National Irish identify, the Good Friday Agreement and how Brexit has changed the status quo in Northern Ireland today.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were being informed by opinion polls that nationalists living in the north of Ireland were content with their lot as being ‘Northern Irish’ and living in the UK. I can confirm that I was never canvassed for my opinion by any of these polls - but suffice to say I have always been proud of my Irish identity and would prefer the unification of all the people on our island.

I was raised in a Catholic family and my father was an Irish language teacher in a secondary school. Inevitably these were significant influences on my thinking and allegiances growing up, in the mixed religion and mixed identity region of County Tyrone during the ‘Troubles’.

Cathal Coyle.

Cathal Coyle.

The GAA and its 32-county ethos and inherent pride in the ‘Irish nation’ thanks to influential teachers impacted deeply on my psyche. Tyrone’s All-Ireland football final victories in 2003, 2005, and 2008 instilled a deep pride that our county was the best in Ireland – and this pride manifests itself in manager Mickey Harte ensuring that the team was able to sing ‘Amhrán na bhfian’ before the big games. Our players proved they were no less Irish than the Dubs or the Kerrymen!

Partition of Ireland

I have never been as convinced as I have now - that the partition of Ireland was an expediently destructive act- that has had disastrous consequences for the people of both of our islands. As we approach the centenary of partition in a few years’ time, the border issue has again assumed center stage thanks to the specter of Brexit.

The Troubles that I lived through for the first 19 years of my life were tragic for all of our people. The conflict divided communities – particularly in border areas, created deep suspicion and mistrust and led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people.

We all owe a great deal to the peacemakers – and there have been many.  The negotiations and inclusivity of all shades of political opinion led to a historic breakthrough in 1998.  The Good Friday Agreement was a watershed moment and was responsible for breaking down a lot of the division between Nationalism and Unionism.

While I reluctantly voted for it (I was skeptical that Unionism would continue to have an in-built veto to thwart the democratic will of the Irish people to seek the unification of our island) I respected the agreement because for the first time since partition it provided every citizen with the right to identify themselves as whatever nationality or hybrid nationality they are comfortable with.  Diversity needs to be celebrated, not feared.


For me, this is one of the Agreement’s greatest achievements – along with removing the ‘hard border’ infrastructure such as road blocks and army bases that existed in places like south Armagh. The Agreement validated my Irishness and it also protected the rights of my friends and neighbors to identify as they so wished.  This is true democracy in action. I respect the right of anyone in my community to identify as what they wish to be.

Conversely, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) voted against the Good Friday Agreement – and in recent times have proven that they are not in favor of nationalists having their identity or rights as Irish citizens respected.

They view Northern Ireland as being ‘British’.  That’s their right under the Agreement to identify as such – and carry British Passports, (however some DUP members have applied for and received Irish passports which might ensure easier passage throughout the EU post-Brexit!) but to deny almost 50% of the population their right to be Irish is surely the antithesis of democracy?

And opinion polls in recent times have suggested that public opinion among the Nationalist population has turned sharply away from a feeling of being happy in the UK- towards a more overtly and assertive nationalist outlook, in essence looking at the realistic potential of Irish unification.

The ongoing uncertainty about the type of border that will emerge in Ireland post-Brexit means the possibility of a border poll is increasingly being debated. An excellent article by Bill Whyte in The Irish Times on Monday October 1st, 2018 suggested that all polls still show a border poll producing a majority in favor of the North remaining in the UK.

But the margin is a lot closer than some might expect.  On average, the polls show support of the North staying in the UK at around the early to mid-50 per cent (excluding non-voters/ Don’t Knows).  Legislation states that a border poll should be held if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland decides that it is “likely” that such a poll will produce a majority for unification.

Change in Attitudes

And the key ingredient in this apparent change in attitudes is: Brexit. Most people never thought that as we approached the date for UK’s official departure from the EU that it would be fraught with so much uncertainty, recrimination and fear as to what the future will hold for Britain and Ireland.

The border in Ireland – not the ‘Irish border’- as many in the English media like to label it, has taken center-stage in negotiations between the UK and EU.  A ‘backstop’ arrangement was agreed between the UK and EU negotiating teams in December 2017; however, the DUP couldn’t countenance any part of the UK being treated differently (even though the ‘backstop’ would be to the advantage of farmers in Fermanagh, Arlene Foster’s home patch). Allied to the DUP’s grip on the Tory government this has resulted in the current parliamentary crisis at Westminster.


So, what is the way forward for breaking the current Brexit deadlock in the absence of the regional assembly and the Tory reliance on DUP votes at Westminster?

One of the primary failures of the Assembly was that it didn’t pass a Bill of Rights to protect the rights of everyone in society. The real leadership appears to be from community groups and civic leaders, because while the Good Friday Agreement showed what politicians can do when they work together constructively, Brexit has unfortunately proven that the failure of politics has disastrous consequences.

Ordinary people uninsulated by the political bubble will always take the worst hits, and that is the real fear of a ‘No-deal’ Brexit on 29th March.  This scenario is looking increasingly likely as we rapidly approach that date.

The recent ‘Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland’ event recently attracted 1600 to Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on the final Saturday in January. Keynote speakers such as Niall Murphy, Joe McHugh, and Mary Lou McDonald emphasized the protection of the peace process. Regardless of the outcome of Brexit, it is imperative that our Irish identity, along with the other identities that make up the fabric of Tyrone and other northern counties be respected – and protected.  

© Cathal Coyle 2019

Cathal Coyle is a librarian and the author of three books, most recently ‘The Little Book of Irish Landmarks’. He has also contributed to Irish America magazine on items of cultural and historical interest.

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