'We don’t really hate each other any more': people of Derry on life after McGuinness

Following Brexit vote the region feels overlooked by Westminster and talk of a united Ireland is on the agenda

There were no paramilitary trappings, no berets on the coffin, no police officers managing the crowds. The only helicopter overhead was the private one ferrying Bill Clinton to and from Martin McGuinness’s funeral.

For a brief moment in time, Ireland was united in respect for a man one side hailed as a hero and freedom-fighter and the other denounced as a terrorist.

Political and religious divisions run deep in Northern Ireland and the symmetry with events in London was not lost on the crowds, but McGuinness was such a towering figure in Irish politics that his legacy is already being felt.

“Martin McGuinness’s death has crystallised questions about how Northern Ireland sees itself within the United Kingdom, within Europe, within Ireland,” says Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at the University of Ulster.

His death came at an auspicious time, a time when Northern Ireland’s political landscape is going through extraordinary upheaval.

The Brexit vote precipitated this and fuelled nationalist support to a point where Sinn Féin is a whisker away from of being the largest party in the region and to a point where the unthinkable – a 32-county Ireland – is being spoken about as a possibility, albeit a remote one.

Stephanie Falconer
Stephanie Falconer: ‘I don’t want a united Ireland and I think the people will stop it from happening, but people are talking about it.’ Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

“I think that everyone thinks it’s going to happen – there will be united Ireland. I think everyone thinks it will be the next step,” says Stephanie Falconer, 39, a youth worker from the protestant Waterside of Derry. “I don’t want a united Ireland and I think the people will stop it from happening, but people are talking about it,” she says.

Comments like that are “a seismic shift in thinking in the last nine months”, says Heenan.

Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and the prospect of the economic damage coming down the line as a result of Brexit helped secure Sinn Féin a historic victory in the assembly elections three weeks ago.

“We have had the perfect storm of Brexit, the assembly elections and the death of a man who persuaded the IRA that politics was the way forward,” Heenan says.

The issue of a united Ireland was put to bed in the 1998 Good Friday agreement, because it recognised that Northern Ireland would stay in the UK because the “majority” so wished. “It was off the agenda completely. Talking about it is unsettling and unhelpful and destabilising – and for a lot of unionists it caused a lot of anger,” Heenan says.

But the agreement allows for a border poll, something Sinn Féin is pushing for as a result of the Brexit referendum, where the north voted to stay in the EU by 56%. So talk of a united Ireland is on the agenda in a way it has arguably not been since the foundation of the state in 1921.

The Fianna Fáil party in Dublin announced two weeks ago it would publish a white paper on reunification, as it tried to capitalise on the tide of feeling that has seen a rise in support for Sinn Féin. Former Sunday Business Post editor Damien Kiberd said this was about seeking a “narrow gain” against the party’s traditional opponents, Fine Gael.

The funeral parade makes its way though the nationalist Bogside area of Derry.
The funeral parade makes its way though the nationalist Bogside area of Derry. Photograph: Paul Mcerlane/EPA

The most pressing Brexit issues in Dublin and Westminster are the problems of growing separation: of border control, customs checks and the common travel area (CTA) which allows Irish and British people passport-free movement between their two countries.

After McGuinness’s funeral, one senior figure in the Irish government told the Guardian he felt the CTA would be fine, but the issue of customs checks on the 300-mile border was a huge hurdle. Politically it could be a disaster, affecting the fragile peace, which has seen the once-militarised border become practically invisible. Legally customs checks would be necessary once Northern Ireland leaves the EU.

For the people in Derry the reality of Brexit is more prosaic and the message is familiar. The city and region feel overlooked by Westminster and anything is better than direct rule, where London continues to preside over economic inertia. For some that includes a Dublin government.

Picture-framer Paul McGilloway who operates around the corner from McGuinness’s house says the Brexit and assembly results show the way forward is about the economy, not sectarian politics.

Paul McGilloway
Paul McGilloway: ‘I hope we see a united Ireland in my lifetime.’ Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

He says: “I’m a father-of-four. Four children in their twenties. We have got to stop this conveyor belt of them leaving. I think with Brexit we don’t want a united Ireland, we want a ‘new Ireland’. We have a country of 5 million people on one island and we need to build the economy across the island. I hope we see a united Ireland in my lifetime. I think it might happen in the next 20 years.”

Heenan says there has been no “peace dividend” in Derry or beyond, but is pessimistic that Westminster will change that post-Brexit. “Our health service is in crisis – where is the inward investment? We top all the wrong league tables: for educational underachievement, prevalence of mental ill health, economic activity,” she says.

“Never before has the union appeared so precarious. For many nationalists a united Ireland is now arguably closer than at any time since the creation of the state in 1921. What was once aspirational could be within touching distance. The perfect storm of the Brexit vote, the loss of a Unionist majority at Stormont and renewed calls for a Scottish referendum raises all sorts of intriguing possibilities,” she says.

Compounding the sense of political isolation felt in Northern Ireland is the lack of opportunity to use America as leverage. As Heenan says: “In the past America has come to Northern Ireland’s rescue. We don’t have that any more. We are not on Trump’s agenda.”

There are many on the streets of Derry who note that Theresa May has not entered any substantive talks about Brexit with the people of Northern Ireland. She hasn’t visited in the wake of the recent election and shows little sign of intervening.

Near a freshly painted mural near McGuinness’s house that implores people to join the IRA, a local tells me this is the work of what they call the “ceasefire soldiers”: dissidents just looking for a name for themselves. They say there is little chance of dissidents flourishing in the shadow of the late deputy first minister’s house, but they are a reminder of how fragile the peace is.

A united Ireland is anathema to unionists and the sight of Gerry Adams presenting it as a legitimate option prompts some visceral responses.

“Now that Martin McGuinness is dead, Gerry Adams is on his soapbox, he’s up here slabbering away again. He gave up as a politician here and took a seat in Dublin – he should just stay down south,” said William McNeill, a care worker in the Fountain estate, a protestant enclave on the largely Catholic side of Derry.

Bill Clinton attends the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Londonderry.
Bill Clinton attends the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Londonderry. Photograph: Paul Mcerlane/EPA

A short walk away at the funeral mass at St Columba’s Long Tower church, as locals crane their necks to get a glimpse of Bill Clinton, there is a palpable sense of will to maintain McGuinness’s legacy and continue the peace process.

John Duffy, a plumber from Bogside, said: “I think the Unionists and the DUP got the biggest shock of their lives in the election. I think they’re scared of another election because they’d lose. But we don’t really hate each other any more, that’s gone. I’d like a united Ireland. Why should someone in Westminster tell us we should leave the European Union?”

Long after Clinton’s helicopter whirrs away, politicians of all hues from both Dublin and Belfast snatch conversations in the churchyard.

Local presbyterian minister and unionist David Latimer knew McGuinness well and is a leading member of the Derry spiritual community. He says the only way forward is to park the big issues like a united Ireland and concentrate on the things that matter to both sides of the Brexit and assembly divide – jobs, education, infrastructure. “We have to build up trust the way Martin was doing and concentrate on the things that join us in common humanity and then maybe talk about the big issues,” he says.

But in the current political environment that seems unlikely.


Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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