Hard border avoided but not hard distrust and resentment
Fraught Brexit process puts onus on all in North to keep striving for dialogue
A section of the the peace wall between the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images
In Belfast during the week the mood was recriminatory amid countless cries of betrayal. “Give us veto or forget Stormont” was the Belfast Telegraph’s headline covering the comments of the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, who said he “cannot emphasise enough” how important the principle of consent is to unionists. Loyalists queued in east Belfast the night before for a meeting at which they ominously warned they “won’t walk meekly and quietly into an economic united Ireland”.
Outside the impressive Titanic visitors’ centre, a man from the Falls Road was more focused on the past, decrying what he regards as the historical whitewashing the tourist attraction represents; it is, he believes, a monument to one side of the divide in Belfast and he maintained that few in the Falls Road in 1912 mourned the sinking of the liner. Just up the road, the public record office of Northern Ireland, holding copious documents of the Northern past, provides no shortage of reminders and elaboration on the divides and not just between Catholics and Protestants.
Given how high the stakes are and how angry and fraught the mood is, there is an onus on all to exercise a degree of caution
I read a letter from 1922 when the standing committee of the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) wrote to southern Protestants in Donegal, now in a new Free State against their will following partition, in which it was suggested “they should retain honorary membership of the UUC”. The reply from James Clark in Donegal was forlorn and bitter, refuting the idea that “a great deal of help could be given to this county by their remaining in the UUC . . . I do not see that any advantage could be gained.” Because of “the greater wisdom of your committee” in accepting partition, he contended, Donegal Protestants had been abandoned.
The sense of abandonment has been paramount, within and across the Border, between London and Belfast, both historically and recently. While same-sex couples in Belfast celebrated with wedding cake on Monday in the Merchant Hotel, the Presbyterian Church castigated Assembly members for abandoning “courageous and compassionate leadership” by insisting on “red lines”; it remains surprising, they said, that “some parties have been willing to allow the UK parliament to legislate for the people of Northern Ireland without consideration of the devolution settlement”.
Meanwhile, former Conservative peer Lord Michael Ashcroft has surveyed English voters for their views on the union. Many of the respondents express bewilderment, believing Northern Ireland to be “complicated and even mysterious”, 35 per cent want the North to remain in the UK, 13 per cent believe it should no longer be part of it; but, most strikingly, 43 per cent said they did not have a view and it was for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. Surely there is an answer in those figures to the question posed by unionist commentator Alex Kane during the week: “Why do we seem to need to bully people into protecting and promoting unionist interests in Northern Ireland?”
How can Northern Ireland decide anything now given the acute lack of control over its own affairs? The irony is that, on foot of the current withdrawal agreement, it is continually being told it is being offered the best of both worlds at a time when it has no autonomy. Direct rule will make a mockery of 20 years of a peace process, but if it is true that the Belfast Agreement is in essence about partnership mixed with self-determination about status and citizenship, it is equally true that Brexit has completely undermined that essence and has prompted no shortage of ironies.
After the referendum, DUP leader Arlene Foster insisted it was “outrageous commentary” to suggest that Brexit could damage the peace process; now, her party suggests the withdrawal agreement runs a “coach and horses” through that agreement. Sinn Féin expresses satisfaction that it has made its contribution by insisting on “special status” for Northern Ireland, which has been accepted, but in truth, Sinn Féin has appeared to be largely on the sidelines during the Brexit controversies, and how can the beleaguered, compromised British government maintain it is an “honest broker” in relation to the North given everything that has happened?
What all sides agreed after the 2016 referendum was that there should be no return to a “hard border” on the island of Ireland; that, it seems, will have proven to be a lot easier than solving the problem of the return to the hard distrust and resentment that now permeates politics and society in the North. Overcoming that will be a titanic challenge.
Given how high the stakes are and how angry and fraught the mood is, there is an onus on all to exercise a degree of caution in the coming weeks but also to remember the importance of still striving for dialogue. Séamus Mallon was surely correct in 1998 in highlighting that “there will be times when we disagree, but we will disagree face to face, and what disagreements we have we will sort them out face to face”.