Any future border poll is unlikely to be a straight choice
Being a journalist is like having a front row seat as history is being made. Over the years, I’ve covered events, announcements, major political developments, spoken to and interviewed key players and thought one day my grandchildren will be learning about this in school.
But, right now, more than in any of my 20-plus years as a journalist, I feel that we are at the centre of a major upheaval and change — witnessing and participating in a period that scholars will be studying in 100 years’ time.
Brexit was a huge wake-up call for many of those who claimed to have the pulse of public opinion. Few predicted the Leave vote and even fewer had worked out what that vote would mean to the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people.
It was a polarising question and one that divided families and communities. It changed Britain and not, I would argue, for the better.
But closer to home, it created a new energy around a question that I did not previously think would be addressed in my lifetime.
While the Good Friday Agreement recognises “the right of the people of the island of Ireland to bring about a united Ireland, subject to the consent of both parts”, when that historic peace accord was signed, that seemed a long way off in the future.
I’m an Irish woman. I am secure in my identity. I don’t need a flag outside my house, or to pack a green, white and orange beach towel when I go on holiday. It’s just who I am and who I have always been, and that is despite being born into a part of this island that has, since its creation 100 years ago, been ruled by the UK.
I have an Irish passport, but in the past, I’ve held a British one as well. When you need a passport renewal in a hurry, dual citizenship can be a handy wee number. May the best passport office win.
I have lived through — and then later reported on — the fallout of our conflict, hearing harrowing stories of loss and injustice.
Only a bloodthirsty fool, or someone too young to remember it, would ever advocate a return to those times.
However, Brexit has taken us dangerously close to that point. It was a vote driven by immigration policies in Britain, but one that meant a completely different thing for the people of Northern Ireland.
For those who live in the borderlands, the areas where home, work and family move seamlessly between the two jurisdictions, it has been a worrying time as they consider what it means for their lives.
For unionists, it has awakened old insecurities. It has threatened the very existence of Northern Ireland in a way that wasn’t considered when the DUP threw their lot behind the Brexit experiment.
And it has raised the question again about the future of this island: how will it look and what way will it exist in another 100 years?
If you had asked me in 1998 if I thought there would be a border poll in my lifetime, I would have given a firm no. Ask me the same question post-Brexit and the answer would be very different.
There will be a question on the future of this island in the next five to 10 years, I truly believe that. But what I don’t know is what form that question will take.
When this island was partitioned 100 years ago, it created a unionist majority in Northern Ireland that discriminated against the Catholic minority. That’s not a matter of perception — that’s a fact.
It encouraged sectarian division and we’ve spent the years since trying to find a better way, a fairer way, to live alongside each other.
That’s changing now at a much quicker pace, because we have adults who were born into peace and who do not bring with them the baggage of my generation and the generation before us.
They have different priorities — they care about the environment, they care about jobs, education, prosperity, getting out on a Saturday and getting home safe later that night.
In the south, partition created a society controlled by the Catholic Church that discriminated against women and girls and made shame and guilt key methods of population control.
The capitalist policies of successive governments, putting big business and the needs of foreign property speculators before the people, have led to an unfair society with huge disparities in the distribution of wealth. That’s not something I aspire to being a part of.
Any future border poll is — in my opinion — unlikely to be a straight question of partition, or unification, but more a complicated list of possible scenarios.
Would we be voting for one state, one parliament, or one state, two parliaments? Would we be voting for Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU?
Would we be looking at the prospect of an independent Northern Ireland, or redrawing the border to give unionism a smaller geographical area that would preserve their majority for another 50 or more years? (The last one sounds unlikely, but Margaret Thatcher considered it in 1984).
What about a long, slow goodbye; a Hong Kong-style withdrawal, phased out over a decade or more? Or would it be something else entirely?
These are all questions likely to arise in the future, issues we should be having respectful debate around, something we shouldn’t fear talking about.
And as a journalist I look forward to having a front row seat for that historic debate.