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

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Si­mon Car­swell

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.

Joni: Jonny:

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

Jake:

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

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