Diarmaid Ferriter: North was always treated differently to rest of UK
‘Ulster says no’ stance betrays ignorance of British and Irish history
“Despite the DUP’s current narrative, the peace that eventually came to Northern Ireland involved multiple strands, with input from Dublin, London, Belfast and the EU.”
Fifty years on, it seems Ulster is at another crossroads. Towards the end of 1968, the embattled prime minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, grew graver in tone as civil rights marchers defied the law, the Nationalist Party refused to continue as the opposition party and he faced antagonism from within his own party, including overt defiance by home affairs minister William Craig, who seemed intent on encouraging the idea of a unilateral declaration of independence by Northern Ireland.
O’Neill made a television address in December 1968 in which he declared: “Ulster stands at the crossroads . . . Unionism armed with justice will be a stronger cause than Ulster armed merely with strength . . . What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected province in good standing with the rest of the UK? Or a place continually torn apart?”
Northern Ireland remained at that crossroads; or, as Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe put it in March 1969, “Northern Ireland is still at the crossroads and the sky is overcast.”
Thankfully, Northern Ireland today is not the tinderbox it was then, but it is striking how the issues of unionism, integration and the type of Ulster desired remain contested, continue to cloud the Northern sky and dominate the DUP’s response to the draft European Union/UK withdrawal deal as it aligns itself with the hard Brexiteers.
During the week, DUP MP Sammy Wilson fulminated in London, while the party’s MEP Diane Dodds did likewise in Strasbourg. Dodds insisted: “No one wants to see progress more than us in the DUP. We have a vested interest in seeing Northern Ireland prosper and grow.” It seems a laughable assertion: if the DUP was interested in such contentment it would hardly cling to the nonsense that Northern Ireland cannot be treated any differently to the rest of the UK when it already is and always has been. Nor would it seek to so contemptuously defy the wishes of most of the electorate of Northern Ireland.
Dodds also asserted that the proposed deal “will increase the democratic deficit in our country”, clearly immune to the irony of her speaking in her capacity as an MEP for a European Parliament her party wants to leave and about a Northern Ireland her party refuses to get involved in governing. As it stands, the DUP props up the Tories due to the luck of parliamentary arithmetic, waxes indignation in London and Strasbourg but will not fulfil its duty in the Northern Ireland it apparently wants to see prosper.
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, still sticks to the century-old shibboleth of abstention from Westminster and has recently concentrated its energies on promoting a candidate for the Irish presidency to lead a conversation on Irish unity that completely failed to ignite.
Despite being part of a chorus castigating UK prime minister Theresa May, the “purity” of the DUP position is a reaction to its vulnerability. The plaintiveness about the “constitutional integrity” of the UK and no “specific arrangements” for Northern Ireland fly in the face of the history of Northern Ireland and the British, Irish and European relationship with it. British politicians, despite former UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab’s assertions on Thursday about the “integrity” of the UK, do not remotely cherish Northern Ireland; rather it can be a convenient tactic employed in a distinctly English power game.
Almost a century ago former prime minister Arthur Balfour recognised the Ulster unionist case for remaining in the UK “in spite of her bigotry” and that highly qualified commitment endured. Even the financial arrangements for Stormont from its foundation involved what Sir Richard Hopkins, treasury controller in 1939, referred to as a messy system of “fudges, dodges and wangles”.
Despite the DUP’s current narrative, the peace that eventually came to Northern Ireland involved multiple strands, with input from Dublin, London, Belfast and the EU. In 2000, the European Commission established a task force “to examine how Northern Ireland could benefit more from EU policies” the first time the commission had, in its words, created “a close partnership specifically with one region”.
In 2010, commission chief José Manuel Barroso noted EU institutions had contributed at least £2.5 billion to Northern Ireland since 1990. The UK’s and therefore Northern Ireland’s exit from the EU must also involve different strands and the recognition of its unique status and post-conflict situation.
Falling back on the “Ulster says no” and “Ulster is British” slogans is not only a remarkably inadequate response to contemporary complexities; it is also betraying a wilful ignorance of British and Irish history. Ulster has never been wholly “British” and as historian Tom Bartlett noted 20 years ago: “A sea of incomprehension separates Ulster unionists from British unionists (if any exist); and given that the only link now is to England it cannot be long before the strains in that connection become apparent.”
Those strains were obvious this week and they are the inevitable consequences of a unionism that is reactive rather than creative and in denial about what would best serve the prosperity of Northern Ireland.