eather Wilson describes herself as a “freethinker”. Hailing from a Protestant family in North Belfast, in 2017 the 29 year-old became the first woman from a Unionist background to stand for election for the SDLP, the nationalist party instrumental in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
She may not be alone. A generation ago, Protestant nationalists were almost unheard of, but a LucidTalk poll for the Sunday Times in January suggests a few other “freethinkers” are breaking through.
Over 47 per cent of all voters backed the status quo against 42 per cent who support a united Ireland, and 11 per cent who were undecided. Among 18-44 year olds, a boundary that stretches the term “young voter”, 47 per cent supported reunification, while 46 per cent back staying in the UK. The remaining 7 per cent are undecided.
“There’s change coming and it’s very exciting,” Wilson says. “It gives young people in particular the chance to be part of something bigger.”
Though a slim majority said they want a border poll, the margins are tight and the majority in favour of reunificationwho otherwise needed for the Northern Ireland Secretary to trigger a referendum, as stated in the Good Friday Agreement, remains elusive.
But it is an encouraging trend for nationalists like Wilson. And, while traditional political leaders address coronavirus and the Brexit fallout, new civic groups are stepping up to woo the wavering.
Niall Murphy, the secretary of one of these civic groups, Ireland’s Future, knows better than most that at the moment, Northern Ireland faces more pressing issues. Back in March, he spent 16 days on a ventilator with coronavirus and a further six months off work.
“I don’t want a border poll during Brexit or the pandemic,” he says. “That’s irresponsible. But we want the planning to start now.”
The group is pushing forward conversations on Irish unity, led by academics, business people, senators, journalists, historians and legal professionals like Murphy, a respected Belfast solicitor known for representing families of victims of The Troubles.
The professional image projects competence, strengthened by their position outside Northern Ireland’s fraught political scene.
Founded in 2019, Ireland’s Future has run high-profile events in Belfast and elsewhere, while Murphy has garnered support from Irish Americans in New York. Forced online during the pandemic, their video meetings, including one with young Protestant nationalists like Wilson, have attracted “thousands” of followers, Murphy says.
The plan is to accelerate progress towards a border poll and to shape preparations. “Civic movements are often ahead of politics,” Murphy explains.
‘Brexit has given us an impetus’
Last month, Ireland’s Future released a document calling on the Irish government to arrange citizens’ assemblies, as it did before gay marriage and abortion referendums in 2015, and to conduct research into a new, united Ireland.
This, Murphy says, would avoid situations like the “constitutional nuclear bomb that is Brexit”. Rather than go into a referendum without knowing what a united Ireland would entail, he says, “we want the economic models to start now, we want the proposals to be shaped in that direction in a referendum campaign.”
For all nationalists’ opposition to Brexit, “it has provided us with the impetus to encourage the conversations on Irish Unity”, a representative for Think32, an online civic nationalist group says.
Set up in 2015, Think32 has welcomed Unionist speakers and contributors to their blogs who, following Brexit and the three year breakdown of the Northern Irish parliament Stormont, “now see unity as a viable option”.
Under the Northern Irish protocol, the country continues to follow some EU rules and the checks and controls on goods travelling from Great Britain to the country, has contributed to empty supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland and fuelled acrimonious debates in Stormont.
These issues are drawing non-political voters into constitutional discussions. Wilson says: “My normal friends don’t have an interest but as soon as the Protocol shut down people’s lives and you can’t get your Amazon parcel on time or my sister can’t bring her dog home for Christmas [from Great Britain], I think that engages people.”
Political parties staying out
Cultural issues, meanwhile, are turning voters away from political unionism. “The DUP, UUP, and TUV have nothing to offer me or any young person I know,” one 22 year-old Protestant student wrote on Twitter this week.
In the real world, Philip Smith, a UUP councillor, acknowledges the challenge. “The traditional unionist message isn’t landing with that demographic. We need to move on from the spitfires over the White Cliffs of Dover imagery to something that will appeal to a younger generation.”
Smith has co-founded his own new civic group, UnitingUK. Though he doesn’t want a poll, he says Unionism cannot “keep its head in the sand”. He wants to target the “middle ground people who neither feel one way or the other particularly stronger.”
In focus groups with women and young people from mainly unionist backgrounds, he found a “comfort with Irishness” and a rejection of political Unionism.
“There’s no need to put a label on yourself,” Scarlett Reid, a 19-year-old Belfast student who took part at the start of January, says. “My mum would talk about growing up in the Troubles and how it was weird to have that stance back then, but I’m just Northern Irish.”
If a referendum were to happen, Smith, once a Liberal Democrat councillor in Wokingham, thinks voters like Reid would appreciate a “more liberal and internationalist” sell of British values.
Respondents in his discussion groups praised Britain’s diversity, its role in countering climate change, the energy of Britain’s Black Lives Matter protests, and its international aid as British selling points, though this final asset has been stripped back by the Conservatives’ recent cuts to foreign aid.
Few of Smith’s team are active politically and their style has gone down well. One participant said: “We don’t want bald, middle-aged men coming to talk to us. We want people that look like us, we want to see younger people and more diverse people being involved.”
Former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson has called on Unionists to prepare for a border poll and Smith is among the first to take a step, with another group, WeMakeNI launching on 10 February.
While DUP and UUP figures have congratulated him privately, party political figures won’t be engaging with conversations on Irish unity for some time. “They’re canny enough to realise that for a campaign like this to be successful the last thing they need is for front-line Unionist MPs to be involved,” Smith says.
The ‘realpolitik’ of a referendum
For both sides of the argument, Wilson says, “taking the politics out of it is very important.” Instead, it is “realpolitik” issues that are likely to influence a referendum campaign.
She asks: “Will people be genuinely better off in a united Ireland? Will it be better to bring up their family? As a young person, what will growing up in a new Ireland look like with university fees? They need to answer all these big things, which Ireland’s Future is starting to do.”
The NHS remains a trump card for Unionists, despite its problems in Northern Ireland. 1 in 6 Northern Irish people are on a waiting list but free healthcare is likely to provemore appealing than the Irish system.
While Reid uses free services at university in Glasgow, friends studying at Trinity College Dublin have paid €20 for a prescription for an ear infection. Patients without insurance – about 60 percent of people – routinely pay up to €60 to visit their GP.
Though Ireland’s Future and others want universal healthcare, free at the point of service, this remains a “myth”, Smith says. “People are putting forward proposals for an all-Ireland NHS but it’s nothing more than a proposal.”
On the economy, discussions could prove more interesting. Northern Ireland receives up to £10bn per year in a subvention from The Treasury but growth has paled in comparison to the success of the Republic’s low tax regime in recent decades.
Conor Devine, a Belfast entrepreneur who backs unification, says the country is “very quickly becoming an economic backwater”, incapable of fiscal autonomy. In contrast, he references 2015 modelling by a Canadian consultancy, which found that unification could increase Northern Ireland’s GDP per capita in the long run by 4 to 7.5 percent.
Fix Northern Ireland first
Momentum will build behind these competing visions. For now, the atmosphere is almost collegiate and amicable.
Ireland’s Future and Think32 have welcomed Unionist voices to participate in its discussions. Smith praises Ireland’s Future as a “serious organisation”, though he thinks some civic nationalists are “preaching to the choir”.
In the end, a logical rather than emotional approach could win out. Reid says: “I’d like to see a poll and see how it goes and how people actually feel about it. I’ve no idea how I would vote, I have to do a lot more research.”
That poll, if it happens at all, could be a decade away and, as Smith says, Northern Ireland has other problems to resolve: economic development, public services reform and infrastructure improvements.
Wilson, who is likely to stand for election again, says: “I don’t know where people are getting five years from [for another poll]. Making Northern Ireland work should be the absolute priority for everybody. You can’t make a new Ireland with a broken Northern Ireland. It’s not going to work.”