Leading historian says case must be made for NI to stay in UK

Paul Bew says new British PM must highlight the ‘intellectual weakness’ of a united Ireland

The new British prime minister must make the case for the United Kingdom with a positive vision to counter the nationalist narrative, a prominent historian has suggested.

Lord Paul Bew, who teaches Irish history and politics at Queen's University Belfast (QUB), said Theresa May's successor must make the case for the union consistently and also highlight what he described as the "intellectual weakness" of the case for a united Ireland.

“A new, modern case for the union must be developed, based on the principle of consent,” he stated.

“For many years, negative narratives of the union have predicted its death but many of those arguments are often based on falsifiable or insupportable suppositions.”


Lord Bew's latest paper is set out in Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre UK think tank which is frequently cited as influential on Tory Party policy-making.

He suggested the preservation of the union should be the “absolute priority” of the next British prime minister and the key to it will be finding a way around the backstop.

Lord Bew said the British government must acknowledge that Brexit has opened up to the union a "new nationalist and separatist agenda", which should be responded to "in kind".

He proposed that a department of the union be set up at Whitehall and that consideration be given for a charter of the union, laying down the principles of the territorial constitution into the future.

The paper contains a foreword by Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, who put forward to the so-called Brady amendment which states the EU and UK should pursue alternative solutions to the backstop.

The backstop, as contained in the Withdrawal Agreement, states that Northern Ireland will remain in the EU customs union until a comprehensive trade agreement is reached between the EU and the UK.

This is to avoid the need for customs checks on the Border.

Lord Bew accused the EU of “weaponising” the Belfast Agreement by making the backstop an “article of faith”.

“This false narrative - that the backstop is the only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement - must be challenged at its core.”

He contended that the Irish Government’s stance that the backstop was about preserving peace was a “highly dubious claim”.

“The threat from dissident republicans was increasing before Brexit and dissident republican groups have consistently argued that Brexit makes no difference to their campaign.

"It might be more accurate for Dublin to say that there are concerns in the nationalist community about the effects of Brexit. But it is patronising to the people of Northern Ireland for the EU to style itself as more concerned about keeping peace than the British Government. "

Lord Bew detected a changing mood both in Ireland and in the EU over the backstop. He cited Angela Merkel’s likely successor, CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, as somebody who has signalled a willingness to engage again in relation to the backstop.

He said there was a “false narrative” around the backstop which suggested that it was necessary to preserve the Belfast Agreement.

He believed there was room for manoeuvre despite the fact that the EU has stated repeatedly that the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the backstop, is not up for renegotiation.

This, he said, was a consequence of the fact that the backstop as currently envisaged would lead to the very thing it was meant to prevent - a hard border in Ireland.

“As such there is room for further constructive dialogue on the backstop (along with flexibility in how it is interpreted) in a way that addresses everyone’s concerns,” he wrote.

“But the British Government needs to take the lead, pushing back against the false narrative around the peace process (of which it is the protector-in-chief) and changing its approach.

“Ironically, there is growing recognition that the EU’s hardline stance (putatively in solidarity with Dublin) might well having highly negative consequences for Ireland itself which stands to lose most from no deal.

“Any hard border that Ireland is forced to put up with would hurt the Republic more than any other parties, making a mockery of its declared strategy to avoid such an outcome.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times