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Simon Harris was right. Many southerners know London or Paris better than Belfast

Figures suggest a substantial share of the southern population may never have been north of the Border. But only a quarter of people in Britain have visited Northern Ireland

Simon Harris must be taken aback by the reaction to his comment that he is “of a generation where people are more familiar now with London and Berlin and Paris than they might be with Belfast or Derry”.

Sinn Féin denounced the Taoiseach’s remarks as “clumsy and ill-informed” and “not reflective of young people’s views on achieving a united Ireland”. Matt Carthy, the party’s Cavan and Monaghan TD, was more forthright on X, formerly Twitter, calling the comments “partitionist, insulting FG nonsense”. Offence was not confined to the perennially indignant and electioneering Sinn Féin. Many northern nationalists clearly felt othered and many in the Republic clearly felt they had a point.

Harris intended to make the opposite point. His full speech, delivered to a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Co Wicklow, was a call for North and South to “get to know each other better” and have “a conversation about the future”. He praised Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill and her DUP counterpart Emma Little-Pengelly for their commitment to work with the Irish Government on practical cross-Border co-operation. It was classic peace process pabulum. The Taoiseach’s mistake was to try spicing up his speech with an illustration. Linguistic flourishes have become unwise in politics, especially when touching on identity politics. Dour literalism, a cliche about unionists, is now the only acceptable way to speak about anyone.

The most trite objection to Harris’s remark was that it cannot be true more people from the Republic have been to Berlin and Paris than to Belfast or Derry. Tellingly, his reference to London was omitted from these complaints, conceding it was plausible. The Taoiseach may even have been correct about Paris, although it seems unlikely Berlin is more familiar than Belfast.


An Ipsos poll last year for The Irish Times and the ARINS academic research project found 51 per cent of people in the Republic had not made a day trip or overnight visit to Northern Ireland in the previous five years. Another 19 per cent had visited once, while just 7 per cent had visited “lots of times”. These figures suggest a substantial share of the southern population may never have been north of the Border. The same survey found northerners were twice as likely to have travelled south.

Another banal objection to the Taoiseach’s comment was that Cork is no less a part of Ireland, whether or not any Dubliner has been there, so Belfast should be regarded the same way.

In nationalist theory, perhaps. In practice, the Ipsos poll showed a distinction nationalists should want to grasp. The more cross-Border connections people had, through visits, friends and family, the higher their support for a united Ireland. This applied to southerners and northerners.

For northern Protestants, the correlation showed up more as apathy towards the union than as active support for unification, although nationalists could still consider that progress. Building up personal relationships through cross-Border tourism, trade and education could ultimately be a meaningful unifying force, even if this message has become tedious with repetition and nationalists are frustrated with the pace of change.

Much of the anger Harris has provoked will have been for transgressing against republican denial. North and South have differences that might be seen as national, regional or merely colourful, depending upon a person’s perspective. For some people, however, it is profane to acknowledge any difference.

Even the term “Northern Ireland” should not be uttered. “Ireland has 32 counties,” Carthy posted on X. “Many people haven’t been to them all but each of them together is what makes ours a great nation.” It is daft to imply never visiting the six counties north of the Border is a condition of ignorance indistinguishable from having never visited any six in the south, yet that is the ideological line some republicans must defend, and that they felt the Taoiseach had crossed.

Unionism has a larger problem with estrangement from the rest of its country. Only a quarter of people in Britain have ever visited Northern Ireland, according to a 2019 YouGov survey. Many of them will have done so while visiting the Republic.

The DUP has been pressing to address this through cultural exchange programmes for young people, agreed under the 2020 New Decade, New Approach deal and again in this year’s Safeguarding the Union deal to restore Stormont. While little more has been heard of this, none of it is contentious. If a British prime minister suggested such programmes, even in terms similar to those used by Harris, most unionists would be delighted.

Each community in Northern Ireland has a complex relationship with its preferred country that is something of a mystery to the other. Everyone could get to know each other better, “on this island and these islands”, as Harris rather queasily put it.