I’ve written a lot about what unionists should do to help strengthen the Union with Northern Ireland.
Top of the list is obviously securing much-needed changes to the Protocol before it turns the Province into an economic satrapy of the EU. Then there’s Westminster’s need to get to grips with its actual obligations under the Belfast Agreement, rather than the never-ending wish-list dreamed up by Dublin that Theresa May signed up to. After that, there’s the new UK Internal Market Act 2021, which authorises Westminster to make top-up investment in areas normally reserved for the devolved assemblies.
But for a while, I have had a sneaking suspicion that there may a task even more important than that, and over the past month, I have convinced myself of it. If we want people in Great Britain to care about Northern Ireland, we need them to visit Northern Ireland. So, I did just that.
The Antrim coast, which I visited with a couple of friends earlier this month, is basically a secret Cornwall. It has great beaches at the Portstewart Strand, lovely scenery such as Cranny Falls (where you can go swimming), crystal-blue seas at Murlough Bay, and great resort towns in Ballycastle and Portrush.
If a city-break is more your thing, then you can do far worse than Belfast: compact, cost-effective, very friendly, and packed with history and great places to eat (the breakfast at Harlem Café is a delight). You can see pretty much all of nearby Londonderry on a short walk around its famous walls. Or if you think the Lake District is a bit crowded, Fermanagh is a country getaway like no other. Can’t choose between them? Fear not. You can cross the whole Province by car in an afternoon.
Moreover, the people are almost universally friendly. Even some of the stuff that looks scary on the news is much less so up front. All right, you may not get invited to an Eleventh Night bonfire in Portadown if you’re not plugged in to unionist Twitter, but what looks grim and confrontational on television turned out to be a much happier and human experience in person — even for someone like me whose Irish background is Catholic, and didn’t hide it. (Which isn’t to say that there aren’t fires with an aggressive and sectarian element, merely that those shouldn’t be allowed to stand in for the whole. The friendly lad who saw me filming and cried 'Quick, let’s sing about hate!' captured the tension nicely.)
One really unfortunate feature of Northern Ireland’s profile on the mainland is that we only tend to hear about it when something is going wrong. It could be violence, it could be outrage, it could be scandal or dysfunction, but whatever it is that puts Ulster in the headlines, it is more often than not variants on that unhappy theme.
Even on the rare occasions when Northern Irish politicians are thrust into the spotlight through no fault of their own, such as when Theresa May squandered the Tory majority in 2017 and had to negotiate a pact with the Democratic Unionists, they tend to get treated as alien interlopers in national politics.
The subliminal effect this has on people’s expectations helps to explain why, in my experience, taking people there is a bet that nearly always pays off. Of the people I went with, several are already preparing return visits.
This has a bigger payoff than introducing people to a new holiday destination, though. It also helps people to connect with Northern Ireland as a real place, and start to actually value it as part of our country. In my extensive, if anecdotal, experience, the single most important variable that determines whether someone in mainland politics cares about Ulster is whether or not they’ve been there. And even if it doesn’t turn every visitor into a unionist, greater first-hand experience might at least improve the coverage of Ulster offered by mainland media.
Unionists obviously have a lot of political battles to fight. But those looking to defend the UK could do worse than helping organise regular expeditions across the water. A person with friends in Northern Ireland is much more likely to become a friend of Northern Ireland. And it deserves them.