One of unionism’s deepest fears is that Britain will turn against it. This is also, quite clearly, one of nationalism’s fondest hopes. Among the most striking features of Brexit so far is that this has not happened, despite a perfect storm of forces against the union.
Brexit has coincided with the DUP's prominence at Westminster and the takeover of the Labour party by lifelong supporters of Irish republicanism.
Northern Ireland has emerged to obstruct Brexit agendas across the political spectrum. The Irish Border frustrates those who want a hard exit from the European Union and greatly complicates most other options; the DUP frustrates, or at least appears to frustrate, those who want a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all.
Nobody has budged from the official line that Northern Ireland's future is for Ireland alone to decide, as set out in the Belfast Agreement
Unionism’s largest party has consigned the UK to a zombie government, keeping Labour out of office but the Tories barely in power. The British public, having been forced to notice the DUP, has had every nationalist trope of unionism’s awful “un-Britishness” seemingly confirmed. The same public has demonstrated its indifference, certainly at the ballot box, to the Labour leadership’s past sympathies with the IRA.
The cost of Northern Ireland to the British taxpayer has been highlighted in the most provocative terms by the financial aspect of the DUP’s confidence-and-supply agreement, almost universally denounced as a bribe.
People in Britain know a majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain and an even larger majority never vote for the DUP. They have also heard speculation a border poll could result in a united Ireland.
These are all matters of front-page news every day, and have been for more than two years, without any apparent progress on any of the issues raised. In fact, the unionists’ awkwardness has only spread. An all-UK backstop was added to the Northern Ireland backstop to keep unionists happy, yet unionists are still unhappy, while Brexiteers in Britain now feel equally trapped.
The most obvious way out of all these traps is for Britain to usher Northern Ireland towards the door. A groundswell of public exasperation could have been expected, and should have had no difficulty finding a voice. From the Labour left to the Tory right, via the socially liberal centre, just about everyone has been given cause to reject the union. But there is absolutely no sign of a popular shift against it. Occasional comment pieces decrying Northern Ireland as more trouble than it is worth, while seized on by nationalists, have gained no perceptible traction. To take the least charitable view, perhaps the union’s low worth has always been priced into British public opinion.
Nobody has budged from the official line that Northern Ireland’s future is for Ireland alone to decide, as set out in the Belfast Agreement.
Some opinion polls show Leave voters in Britain would prefer Brexit to the union, but only if voters in Northern Ireland make that choice.
Several leaks have been arranged from Downing Street, warning a border poll would have to be held in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, these were clumsy attempts to bounce the DUP into supporting prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal deal.
Labour says the requirement for a border poll is nowhere close to being met.
Admittedly, such studious dispassion is a low bar to set for the territorial integrity of a nation.
While views differ on Northern Ireland’s separate treatment under the Brexit process, there is no doubt it would cause universal outrage if applied to any other part of the UK. Consider the reaction if there was a “Kent backstop” to keep the port of Dover frictionless, for example.
As things stand, most of the outrage expressed in Britain over the Northern Ireland backstop comes from the DUP’s hardline Tory allies. May refers to the “precious union”; for everyone else it is plainly little more than a duty, with obligations to unionists and nationalists. However, it is a duty people in Britain still take seriously and feel bound to honour.
How long this might last remains open to question. The UK will have a new prime minister soon, presumably with a new set of political calculations. British society has barely considered the challenges of a post-Brexit world and how the Border will continue to complicate them. If a rejection of unionism begins, history suggests the DUP’s hardline Tory “allies” will be the first to make it official – escaping the all-UK backstop gives them plenty of motivation.
But unionists, for so long afraid of betrayal, should allow themselves more faith in their compatriots in Britain, and especially in England, where they have always assumed a betrayal would start.
It is true the English, both Leavers and Remainers, were oblivious to Northern Ireland during the EU referendum. But having been painfully reminded of its existence, and roundly condemned for their oversight, they seem only regretful and apologetic for what they now widely appear to accept was their own mistake.