Is the kingdom falling apart?
What the Queen’s death means for Britain
By Pauline Stahl, Dublin
09/18/2022, 02:17 PM
Shortly before Elizabeth II’s funeral, the British remain in a state of emergency. The death of the Queen not only causes sadness, but also fear, especially in a sector of the population.
For many Britons, Queen Elizabeth II was a symbol, a glue that held the United Kingdom together. But one population group in the island state is particularly struggling with the death of the monarch: the Northern Irish. “The Queen’s death is an earthquake for unionists in Northern Ireland,” wrote the Dublin Irish Times. Unionists represent the ideology that the north of the island should remain part of the United Kingdom.
At a time when Britain seems increasingly threatened by Brexit, Scottish independence aspirations and growing calls for Irish reunification, the Queen’s death is cause for fear. “In Northern Ireland, particularly from a unionist perspective, things look very uncertain at the moment,” says Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast. “A lot of things that you hold dear seem to be changing right now.”
According to Hayward, people believe a united Ireland is more likely, and not just because of Brexit. The success of the republican party Sinn Féin in both Northern Ireland and the Republic is “another sign to unionists that things can change quite quickly”. The former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) won the most seats in Northern Ireland’s regional parliament for the first time in May this year. One of Sinn Féin’s goals is to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s accession to the Republic within a decade.
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In addition, the latest Northern Ireland census results are expected to show a Catholic and Nationalist majority for the first time. Still, Hayward does not see a “massive increase” in supporters of an Irish unity and cautions against the impression “that something like this is imminent.” However, the fact is that the status of Northern Ireland has changed. Just the fact that people think a united Ireland is more likely “is significant”.
The Queen’s death plays a big part in this. “While the Queen was strongly associated with Christian beliefs and traditional values, Charles III was not so much the case,” Hayward explains. While he welcomed his appointment as king, there is no question “that he is a different kind of monarch, and not necessarily in the way that unionists traditionally associate monarchy.”
The Irish relationship with Elizabeth II was complicated. For 800 years, Ireland was colonized by the United Kingdom until the south of the island finally gained independence in 1921. However, in six counties in the north of the country, the queen remained the head of state. When Elizabeth II became the first monarch to visit Dublin in nearly a century in 2011, Hayward said she took a “very significant step” in recognizing Ireland’s independence. To this day, many Irish people remember the scenes in which the Queen laid a wreath in honor of the Irish who had perished in the fight for independence and uttered a few Irish words in her speech.
In 2012, the Queen shook hands with a former IRA commander
“He worked his way up from there,” Hayward says, until he even shook hands with Martin McGuinness a year later. “An even more significant gesture,” says the political scientist. The then leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland was an IRA commander responsible for the death of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, in 1979. “It seems we’ve regressed a bit from that peak,” says Hayward.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why not all Irish people grieve shortly after the Queen’s death. “Personally, events like this don’t seem relevant to me,” says Andrew Debarra. The 28-year-old Dubliner has lived in Manchester for two years and sees “the reigning monarchs as a monument to what is wrong with the world.” While he tries to respect everyone’s death, he takes offense when heads of state refer to the Queen as a “friend of Ireland”. In his homeland there is still an “alienating attitude” towards the North. Debarra would like to see a reunion, and with Sinn Féin’s growing popularity in the north, he believes it is possible, albeit within a few generations.
Cahal O’Boyle, originally from Belfast but now living in Vancouver, agrees. “There is a growing nationalism in Northern Ireland, which has been exacerbated by Brexit,” he says. For him, the Queen’s death was “a shock”. His family in Northern Ireland has a nationalist background and is not a fan of the British monarchy. “However, we responded to the death with respect.”
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