NORTHERN IRISH STUDENTS ON BREXIT
‘Brexit is tearing up the rulebook of identity in Northern Ireland’ – final-year students at Methodist College in Belfast discuss what Brexit means for them
Methodist College in Belfast – better known as “Methody” – is an interdenominational, co-ed grammar school located at the bottom of the Malone Road in Belfast, next to Queen’s University. Founded by the Methodist Church in 1865, it has a long- established academic and sporting pedigree in Northern Irish second-level education and is ranked among the top schools in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Traditionally a Protestant school, Methody now draws both Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist students. Past pupils include DUP MPs Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley jnr, Nobel Laureate physicist Ernest Walton, former Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland Robin Eames, artist Colin Davidson, Hollywood actor Jamie Dornan and rugby player Paddy Jackson.
– ( 18), from Newtownards, Co Down says she is Northern Irish. She grew up in a non-religious household. She wants to study politics in the United States.
– (18) from Dunmurry is a Protestant unionist and identifies as British. He would like to study
Joni Mcilroy Jonathan ‘Jonny’ Mearns
politics at Queen’s and eventually set up a new conservative political party.
– (17) from Bangor, Co Down identifies as Irish. He comes from a nationalist background and is non-denominational. He hopes to go to university in England next year.
– ( 17) from south Belfast is a Catholic nationalist but is not overtly religious. She identifies as Irish. She hopes to study history at university abroad and to return to live in Belfast.
– (17), from south Belfast, is a Protestant unionist and British. He wants to study economics in Britain and to return to Northern Ireland to work in business and, later, possibly politics.
– ( 17), from south Belfast, is a Catholic nationalist and Irish, though she is not religious. She has applied to study law in England and hopes to become a barrister.
– (17), from east Belfast, is a Protestant unionist and British. He hopes to study politics and international relations in England next year and would like to be a civil servant or diplomat.
Izaak Carnduff Hala Heenan Adam Flanagan Shannon McKeown- Gilmore Jake Lowry
This group of 17- and 18-year-old students, are all in their final year at Methodist College in Belfast and are thinking seriously about their future education and careers. They sat down with The Irish Times to discuss Brexit and what it means for them and Northern Ireland. Six out of the seven students are opponents of Brexit.
The discussion takes place as the draft divorce deal emerges and stirs divisions in Northern Ireland, Britain and beyond. The political consequences of a no-deal, disorderly Brexit are huge; five students, including one unionist, believe Brexit could result in a united Ireland in their lifetimes. None of the students puts up their hand.
Why are you in favour of Brexit? Jonny:
The money the UK puts into the EU could be spent elsewhere, particularly education. Britain is much better off using that money and trading with the EU or the rest of the world on its own terms.
I live in a unionist area and the post office ran out of Irish passport application forms within days of the Brexit vote
And why are you against it? Joni:
It is kind of a regression of ideas to combat globalisation, which I think is impossible anyway. I am not really sure what it is achieving. The main things at the beginning were immigration, sovereignty; I am not really sure how we are going to gain those things through Brexit.
It is breaking up different people, different countries and it will make it a lot harder for students and people early in their lives to get as many opportunities as they do right now.
Izaak: Why are young people in Northern Ireland particularly affected by Brexit? Jake:
As always in Northern Ireland, identity is a huge issue and you could almost say that Brexit has created an identity crisis. There are nationalists within Northern Ireland who feel that they are being drawn away from their Irish identity and the uncertainty over a hard or soft border, or indeed for unionists, if there is going to be a border down the Irish Sea. Young people within Northern Ireland still remain very close to their identities and all this is being thrown into uncertainty by Brexit.
Why are you so downbeat about a deal on Brexit? Shannon:
I don’t think it will be a deal that everybody wants or agrees with. It’ll be a very middle- ground deal trying to please as many people as possible and ultimately will do the complete opposite.
Would you consider getting an Irish passport? Jake:
I live in a predominantly unionist area and in fact the post office ran out of Irish passport application forms within days of the Brexit vote, so there is a real appetite because of the uncertainty.
Our Irish passport forms are in the post. I have always wanted to travel loads so it is pretty crucial that you are not held up in loads of different queues. It was a bit of a no-brainer really.
There are a lot Unionists taking up that opportunity but I just think the border question i n terms of travelling from France to Britain, having control over our own border is more important to me than being able to walk through a line at the airport.
The rulebook of identity in Northern Ireland is almost being torn up by Brexit. There were people who five years ago would have thought it unthinkable to get an Irish passport but they think it now just makes sense. As a Northern Irish unionist, I think that’s what makes Brexit most frightening. If we continue barrelling down this uncertain path towards Brexit, it genuinely calls into question unionism in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s very existence ultimately as well.
Adam: Are you concerned about a hard border post-Brexit? Hala:
It is a worry for my family because we have a house just across the Border. Are we going to have to bring our passports or other ludicrous questions like that? It is usually a quick 45- minute trip down the road. When travelling in the car, there is a little pole with a little red stick on it. That’s how you know you have crossed the Border.
My mum and dad recount the tales of when you used to have to stop and open the boot of the car and there would be army checks. Now there is such an ease of travel. It instils quite a big fear inside me that there is a very small possibility that that might come back.
Has concern over a hard border and a return to violence been overplayed? Jonny:
To a certain extent. From Northern Ireland’s perspective, we worry about it a lot but we fail to realise that the majority of our trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom. We also fail to realise that the Republic relies on the United Kingdom more than we rely on the Republic of Ireland.
Any hard border or any hardening of the border, even whether it avoids a totally hard border, is certainly dangerous in that it could risk a return to violence. Whether that would be the case, no- one can foresee that but I think the risk of that isn’t a price worth paying.
Adam: Are the 56 per cent who voted Remain in Northern Ireland represented at Westminster? Shannon:
The DUP – because of their own personal interest, they were obviously a pro-Brexit party – are not recognising that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain.
The DUP are a Eurosceptic party. They campaigned for Brexit and Sinn Féin unfortunately don’t take up their seats so how can they advocate for the people of
Northern Ireland if they refuse to go to Westminster. It is the issue of symbolism. Sometimes you have to put pragmatism before symbolism.
Will Brexit force Northern Ireland out of the UK? Izaak:
If a “no deal” Brexit was to occur due to chaos from an event such as the DUP pulling the rug out from under Theresa May’s government, then I could potentially see a fracturing of the union that would cause Northern Ireland to splinter off from the UK.
Despite Northern Ireland voting Remain, it is highly unlikely that many of those who voted Remain but identity as British would be willing to sacrifice the union for the sake of remaining in the EU.
It seems that unionists in the North are too adamant in their support of the union to concede, and southern nationalists don’t feel strongly enough for Northern Ireland to leave the union at this moment in time. Yet the uncertainty created by Brexit and the changes in Northern Ireland suggest that the prospect is not as far-fetched as it once was.
Jonny: Joni: Could Brexit result in a united Ireland in your lifetime? Hala:
If the backstop [the Brexit deal guarantee maintaining an open border] were compromised in any way, and Northern Ireland’s fortunes relative to the rest of the UK were not as good – and if the Irish economy continues as a EU star performer – then it may begin to make more economic sense to people.
Brexit could perhaps result in a united Ireland, but it is improbable. It would have to take Brexit to be a catastrophe before even thinking about this, which I do not for one moment believe will be the case.
The Republic has become a much more attractive option. Its transition into a secular, modern society has made it a very attractive option for younger voters, and [its status] as the fastest growing economy in the EU means business can no longer be used as an argument against reunification in the way it once was. While several stumbling blocks to a united Ireland have been reduced, the most important still remains: identity.
A no-deal Brexit would expedite any potential unification of Ireland. Regardless of the actualities of such a scenario, the symbolic significance of a hard border could galvanise moderate voters and pro-EU unionists to turn to Irish nationalism as their solution to a no-deal scenario. Of course, that wouldn’t be a sudden change in thinking but something that would perhaps develop over the decades to come.
Jonny: Joni: Jake:
Students of the Methodist College Belfast (from left) Joni Mcilroy, Jonathan Mearns, Izaak Carnduff, Hala Heenan, Adam Flanagan, Jake Lowry and Shannon McKeown. PHOTOGRAPH: BRYAN O’BRIEN
Students on Brexit Watch Bryan O’Brien’s video irishtimes.com/video