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Diarmaid Ferriter: Those in Downing Street have no regard for the North or the DUP

Boris Johnson just the latest British poltician to use unionism to advance his own agenda

Fred Crawford, the loyalist gunrunner for the Ulster Volunteer Force during the home rule crisis of 1912-13, kept an interesting diary of the disturbed state of Belfast from 1920-22 as the new state of Northern Ireland was baptised in blood.

He was furious about the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, regarding it as humiliating for a British cabinet to agree terms with “Irish Roman Catholic murderers and assassins”. More than that, if the cabinet had agreed to establish an Irish Free State, he was adamant “they must go one better and establish an Ulster Free State”. A few months later he referred disparagingly to the British prime minister David Lloyd George as “that little Welsh rabbit”.

Whether facing a welsh rabbit, or various English lions over the decades and up to today, Northern Ireland has been merely a pawn. James Craig, who became Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, campaigned during his premiership under the Ulster unionist slogan, “Ulster is Ours: what we have we hold.” It was a message tailored to a local Orange audience because few others were interested; Craig had been acutely aware that unionists would have to defensively assert their own self-worth as they could hardly rely on London.

He was so eager to secure the grand Stormont Estate for the new Northern Ireland parliament building in the 1920s that he even arranged a personal loan of £3,000 from his bank to use as a deposit. If what you have is very little you will hold it all the more.


True, as one of his biographers Patrick Buckland notes, Craig had faith in “his ability to advance Northern Ireland’s interests by direct and personal contact with Imperial ministers” in London. After all, some of them had used the Ulster question to further their own domestic political ambitions. But there was also no shortage of senior British officials “virulently critical” of his government and their demand for British taxpayers’ money.

That was the space Northern Ireland has occupied and continues to occupy, as demonstrated by the current controversy over the withdrawal agreement. Boris Johnson publicly declares he is in the business of preventing the EU from using Northern Ireland to undermine British sovereignty. But Johnson has consistently been in the business of using Northern Ireland to climb and remain at the top of the greasy Tory pole and he is still using it. That the DUP position has gone from Arlene Foster’s advocating tolerance of the withdrawal agreement “with reluctance” to Jeffery Donaldson insisting there “is only one train of thought” in the party and that is that the agreement “must be scrapped or changed to ensure Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is protected” is an indication of their continuing subjection, notwithstanding Johnson’s consistent betrayals of them.

Those with power in Downing Street – none more so than Dominic Cummings – have no regard for Northern Ireland or the DUP, and will leave them with an updated version of “wounded self-love”, the phrase used by poet Joseph Campbell in 1921 when he outlined the challenges of North-South and Anglo-Irish relations as involving the need to “save Great Britain’s face, salve Ulster’s wounded self-love and satisfy the historic sense of the majority of the Irish people”.

Ulster unionists had successfully rebelled from 1912-14 to prevent home rule for all of Ireland through what historian Andrew Gailey described as an “intricate blend of cultural anxiety, political opportunity and force of personality”. Perhaps all that remains on that list of ingredients now is anxiety, and whatever stick is being wielded is not being held by the EU but by Tories whose mantra of the “integrity of the union” has been exhausted beyond farce.

Soothing balm

Even if there were to be some move to dilute the withdrawal agreement to unionist satisfaction, it would still remain the case that Northern Ireland would require special arrangements, and soothing balm from Downing Street would not provide any long-term security. As Robert Horne, the British chancellor of the exchequer, told James Craig in 1922, whatever about short-term support for Northern Ireland he was “certainly not prepared to admit that this obligation would hold good for several years to come”.

David Lloyd George wanted shot of Ireland in 1922, and as he recognised in a letter to Winston Churchill, once you have an agreement about Ireland, even if aspects of it are contested, you need to stick with it because “if you come down from that height and fight in the swamps of Lough Erne you will be overwhelmed”.

Even if the latest chapter in the lengthy book of playing the “Orange card” yielded some kind of temporary result it would not answer the troubling Ulster unionist questions of having, holding and ownership. The bogus plaintiveness about the purity of the UK and the consequences of its likely failure is also going to play in to the hands of very determined Scottish nationalists.