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What's in a name... how Northern Ireland was very nearly called 'Carsonia' after the unionist hero

By Damian Corless

As Northern Ireland agonises over what sacrifices might come with a hard exit from the EU, Macedonians are haggling with themselves over the admission price they'll have to pay for entry to the club.

Macedonia broke away from the shattered Yugoslavia in 1991. Ever since, the young country has been begging admission to the superpower and all the economic benefits it can bestow.

But for those 27 years, Greece has blocked its neighbour's path to prosperity, insisting the Greeks have an equal claim on the title 'Macedonia' as the name of that country's northern-most province, birthplace of the most-famed ancient Greek, Alexander the Great.

Later this month, the Macedonians vote in a referendum which could lay aside the Greek veto and open the sluice gates on the EU gravy lake. At issue is a simple name change, from Macedonia to Northern Macedonia.

Of course, names come with so much baggage and symbolism that changing them is never that simple.

Those opposing the change say national pride is at stake. The smart money says the majority will swallow that pride and vote to join Europe's big spenders. But the 'No' side will campaign with passion until the last ballot box is sealed.

As pollster and analyst Sasho Klekovski pointed out: "It's not just about one word. Think about Northern Ireland and Ireland. Words have meaning."

And what about Northern Ireland itself as it arrives at a crossroads with the signposts all vandalised?

If Northern Ireland was to find itself in a clear and clean break with the Irish Republic, might a new sense of empowerment charge unionists to seek a rebrand in order to seal the deal? It's not beyond the realms of possibility.

The past near-century since partition has been littered with failed attempts by unionists to finalise the bitter divorce with a name change.

The last 32-county general election took place in 1921, a year before the Irish Free State declared its independence, but a year after partition had been formalised in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

Under that Act, the Six Counties became Northern Ireland, but while partition remained in limbo, that was just a legalism and the popular placeholder name for the UK remainder was Carsonia, after unionism's supreme leader, Edward Carson.

On the eve of the election, with a Sinn Fein walkover assured in the 26 Counties and republican heavyweights like Michael Collins standing in the North, one newspaper declared, "All Eyes On Carsonia".

But the 1920 Act said 'Northern Ireland', and Northern Ireland it became, irking many unionists.

In 1937, the Irish Free State renamed itself Eire/Ireland, with the intended implied claim on the entire island. This sparked a fresh campaign to change 'Northern Ireland' to 'Ulster'.

The Attorney General argued that Northern Ireland was a "cumbersome name", but the real objection was that the 'Northern' prefix was a diminutive, a minus sign, the mark of an entity that was less than whole.

As fans of The Office will appreciate, those eight letters represented the difference between 'assistant regional manager' and 'assistant to the regional manager'. It was - and remains in some hearts - deeply felt.

As ever, putting greater Britain's interests above those of its Irish domains, Westminster axed the name change for fear of upsetting other Commonwealth members.

In 1982, with tensions sky-high in the wake of the IRA hunger strikes, the Taoiseach's department rejected a scheme by the Republic's post office to print 'Ireland' alongside 'Eire' on stamps, decreeing it "problematic as unionists regard it as referring to the 32 Counties".

So, in a post-hard-Brexit world, will Northern Ireland unionists feel emboldened to try - and most likely fail - again, or if it all goes horribly wrong for the departed, might they decide that embracing a little Irishness presents a friendlier face to a strange new world?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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