From sports jerseys to flags flown outside homes, people in Northern Ireland often go to great lengths to demonstrate their identity. And markers of identity do not come much more obvious than a passport: a document that literally shows your nationality. Why then, are young people from Unionist backgrounds opting to apply for Irish passports?
When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, it was considered important to allow people in Northern Ireland to choose whether they wanted Irish or British citizenship, or both. Under the peace agreement, which helped bring an end to the violence of the Troubles, the two identities carry equal weight. People born on the island of Ireland are therefore automatically entitled to an Irish passport, regardless of background. But for Unionists, who support Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, holding an Irish passport may be in complete opposition to their political and cultural views.
That was until Brexit happened. Now, many young Unionists in Northern Ireland have decided that the practical benefits of the Irish passport outweigh any conflicts of identity they may feel.
Professor Colin Harvey of the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast explains that because “Irish citizenship remains an EU citizenship, whereas UK citizenship does not”, there are a whole host of benefits that come with having an Irish passport.
Natasha, who did not wish to give her full name, is a 23-year-old who was raised in a staunchly Unionist part of County Antrim. Despite her upbringing of attending Orange Order celebrations on The Twelfth, she will be applying for an Irish passport this year. “I was hurt in a ski accident once and really benefited from an EHIC card,” she says. Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland will continue to be entitled to the European Health Insurance Card.
The Democratic Unionist Party are the biggest Unionist party in Northern Ireland and were vocal advocates for Brexit but, as even they admit, their own voters have been applying for Irish passports. In 2018, Sammy Wilson MP said he signed “two or three Irish passports a week” for his largely Unionist constituents. The East Antrim MP claimed that this demand was down to “misinformation” about Brexit. For many, however, the positives of an Irish passport are plain to see.
Hannah, 21, is a languages student who says her placement coordinators “advised” her to apply for an Irish passport. She sent her forms away last month. “It’s clear that an Irish passport will make my life much easier if I want to live and work in France, or anywhere in the EU,” she says.
For young professionals starting their career, an Irish passport is also seen as a potential avenue to jobs. Jason, 23, grew up with a Unionist background yet believes an Irish passport may boost his employability, “I’d seen quite a few firms in Belfast asking their employees to get Irish passports,” he says.
Lauren, who also asked to be identified by her first name, is a recent graduate who encountered similar attitudes when she worked in Europe as part of her degree. “My placement employer insisted that I get an Irish passport to make the process of my staying easier on their end,” she says. “I thought this was quite funny as there was just no understanding on his part as to why, as someone from Northern Ireland, I might not want to do that.”
Attitudes towards the Irish passport differ between young people and the older generation who experienced the Troubles. Natasha’s dad was a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the conflict.
“I have spoken to the majority of my family about this and I am the only one applying for an Irish passport,” she says, “Their experiences during the Troubles definitely shaped their view and created such a divide for them politically. I’ve no right really to argue with any of my family who don’t feel the same because I understand why they would believe what they do about being British.”
Some Unionists will never want to be Irish passport holders. “You can't be and shouldn't be coerced into identifying in a way that fundamentally conflicts with your Good Friday Agreement rights,” Professor Harvey says. However, he notes that, “one of the consequences of Brexit is that you’re simply better off in practical terms being an Irish citizen. For people in Northern Ireland who want to be British only, that creates challenges.” Professor Harvey worries that Brexit undermines the equality between the two citizenships in Northern Ireland, where an Irish citizenship is more materially valuable than a British one.
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has also caused some young people from Unionist backgrounds to question their identity. Jason says that debates over Brexit have lessened his sense of Britishness. “I think in the years before the referendum, if you’d asked me these questions I would’ve said that I was British,” he says. “But now, I would say I’m Northern Irish. The Brexit arguments have exposed quite a few uncomfortable truths about the UK.”
Lauren echoes this sentiment: “At the minute, I wouldn't describe myself as Unionist whatsoever in a political sense. I voted ‘remain’ for Brexit and would rather be in a united Ireland if it meant staying in the EU.”
Northern Ireland has long been a place of rigid identities. But for young Unionists applying for Irish passports, old identity allegiances must not get in the way of something that they feel will bring real-world benefits.