Belfast Telegraph

Students can benefit greatly by having a foot in both camps

By Fionola Meredith

What price political identity? How much is it worth to you? And could you ever put a monetary value on it?

That's the dilemma confronting unionist parents, following the news that youngsters from Northern Ireland who want to go to university in Scotland can, apparently, qualify for free tuition, if — and only if — they have an Irish passport.

So here's the ticklish choice: either young Johnny stays true-blue with his UK passport, adorned with Her Britannic Majesty's noble crest, and mum and dad cough up £27k in tuition fees.

Or else he goes along to the post office, gets passport form APS2E — you can't miss it, it's emerald green and has a picture of a harp on it, Ireland's national symbol — and becomes a proud citizen of the Irish Republic. Then off he goes to university — scot-free, as it were — and that nasty fees bill never becomes a reality.

Of course, for most people from a unionist background with university-age kids, this won't really be an issue at all. They won't see it as selling their souls — or the souls of their children.

All right, so it may give some of the more die-hard types a bit of a sickish qualm when it comes to signing that green form, but the thought of the oodles of cash to be saved will no doubt concentrate minds. Canniness and pragmatism will prevail over conscience.

There are plenty of delicious ironies in this, tasty nuggets to be savoured if you — like me — relish the unique weirdness of Northern Ireland.

Scottish universities were traditionally seen as desirable destinations for young, ambitious, well-off Protestant unionists, part of the Gold Coast progression route; now, it seems, many of them will be signing up for those same universities, for free, as Irish citizens.

The fact that Scotland itself may well end up achieving independence and breaking the Union only adds to the piquancy of the situation.

And here's another corker: even if Northern Irish students are classed as EU students, and thus avoid paying tuition fees, they can still get a student loan as a UK citizen. Hilarious. It's a win-win situation, as long as you're prepared to play the political game.

Now some may accuse these Protestant ‘nationalists of convenience’ of hypocrisy: willing to sacrifice principle for profit (or at least the avoidance of substantial debt).

Others — such as the Northern Ireland Conservatives, who have been making a noisy fuss about this issue for several months now — may bewail the unfairness of the fact that one student from Northern Ireland can study for free, while another may be charged thousands for the same course, at the same university, just because they hold a British passport, rather than an Irish one.

Yes, it is a daft loophole, but one that can benefit many of our young people, from both communities. Here's a thought to the nay-sayers: quit whining about discrimination and sign up for the Republic. It won't kill you.

And it's not as if the very notion of Britishness is going to come crashing down in an avalanche of bowler hats, diamond jubilee napkins and pictures of Pippa Middleton's backside, just because a few Ulster kids get Irish passports.

Any situation which blurs previously rigid political boundaries is a healthy one as far as I'm concerned — even when, as in this case, filthy lucre is the motivator.

Normally, I am dismayed at the way an empty obsession with money and materialism has become the defining factor of modern lives, undermining the priceless human virtues of care, kindness and compassion. (The Sunday Times Rich List, published last weekend, with its disgusting combination of fawning greed and seat-sniffing envy, is the prime example of this screwed-up mentality: all the more reprehensible given that the UK economy has just entered a double-dip recession.) But in this instance, I'll make an exception.

Because when an opportunity — even if it's mercenary, or even if it's technically discriminatory — comes along to make people think again about their political identity, opening up new ways of seeing themselves, we should seize it.

Who knows, holding an Irish passport might make some Protestant kids consider going south to university, rather than over to Scotland — up until now, a very untypical progression route.

In Northern Ireland, it's so rare that we benefit from being caught between two nations.

Here's a chance to break down old barriers and save a few quid at the same time.

Who could blame us for signing up?

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