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Peter Shirlow: After claim people in Britain 'don't give a monkey's about Northern Ireland' - is it really a place apart?

Professor Peter Shirlow, who's worked at universities here and in England, says claims people in Britain 'don't give a monkey's' about province are wide of the mark, and we have much to offer


There is real interest in Britain about what goes on here, insists Prof Shirlow

There is real interest in Britain about what goes on here, insists Prof Shirlow

There is real interest in Britain about what goes on here, insists Prof Shirlow

Tim Shipman, political editor of The Sunday Times, has declared that "most people in Britain don't give a monkey's about Northern Ireland. They think it's a strange sectarian place and feel more at home in Cork, Washington or Paris than Belfast. Theresa May does not share this view but she might have to come around to it to get out of this mess".

To make such a comments in the limited word count of Twitter speaks to the limitations of the all-too-frequent soundbite. As the journalist Maureen Dowd summed social media up - it is "everybody's talking at once in a hypnotic, hyper din: the cocktail party from hell".

With some validity, Northern Ireland does appear as a place apart. The politics of RHI and the past points to a society ill at ease. But there is a confusing perception that we are as furious as we are kind. We are at times viewed like some hard-drinking and unbearable uncle not welcome at the wedding. We are positioned as having a history and a culture that is separate, neither British nor Irish, and not, which we are, the product of two nations and their relationship with us.

The DUP props up the Government because political power in the UK is in chaos. That disorder is part-wrapped in anti-immigrant rhetoric. It was England that voted for the disarray of Brexit not us - what a strange place it must be.

We are not the problem but part of a wider political panic. The Irish border issue that has stymied the Chequers blueprint is also a UK border. It is there because of the principle of consent, so how the PM will "come around" to also not giving "a monkey's" is as perplexing as it is confusing. Is she to tear up the Belfast Agreement to solve the crisis?

We emerged from a pernicious conflict and decided that the constitutional future was to be decided without an Armalite in one hand.

Despite the imperfections, we have sustained a much less violent period.

This place now has more mixed marriages and long-term relationships and a decline in workplace segregation than ever before. Judging us as a "strange sectarian place" is partly true, but as we have become less sectarian, more than a tad unfair.

A friend of mine from southern England recently returned from his first trip to Scotland and remarked that it "didn't really feel like Britain". I asked him: "Where do you think Britain is?" He looked puzzled, like some sophisticated Dubliner who went to Leitrim and yelled: "This is not Ireland!" Of course, where any nation actually is, lies in the realms of imagination.

Nations are complex places usually driven by the 'true home' being some cosmopolitan place, which is itself flawed, that looks down upon the rest. This is an always hazardous judgment that affords the sense that all other places are the antechamber - the small room then is imperfect compared to the main room - a one-sided view that reads our politicians' behaviour as representative of us all. Meaning that we should read Londoners as Boris Johnson.

If we are some hapless little place that few would call home, then why, last year, were there nearly five million trips to Northern Ireland that raised a billion pounds in revenue and led to 17m overnight stays? No harm to Cork, it is a fine city, but I'd bet a week's wages that more people from Britain visited Belfast than went to the Rebel County.

Game Of Thrones, the new hotels and the ever-popular city break would seem to suggest that we are, dare I say, attractive. If Titanic Belfast was voted as the world's best tourist attraction, then we must have shifted from being thought of as strange.

A year ago I brought English students to Belfast. For several weeks I lectured them on history, segregation and the culture of the city. The trip was the most popular choice among five UK - or four UK and one Irish destination, if you wish - destinations.

Sensing that my lectures were inspirational, I asked: "Why did you choose Belfast?" As my ego awaited praise the students merely said that they had heard it was a cool place. I was both deflated and elated.

When they came they saw the walls and all else that is dysfunctional, but they concluded that the history of Belfast was their history too.

The idea that most people in Britain do not give a monkey's is as true as it is false. I am sure most people in Britain never think about Northern Ireland, but they probably never think much about Glasgow or Cardiff either.

One in 10 people living in England has at least one Irish grandparent, and the equivalent of an eighth of the total population living on the island of Ireland, who were born there, live in Britain. I would sense they would have an interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Working at the University of Liverpool, I speak every day to at least three or four people who served in Northern Ireland. They keep up to speed with what happens here. Nearly a third of a million soldiers served in Northern Ireland, and MPs at Westminster tabled motions to pay the cost of abortions for women who travel to England and also marriage equality. There is nowhere I go in England that people do not comment or ask questions about what is happening here.

Merseyside has a population roughly that of here and I'd hazard that the politics of Northern Ireland features in more column inches and media coverage than that of Ireland's 'second city'.

Not to mention the contribution to civic and cultural life that Ulster folk brought and bring to Britain. Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison, Colin Bateman, Ruby Murray and Mary Peters' contribution both nationally and globally prove that we are not a detached antechamber, but at the core of cultural life.

To repeat, whether people give a monkey's or otherwise, it is the principle of consent that will change or maintain our place in the UK. Negatively labelling Northern Ireland is simply unhelpful as it scares the unionist horses and encourages the republican stampede.

To be fair to Tim, he rejoined the emergent hyper-din of responses to say it was just an opinion. Maybe we should all remember that if you tweet peanuts you encourage the misinformed monkeys.

  • Professor Peter Shirlow is director of Irish Studies at the University of LIverpool

Belfast Telegraph