Can the Republic afford a united Ireland? These unionists don't think so

‘I don’t think the South could take us on financially, because we have the NHS’

Donna Best: ‘I don’t think Ireland can afford us – they can’t afford our benefits.’ Photograph: Trevor McBride

Donna Best: ‘I don’t think Ireland can afford us – they can’t afford our benefits.’ Photograph: Trevor McBride

 

Ask Donna Best how she feels about a shared island, and she replies: “That’s a joke. We haven’t even got a shared city, never mind a shared island.”

In the Fountain area of Derry, her reaction is typical. “I don’t particularly want a united Ireland. I don’t think Ireland can afford us – they can’t afford our benefits. I was born British, and I want to stay British.”

A lollipop lady at the local primary school, Best has lived all her life in the Fountain, a small estate of several hundred people nestled beneath the city’s historic walls, and the last remaining unionist enclave on the overwhelmingly Catholic west bank of the Foyle.

Best says she and her three, now adult, sons have been on the receiving end of sectarian attacks: “I was hit on the back of the head with a brick.”

Her son Andrew chips in on the subject of a shared island: “People want nothing to do with it . . . I’m just not interested in living in the Republic of Ireland. We’ve just come through Covid. I don’t want to live in a country that has an American-style health system. Have you seen the average price of renting a house in Dublin, or the childcare? I’m better off where I am.”

It is economics, but also identity: “I don’t really know if I see myself as British but I don’t want to live in a Gaelic Catholic state for a Gaelic Catholic people.” Should that day come, he emphasises, “I’ll not be here. [I’ll go] somewhere in the UK, Scotland probably.”

Others are less concerned. “I don’t think it would bother me,” explains one mother walking her daughter home from school. “I know people have beliefs, and I’m from a Protestant community, but we’d live our lives just the same.”

Any loyalist violence, she thinks, would not be on a large scale. “I’d say there’d be something but nothing like the way it’d used to be. They wouldn’t have the support like they had years ago.”

“I just don’t think it’s going to happen any time in the near future,” says her companion. “I don’t think the South could take us on anyway, financially. I’d probably vote against it, just because we have the NHS.”

It’s irrelevant to me. Whether it happens or not, I’m still going to be who I am

In the nationalist Bogside, the NHS is also mentioned. “You do a Border poll, it’s going nowhere,” says one man who does not want to be identified. “There’s too many people in the North on [benefits], PIP [Personal Independence Payment] and DLA [Disability Living Allowance]. Do you think they’re going to knock that back, to have to pay for prescriptions? It’s not going to happen.”

Despite that, he adds: “Freedom’ll be won some day. I think it will happen but it’ll not be in our lifetime.”

Bronagh Chambers says: “I do believe Ireland should be one, but I don’t know if I could live under the southern [system], the things they have to pay for, their medical service, whereas here we have the NHS.”

Yet, she explains: “I am Irish. There’s a lot to consider, but if I had to tick a box [in a referendum] it would be a yes for a united Ireland. There’s no way my conscience could tick the no box.”

Back in the Fountain, Brittany Hetherington, a volunteer at the local youth club, has other concerns. “It’s irrelevant to me,” she says of the constitutional question. “Whether it happens or not, I’m still going to be who I am. We’re not going to change in here who we are.”