Unionists didn’t know how good they had it before Brexit
North’s culture war blinded unionism to truth: the union was secure
Loyalist protesters demonstrating against restrictions on flying Britain’s union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast in January 2013. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton
In London, Dublin and Brussels, senior officials are arguing over how to accommodate Northern Ireland’s unique and intricate circumstances in the context of Brexit. In Belfast, they are arguing over the name of a bus stop.
Recently a DUP MP, Emma Little-Pengelly, wrote to Northern Ireland’s transport monopoly to voice her constituents’ “serious concerns” that a new bus stop was being named “Short Strand” despite being next to an existing stop with the same name. Short Strand, in case you are unfamiliar with the minute tribal geography of Belfast, is a small but strongly republican enclave in loyalist inner east Belfast. The gesture seemed transparently sectarian and was ridiculed as such.
Northern Ireland’s attritional culture war seems to be escalating. Time is passing since the formal end of the Troubles and the sense of obligation towards communal reconciliation is loosening. The literary scholar John Wilson Foster wrote in this newspaper in March in evident dismay at Sinn Féin’s desire to keep the kettle of nationalist grievance “on the boil”. He was correct that Sinn Féin has a strategic interest in making a hypothetical “new Ireland” more attractive than a partitioned Northern Ireland. They do, after all, want unification.
The question for unionists is why their dominant party appears so willing to collude with republicans to that end. It became ever more obvious during the decade they governed together that Sinn Féin and the DUP have a symbiotic relationship, with each owing a significant chunk of their vote to tribal fear of the other. For the DUP that required fomenting discontent over the alleged peril of “Britishness” in Northern Ireland. Modest rules on public buildings flying the union flag were resisted, and the Irish language was ridiculed.
Sinn Féin and the DUP have a symbiotic relationship, with each owing a significant chunk of their vote to tribal fear of the other
This atmosphere of cultural endangerment seemed to blind unionism to a deeper truth: the union was secure. The Belfast Agreement, so often perceived as a defeat by unionists, in reality enabled a structural shift in favour of partition. More nationalists in Northern Ireland became Sinn Féin voters, but no polls showed any prospect of a Border referendum winning in the foreseeable future. In the 2016 assembly election, the nationalist vote actually declined.
Perhaps even more important was the change that appeared to happen in the Republic. The resolution of the Troubles, and the clarifying of the State’s constitutional and moral obligations towards the North seemed to free a new generation to think of the jurisdiction in the northeast as, bluntly, a different country. Note the ease with which Leo Varadkar consistently speaks of “Ireland” and “Northern Ireland” as entirely distinct entities. Those are the correct names for each jurisdiction, but it would have been a formulation alien to most previous taoisigh.
Nationalists in Northern Ireland – and not just Sinn Féin voters – have their own cultural anxieties about this; complaining when maps of Ireland – with Northern Ireland cut out – are published by think tanks or Iarnród Éireann. The sharpest dramatisation of this was the moment in a 2011 RTÉ presidential debate when a young woman baldly told Martin McGuinness to his face that he wasn’t Irish.
Despite such cultural indignities, moderate nationalists and unaligned liberals with an Irish identity placed little urgency on unification until June 24th, 2016. It is hard to overstate the extent to which unionism in general, and the DUP in particular, failed to see the myriad ways Brexit and its hardline implementation would undermine the strength of their position with these groups.
Even if you leave the Border aside, the messy implementation of Brexit has self-evidently weakened the United Kingdom. Since sustaining the union depends on the consent of both moderate nationalists and the constitutionally agnostic, making the UK less rich and less attractive risks a swing electorate that has little emotional attachment to the union per se.
Making the UK less rich and less attractive risks a swing electorate that has little emotional attachment to the union per se
And some of the soft partitionism south of the Border is also shifting in odd ways. Varadkar and the Tánaiste seem willing to play a part in northern civic society that past Irish leaders, who found partition more difficult to acknowledge, did not. Despite his more traditional nationalism, it would have been unthinkable for Bertie Ahern to intervene in a debate on northern social policy in the way Varadkar has on equal marriage. Of course, this is also a byproduct of an Irish state that has decided, by successive popular vote, to transform itself into one of the most progressive on the continent.
The DUP is simultaneously resisting social reform while battling over every symbolic inch of Ulster-Britishness. The Irish language was ridiculed so crudely that people previously indifferent or sceptical about legislating its status (the main stumbling block to restarting the Assembly) now support an Act. Such is the DUP’s capacity to provoke support for the causes they oppose.
It demands that Northern Ireland remain distinct from the rest of the UK in major social and cultural ways while insisting any divergence in goods regulation would fatally undermine British citizenship. Something has to give.
The cultural battles fought in Ulster have always been about more than membership of the UK. But rarely before have the leaders of unionism been so casual about trading off victory in identity war against the thing they care about most: the union with Britain.
Matthew O’Toole was chief press officer for Europe and economic affairs in the British prime minister’s office from September 2015 to August 2017. He now works for Powerscourt Communications