As the crisis deepens in Britain, the old negative stereotypes are back. The right-wing British press is full of fury at the treacherous role of the Irish in the ‘backstop’ to keep the UK hobbled and handcuffed indefinitely to the EU, thus depriving it of huge opportunities to strike its own trade deals around the world. Here in Dublin the consensus is that Britain is not just arrogant and untrustworthy but now also utterly incompetent, and the only way to keep the old imperial enemy in check, and thus to avoid a hard border, is to tie her down in the backstop’s legal knots. Mutual suspicion and contempt seem, once again, to be the flavours of the season.
For somebody who watched (and occasionally played a tiny part in) the blessed work of the past two decades of ensuring that relations on this island and between these islands were as warm and mutually beneficial as possible to maximise peace and reconciliation in the North, this is heartbreaking. The change for the worse is, of course, almost entirely down to the 2016 referendum. I was struck by a recent article by a Leave campaign staffer, Oliver Norgrove (I wonder if he is related to the Protestant republican Norgrove family who participated in the 1916 Rising) in which he admitted that ‘the big Brexit dream was brought to its knees thanks to one of the UK’s most persisting political ailments: its tendency to ignore the interests of Northern Ireland.’ He admitted to being ‘immensely disappointed and rather ashamed’ of the Leave campaign’s ‘huge failing…simply not to think about the impact of the Border on the merits of leaving the EU.’¹
Since I am writing this five days before the original 29th March ‘no deal’ deadline – now extended to 12th April – and will tomorrow escape to the heart of Trump’s America for a fortnight, that’s all I plan to say about Brexit for the moment. Except to repeat that this toxic issue has poisoned both British-Irish and North-South relations to an extent I have not seen for over 30 years.
For the 18 years up to 2016 we were in a good place, as the Dublin and London governments worked together, within the overlapping frameworks of the Good Friday Agreement and the EU, to manage the running sore that is Northern Ireland, while the new Northern institutions just about managed power-sharing, however flawed, between the ancient foes. Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU until he resigned in 2017, said in Dublin last week: “Anglo-Irish relations before this [Brexit] process got under way had been the best they have been in my professional lifetime, maybe the best they have been in several generations, if not centuries…I think the mutual animosity over the backstop question and how it’s been handled by the respective capitals has soured the mood…It has become a really neuralgic issue.”²
If British-Irish relations have soured, relations between Dublin and the unionists have frozen. Last August former First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson described a pre-2016 atmosphere of friendship, conviviality and comradeship between Dublin and London, and unionists and nationalists working “within a framework of relationships…with mutually beneficial outcomes.” A combination of the DUP, led by its most paranoid, ‘little Britisher’ elements, holding the hapless Theresa May to ransom, and Dublin’s unwavering insistence on the backstop and nothing but the backstop, has put paid to that.
There are other unionists in Northern Ireland who were among the 56% of people there who voted against Brexit. However we in the Republic rarely if ever hear from them. The Southern press and media simply do not feature sensible, moderate and intelligent unionists – pro-European and open to much closer relations with the South – discussing this existential topic (or any other topic).
Here are some prominent Northern people with unionist views and those attractive characteristics whom I know personally but I never see nor hear in Dublin: Mike Nesbitt, former Ulster Unionist party leader, and his MLA colleagues Steve Aiken and Doug Beattie; John McCallister, former UUP deputy leader and senior farmers’ union official; academics Paul Bew, Peter Shirlow and Arthur Aughey; hotelier Howard Hastings and small business spokeswoman Tina McKenzie; women’s rights campaigner Dawn Purvis; Belfast News Letter journalist Sam McBride, the world expert on the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal; artist and cartoonist Brian John Spencer. And what about party leaders? When was the last time we heard Alliance leader Naomi Long on the Southern media? For my money this working class woman from east Belfast is one of the smartest, most articulate and most courageous political leaders on this island (her courage particularly evident during the 2012-13 Belfast flags protest).
I know that some (although not all) of these people are not particularly interested in having their views heard south of the Border. And that, in the words of one former US ambassador to Ireland, “unionism’s PR is crap.” But is it not part of the remit of a public broadcaster like RTE and a so-called newspaper of record like the Irish Times to reflect the views of all the people on this island, however uncomfortable this may be for the cosy nationalist consensus down here?
This almost total lack of interest in unionist Northern Ireland is evident also in Southern politics. The Oireachtas Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement Committee would have been an ideal forum for moderate unionists like Mike Nesbitt and Steve Aiken to air and debate their views. However for too long it was chaired by the maverick ultra-nationalist Fianna Fail senator Mark Daly, who turned it into a vehicle for discussing how to move speedily towards Irish unity, which meant, of course, that no unionist would go anywhere near it. Daly, like too many in Sinn Fein, is one of those who hold the absurd and archaic view that once we achieve a united Ireland, unionism, as a philosophy passionately espoused by 900,000 people, will simply disappear.
That most reconciling and pro-Irish of unionists, the former rugby international and anti-sectarianism activist Trevor Ringland, has now declared that with the recent upsurge of divisive nationalist rhetoric in the North, ‘there’s no space in their Ireland’ for moderate unionists like him. ‘Nationalists have become emboldened because of the Brexit uncertainties and the renewed hype around calls for a Border Poll. People are believing their own rhetoric without facing up to the reality that our future is intertwined, and the only way we can succeed socially and economically is by making Northern Ireland work and by great relations across this island and between these islands.’³
Let me leave the last word to one of the wisest analysts of North-South relations, Bob Collins, who as former director-general of RTE and chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Equality Authority, is a rare public figure who knows both jurisdictions intimately. In a conversation in 2015, Collins said: ‘One of the crucial things that needs to happen if there is ever going to be a united Ireland is that the South has to develop an interest in and understanding of (I won’t say an affection for), but at the very least an accommodation with unionism. I don’t see the remotest evidence that this is likely to engage the interest of other than a very few. And that’s the one essential sine qua non of any consideration of a united Ireland.’
¹ ‘Why Brexiteers forgot about the Border’, Irish Times, 20 March
² ‘Future state of Anglo-Irish relations a ‘major worry’, Irish Times, 21 March
³ Trevor Ringland: No space in new Ireland for me’, News Letter, 23 March