PeopleIreland's 50 years in the EU

‘Diplomacy, compromise and respect are the only way we can move on’

In Northern Ireland, Brexit proved a catalyst for political awakening in a generation that sees the EU debate through the prism of the debate on Irish unity

Ireland joined the EEC, as it then was, in January 1973. This is one of a pre-planned series of articles exploring our evolving relationship with the European Union – and its past, present and future. The author of this article, Brian Hutton, died suddenly at the weekend.

“Not really,” says Zac Taylor-Clarke, asked if he considers himself European. “I would be Eurosceptic. If there was another referendum tomorrow, I would vote to leave the EU.”

The 18-year-old final-year student at Belfast’s Grosvenor Grammar was just 12 when the UK voted to pull out of the EU. Although his views are not necessarily typical of his age group, they underline a diversity of feeling among his generation.

The Brexit referendum in 2016 piqued his interest in politics. From a working-class Protestant and unionist background, his British identity is a determining factor on his view of Brussels.

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“It comes down to the ability to have the freedom to legislate our own laws,” he says. “The freedom to do our own trade agreements, control our borders, to do a lot more. The EU started off as the European Economic Community, a trading partnership, and evolved into a political union. That has its benefits, I don’t deny that. But the freedom and sovereignty of my country has been washed away because of the structures of the EU. I believe in small government, limited state control over people’s lives ... The whole structure of the EU just does not appeal to me.”

But for Taylor-Clarke, any diminution of rights as an EU citizen is a price worth paying – if at all felt – for his vision for the North. Freedom of movement, he sees, might be a little trickier but it is the same for someone from the United States or Australia, for example.

On the economic indicators for the UK post-Brexit pointing the wrong way, he blames the stewardship of the British Conservative government in handling the aftermath of the referendum fallout. But, unlike political unionism and the hard right of the Conservative party, he sees the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the answer. “It could mean the best of both worlds,” he says. “It could mean Northern Ireland will become a hub across Europe, being able to trade with two different internal markets. That would be brilliant for the economy. I don’t think that erodes Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.”

Taylor-Clarke “hopes and prays” that British prime minister Rishi Sunak and vice-president of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič will forge a deal on the protocol in the coming months which will placate unionist political parties over legitimate concerns it creates, particularly for smaller businesses in the region.

For this to happen it will mean compromise, he accepts. And he is “happy with joint authority” in terms of the UK supreme court and European Court of Justice being arbiters in any disputes over the protocol’s operation. “Compromise is a dirty word. Politicians here don’t like to use it,” he says. “But in negotiations people need to be prepared to compromise. If we can erode the stupid paperwork created by the protocol, and allow businesses to trade freely, there is a massive win here.

“But the EU also has the right to say we need to defend our own internal market as well. That is a fair point to make. We need to tweak the protocol, not scrap it. If we start again, we will be in a terrible place, stuck in this constant battle of ideological and constitutional issues. “It doesn’t do anything for us diplomatically or economically – jobs will be lost,” he says.

“The only way to have our cake and eat it is to accept the protocol. It is called diplomacy, compromise and respect. It is the only way we can move on. Hardline attitudes won’t gain anything.”

Political awakening

Like Taylor-Clarke, and the same age, Eoin Millar also points to the Brexit referendum as being the catalyst for his political awakening.

But it was in a different trajectory for the first-year student of law and politics at University of Ulster, who describes himself as being from a “CNR”, or (Catholic/nationalist/republican, background.

“I remember waking up the morning after the votes were tallied and I saw we would be leaving the EU. I was very shocked and surprised. I remember feeling disappointed.”

Millar says he is Irish, Northern Irish and even British. But more than any of these he is European. “Being European encompasses a spirit or a feeling and common values. I would say I’m a EU citizen first and I’m an Irish citizen.”

For Millar, the North in the EU allowed him to “call it home”. He is acutely aware of a “disconnect” from and “not being fully understood” in both Britain and the Republic of Ireland. “That is something being in the EU tried to remove, that division by identity,” he says. “In the EU, we all had a common identity, regardless of whether we are British or Irish citizens. We were all EU citizens. It is such a big loss leaving the EU. The Good Friday Agreement could not have come the way it did without us being in the EU.”

Millar detects shifts among some of his friends from a unionist background since the referendum. “Since leaving the EU they have got Irish passports, they now see themselves as Irish precisely because they see themselves as European,” he says.

Apart from the spiritual connection, he laments the loss of EU “safeguards” when it comes to workers rights, environmental protections and its role in “spearheading social progress” in the North. EU funding for Derry’s Peace Bridge – a transformative structure narrowing the city’s sectarian divide across the River Foyle – is an example, he suggests. “There are other examples. These are significant symbolic things. It is not like the EU was sitting in the background.”

Although as an Irish citizen he retains his freedom of movement throughout the EU, he is worried about educational opportunities being lost through the Erasmus scheme. “People need to have these conversations about the EU,” he says. “The vast majority of younger people don’t know enough about it.”

Indeed, a significant proportion of younger people in the North would not consider themselves either a remainer or leaver in the Brexit debate, according to Prof Katy Hayward, political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast.

In a recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey a third of people aged between 18 and 24 answered “Don’t Know” when asked if they hold a remainer or a leaver identity. Half said they were Remainers, 9 per cent Leavers and 8 per cent said they were neither. “It is a moot point for many younger people,” says Hayward. “There is no remaining or leaving any more – we have left.”

For those who are that bit older and did have a vote in 2016, younger people in the North, like in Britain, were more likely to have voted Remain. There is a sense among that generation says Hayward, that Brexit affects them more than older people (who were more likely to vote to leave). There was a very engaged contribution by younger people to the campaign for a second referendum, prior to 2020.

Hayward believes the issue is bound to feature in campaigning in any future Border poll in Ireland. “This is the thing: we are still only scratching the surface in being aware of the ramifications of Brexit on the conditions we had assumed would continue for the Good Friday agreement, in terms of relations North-South, east-west and between unionists and nationalists – its ramification will be far greater than we imagined,” she says.

“In the 2019 NI Life and Times survey, people were asked if rejoining the EU would make a difference in terms of how they would vote in a Border poll. Forty-eight per cent said it wouldn’t make a difference, 29 per cent said it would encourage them to vote for a United Ireland. But if you look at younger people, there is a big difference there. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 42 per cent said rejoining the EU would encourage them to vote for a United Ireland. That is quite significantly higher than any other age group. Those who did not experience EU membership as adult citizens may be the most enthusiastic to do so as voters in a similarly revolutionary referendum.”