Opinion

Change is coming in Ireland. We need to pay attention

A seismic shift took place last week in the Northern Ireland council elections when nationalists outnumbered unionists for the first time

Charles Fort, Kinsale Co. Cork

Charles Fort, Kinsale Co. Cork. Image: The Speckled Bird / Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0)

I went to Cork last week. I’d never been before, shamefully. It was only down the road, growing up. Well, a few hundred miles. But still. I heard so often about the micro-climate and the joyful Corkness of the locals I felt I knew it. Cork people carry real pride. If you tell them that you like Cork, which I found myself doing a lot, they affirm that it’s great. There are a lot of prints around the place featuring the outline of Ireland. The county of Cork is drawn in. Everything outside the line is called simply Not Cork. Though, frankly, I expected more murals of Roy Keane.

One evening we drove to Kinsale and beyond to Charles Fort, an old 17th century citadel, hanging on the rock pointing out to sea. Given the size of county Cork there is a lot of sea and the influence of it is everywhere. In Cobh, a tiny coastal town nearby, there are big memorials to and lasting memories of the Titanic (which made its last stop in Cobh as it set sail) and the Lusitania, torpedoed just off the shore in 1915. It says much of a certain Irish balefulness that such tragedies remain a focus. 

From Charles Fort you can look out along the channel to the Celtic Sea and know that if you then turn right there’s nothing between you and America. Which is what so many did from that coast over the last two centuries. Standing there you are grabbed by a welcome pause, suspending you in the elemental. But that does not last. The immediate in the moment gripping Ireland, north and south, is similar to most other nations. It’s always there to tug at your sleeve. 

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There is a massive housing problem in the south, particularly around Dublin, and an increasingly ugly debate about immigration, with real toxicity and people keen to close doors, which is hard to rationalise considering it was barely two generations ago that the Irish were flooding out in huge numbers seeking their own brighter futures. North of the border, the Brexit fallout is shaping the future, for those who live there, and for those of us who don’t. We need to pay attention. 

It was the council elections in Northern Ireland last week. They held them a fortnight later than elsewhere in the UK because the voting system takes longer (it’s single transferable vote), and they appear to have thought that nobody would be bothered to get on with things during the coronation weekend.  

There was a seismic shift in the outcome. Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party. And the total for nationalist and nationalist-leaning votes (that is, broadly, those who identify as Irish or who do not hold to the union with England as the key element in their vote decision) was greater than unionist for the first time ever. The leading unionist party, the DUP, campaigned hard with their opposition to the Brexit protocol agreement. It is this position, they say, that had them veto the establishment of government at Stormont. It may have chimed with their core, but as Sinn Féin and the third way Alliance Party grow, there is a clear direction of travel. And it’s not back to the old status quo. 

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Northern Ireland is full of analysis of what this all means. There are growing calls for a border poll on a united Ireland on one side. No need, nothing to see here, our voters want us to keep pushing against the protocol on the other. All the while, people see public services crumble and are losing patience with those who would prevent government getting things going again. Reality bites. The whole place is not exactly a bellwether for how things will play in the rest of the UK – it is the north of Ireland after all, nothing is straightforward. There will be something transactional to bring a momentary settlement. But it won’t be the bigger story. 

If we lift our heads from the reeds of speeding points and childish ex-PMs throwing their legal advisers out of the pram, we’ll see the place is changing and moving to something and they’re not going to stop. The impact will be significant. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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