Meanwhile, nationalists studiously ignore the centenary, while holding dear their own commemorations. It is interesting that James Craig’s controversial words about Northern Ireland weren’t apropos of triumphalism but were made in the time-honoured tit-for-tat tradition, noting that Southerners “…still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.”

The most important thing with any Border poll is that North and South have empathy for both aspirations as the vote is likely to be close and unpredictable. Nobody thought that Brexit would win in the 2016 EU referendum, but there were other issues behind the result such as a protest vote against austerity. Who knows? At some point, we could have the sight of Arlene touring the country in her British bus just like Boris in his Brexit bus!

Are you ready for turbulent times? A hundred years ago, Yeats was in the tumultuous vanguard of Irish politics and now, on the eve of the centenary, writers need to not only join the conversation but direct it, giving new perspectives. Everything is to play for and silence is no longer an option.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s collection of short stories, Lifestyle Choice 10mgs, is published by Doire Press. Coming soon is Marching Season by Arlen House

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