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Border analysis 'My dad was in the Orange Order, but I'd probably vote for a United Ireland'

Emma DeSouza says there are many people from certain backgrounds in Northern Ireland that might surpirse you when it comes to a Border Poll.

YOU WOULD BE hard pressed to avoid the topic of a United Ireland throughout the past few weeks.

From columns to polls to UK command papers – the debate on whether Ireland is on track for a vote on its constitutional future is in full swing.

However, missing to some degree is nuance; A Border Poll will not run as cleanly down ideological lines as some would believe, this is not a case of Catholics voting for a United Ireland, and Protestants voting to remain in the UK – perspectives on identity are changing in Northern Ireland, and what increasingly matters most to voters is opportunity.

Although the staunch ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides are somewhat highlighted by now, there are a surprising number of people from backgrounds you might not expect to be for or against a poll. I spoke to a number of people from various communities recently and asked for their views on a United Ireland.

Fionna Smyth hails from Bangor, where the 53-year-old grew up in a unionist environment. “We used to go and see the bonfires every twelfth, and I remember that the Lambeg drums were just about the most thrilling, exciting thing that I had ever heard … at that point, I would have called myself British.”

Today however, Smyth considers herself “Irish, Northern Irish”, having gone to university in England where Smyth found a very different reaction to her Britishness.

“You could not meet a more diametrically opposed view of Britishness than the one I had grown up with”, Smyth shared, “They didn’t speak like me, they didn’t have the same world view as me … it was a world apart”.

She gravitated toward an Irish identity through the world of literature, discovering poetry as a door into a history and culture she felt was “taken” from her protestant community.

She now aligns her identities with the “progressive values” of Ireland and has “no fear of a United Ireland”.

The pull of progressive values is being felt by more than just Smyth; Retired Navy Officer Tim McCullough works with refugees and found that while trying to rescue his Afghan interpreter’s family following the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, it was the Irish government that ultimately intervened while the UK government “just kept putting barriers in the way … England is heading down this very far right avenue at the moment, which I can never proscribe to.”

‘I’ll probably vote for it’

McCullough was successful in bringing the family to Ireland and says he “will probably vote for a United Ireland,” he is from “a very protestant background, my dad was in the Orange Order”. McCullough spent his life in the British armed forces, and today considers himself “Northern Irish, European”.

On the merits of a United Ireland he says, “I’d like to be part of Europe – you’ve already got 40 per cent of me sold, based on the point that I want to be European,” adding that he’ll do “what’s best for my children, what’s best for my family”.

Polling on a United Ireland suggests that there is not, at present, majority support in Northern Ireland, but support is growing, the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey documents a twice-fold increase in support for a United Ireland since 2015.

The need for a vote

An important factor here is the context in which people are answering polls. There is no plan, no detail, and no vision as to what a United Ireland will look like. When asked to consider whether or not they’d vote in favour of a United Ireland should an election be held today, people are being forced to decide based on extremely limited information.

The failure on behalf of pro-unity parties to establish a plan, as well as the Irish government’s passivity with regard to working toward a vote, are seen by some as a disservice to citizens and the future of this island. The appetite is there; the desire to have this conversation and weigh up our options is undeniable.

48-year-old IT specialist Mark McKechnie says he is “a little frustrated with the Irish government, that they are not putting in place more specific plans to avoid the Brexit mistakes of a very open-ended question.” McKechnie would have identified as “very British, Loyalist even” into his twenties.

Having lived in both England and Dublin he now describes himself as “Irish” and would vote for a United Ireland, “I would never have in the past, I’ve family members who would be very staunchly Loyalist, but I would vote for a United Ireland because I’m looking at it purely from an economic cultural standpoint.” Adding that, “I think for us to reach our potential, in the northern part of Ireland, the only way forward is unification, and we fully integrate and embrace that and go together as one nation: dissenter, protestant, republican, everybody that’s in the North, I’m for unification.”

In conducting these interviews, it became clear to me that there is an enormous opportunity right in front of us if only we had the political leadership and courage to grasp it. Constitutional change presents all of us with a chance to reconsider the kind of society that we want to live in.

Ireland, North and South, is plagued by systemic failings; Whether in governance or healthcare in Northern Ireland, or housing and climate in the Republic of Ireland, constitutional change will fundamentally disrupt the status quo and will require significant changes with respect to how Ireland as a country operates.

Such an opportunity will naturally appeal to a broader cohort than simply traditional nationalists. Identity is not rigid, religion does not define politics, and no community is homogenous. What this debate is about is economics, opportunity, and a return to the European Union.

Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner.

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