Southerners should be careful what they wish for with a Border poll

Northern Ireland is radically dysfunctional, implacably divided and politically shipwrecked

March 11th, 2017: Voters in Northern Ireland discuss Irish unity and the Assembly election.

 

I have one question for people in the Republic who said they want a referendum on Irish unity: Are you mad? Northern Ireland is radically dysfunctional, implacably divided and politically shipwrecked; insular and immature to a pathological degree. It is an embarrassment to itself. I should know. I have lived there all my life.

Why would you, as citizens of a confident, prosperous and increasingly progressive society, want to saddle yourselves with such a costly, troublesome burden?

I suspect that many of the people in the Republic who say they want a referendum – almost half the respondents in the latest Irish Times poll – have never been anywhere near the North.

What they aspire to is a romantic, time-honoured and largely unexamined ideal, similar to the Christian belief in heaven, without stopping to ponder what it would actually be like.

In the same spirit of universal Irishness, in which we are all equal and as one, it is also seen as improper, a socially unmentionable form of partitionist prejudice, to say that the North is nuts. Well, it is. I’m not suffering from internalised Nordiphobia: this is the reality.

So please let me introduce you to my lovely home.

We may not be actively engaged in killing each other anymore, but bigotry still holds this place in a death-grip. The bizarre obsession with flags, language and territory is just the outward manifestation of that.

The wounds haven’t been cleaned, just plastered over with competing narratives, some more ludicrous and self-serving than others

Before Stormont fell, in January 2017, we had a bad-tempered carve-up between unrepentant apologists for political murder on the one side and hardcore fundamentalists, opposed to abortion and equal marriage, on the other.

Now we are rudderless, spinning in circles, adrift in the doldrums even as Brexit inexorably approaches. But a mutual macho reluctance to lose face – enacted, ironically enough, by their female leaders – prevents the DUP and Sinn Féin from resurrecting the devolved government.

Sectarian standoff

Clearly nothing is more vital than maintaining that all-important sectarian standoff. Meanwhile public services are falling apart. Education is in crisis, with almost half of schools in budget deficit, and some parents donating basic items like toilet roll and stationery.

Urgent plans for health service reform are stalled, and waiting lists are out of control, with almost 95,000 people forced to wait more than a year for a first consultant-led appointment at a hospital.

The deeper story is that Northern Ireland is sinking under the moral and psychic weight of its murderous past, and the collective failure to address the truth of what happened contaminates all attempts to move forward.

The wounds haven’t been cleaned, just plastered over with competing narratives, some more ludicrous and self-serving than others.

A car on fire in the North Queen Street area of Belfast, close to the site of a contentious bonfire. A refusal to tackle dangerous loyalist bonfires has undermined faith in the rule of law. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A car on fire in the North Queen Street area of Belfast close to the site of a contentious Twelfth of July bonfire. File photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

But the unconscionable neglect of victims’ needs, and the failure to deal with all that raw, unprocessed trauma, means that an epidemic of mental health disorders is being passed down from generation to generation.

And they still shoot children in Northern Ireland: don’t forget that. This casual butchery is all part of the enduring culture of lawlessness. Last year it was reported that “punishment attacks” by dissident republican and loyalist paramilitaries had risen by 60 per cent over the previous four years.

Today I’d argue that – politically, socially – the Republic is closer to England and Scotland than it is to the North

Many of the victims are youths accused of criminal behaviour, like stealing cars or dealing drugs, by thugs posing as protectors of their own communities. In some cases desperate parents have even dosed their teenage children with alcohol and painkillers to make the beating or shooting more bearable.

Separate

Back in 1978, when Dervla Murphy published A Place Apart, her determined attempt to understand the Troubles in the North, she wrote: “My own conviction…is that Northern Ireland has already become as ‘separate’ from both the UK and the rest of Ireland as England and Scotland are from the Republic.”

Today I’d argue that – politically, socially – the Republic is closer to England and Scotland than it is to the North. We are more of a place apart than ever.

Still keen to make this violent, obstreperous and heavily subsidised basket-case part of a united Ireland?

To be purely selfish, I wish you would. Stormont is dead, and the British aren’t making much of a fist of their stewardship of the North.

But, really, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Fionola Meredith is a journalist based in Belfast

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