AS I SEE IT
If and when the Protocol gets patched up we should surely be able to breathe a sigh of relief and hope that things will return to normal in the North and that Geoffrey Donaldson and the DUP will agree to return to Stormont and do what they were elected to do: govern.
It may be too soon for that though, the game involving Unionist fears about their future hasn’t played out yet. Red and green channels for goods, which give the North the best of both worlds, access to both the UK and the EU may have been worked out but the Unionists still want assurance that the red, white and blue flag will continue flying over the six counties. Acceptance of EU rules and the European Court of Justice is seen as threat to sovereignty and one which brings a United Ireland closer.
Surely by now that fear of closer relations with the South should have worn away in the face of familiarity? The Border is no longer apparent in any physical sense. Belfast and Dublin are just under two hours apart, yet it still divides us and makes us strangers.
Two generations back partition created a severance in my own family. Most of the relations stayed in the North and contact between them and those who lived in Dublin ceased. Only my grandfather and one of my great uncles remained in touch and met up occasionally at rugby matches. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that it was sometime after I came to live in the South that I got to know family I didn’t know I had. That was 40 plus years ago but things have hardly changed.
Two thirds of people in the South say that they have no friends in the North, 80% say they have no relations there and more than half say that they haven’t travelled north of the Border in the past five years, according to research carried out by Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South (ARINS). A bit shocking considering that, by some accounts, a majority in the South want to see unification yet we can’t be bothered to get to know the Northerners we lay claim to.
Perhaps sectarianism puts us off cross-border tourism but it’s a pity not to get to know the glory of the Glens of Antrim, the dimpling drumlins of Co Down, see the Mountains of Mourne rolling down to the sea, or to experience that wry Northern humour and warm hospitality.
Northerners don’t have the same reluctance to come south. Only a quarter say they haven’t come to visit us in the past five years, yet more than half say they have no friends in the Republic. It’s time to get to know each other better before weaponising ballot boxes for unification.
Time for both populations to get to know the practical side of things too. In the decades that I have lived here the economic balance between North and South has reversed. Now, living standards are higher here; we earn more, are better educated and live longer, whereas the North depends on subvention from Britain where it is now the poorest region. A situation hardly helped by the refusal of both the DUP and Sinn Fein alternately to share power, leaving the electorate without effective Government for most of the time since 2017.
The economy in the South is six times that of the North, where the rate of economic growth is only a quarter of ours and disposable income here is 12% higher. Only 40% of Northerners get third level qualifications compared with up to 65 % in the South. Women live 1.5 years longer in the South and men 1.4 years.
On the plus side cross-border trade has boomed post- Brexit: imports from Northern Ireland increased by 65% to almost €4 billion in 2021, while exports from the Republic into the North rose by 54% to €3.7 billion. There are a growing number of areas of North South co-operation too but there is much more that we could do to make things better for each other on our shared island, especially economically and in relation to the climate crisis and to health.
Last week saw thousands march in Dublin in support of the Ireland For All and against racism. It’s a people-powered movement for diversity and against division. It could be just the kind of movement to promote North South friendship to melt away that divide.