British-Irish friendship and the marginalisation of Unionism

The big international news story about Northern Ireland this week – the first for many years – is Gerry Adams’ arrest and questioning in connection with the Jean McConville murder case. I have just returned from nine days abroad so I hope, gentle reader, that you will allow me to postpone comment on this for the time being until we see what the Public Prosecution Service decides.

Instead I am going to write about Michael D. Higgins’ presidential visit to Britain last month and what it might mean for the Protestant and unionist community. I imagine very few from that community – the one I was born into many years ago – get to read this column (I’ll have to send it to the News Letter to get it noticed). Those that do need to take careful note of what happened in Windsor Castle, Westminster and Whitehall in the second week of April 2014 – because the events surrounding that occasion indicated the dramatic change in British-Irish relations that has been gathering pace in recent years.

This change was first highlighted by Queen Elizabeth’s phenomenally successful 2011 visit to Ireland, and her much remarked upon gestures of reconciliation at the Garden of Remembrance and Dublin Castle. The Queen’s strong personal commitment to peace and reconciliation in Ireland again played a part this time, with Martin McGuinness citing it as one of the main reasons he took part in the proceedings.

The warmth of the language used by the various leaders was unprecedented. The Queen said that the most pleasing thing since her 2011 visit was that “we, the Irish and British, are becoming good and dependable neighbours and better friends, finally shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other.”  President Higgins spoke of the Good Friday Agreement being “a key milestone on the road to today’s warm, deep and enduring friendship.” David Cameron said the UK and Ireland now had “a very special partnership…not just good neighbours, but really good friends and deep friends.” It is a far cry from the deep mutual misunderstanding and even hostility revealed in the recently released UK state papers about British-Irish relations (and particularly relations between Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey) during the Falklands War 32 years ago.

It appears that the new ‘love in’ between the British and Irish establishments will even stretch to a member of the royal family attending the commemoration of the Easter Rising in 2016. Foreign Secretary William Hague said all the anniversaries of that year would have to be marked “in a way that helps to bring people together.”

So where do the unionists stand in this brave new world of British-Irish reconciliation? Largely ignored and on the fringes, one has to conclude – not an unfamiliar position for them. But it is nevertheless a dangerous one. David Cameron has said privately that never on his watch will Northern Ireland be allowed to interfere with issues of national UK importance. The British and Irish governments’ exasperation with the unionist parties’ refusal to go along with the extremely moderate Richard Haass proposals on flags, parades and dealing with the past is well-known. The Irish government in particular has said it will be pushing for a resumption of inter-party talks on these issues as soon as the election season is over.

London and Dublin are right to be impatient with the snail’s pace of movement towards reconciliation. As Paul Nolan says in his latest Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report: “Failure in Northern Ireland comes cost-free. The whole society may pay, but not particular political actors. When the multi-party talks on flags, parades and dealing with the past ended in failure, none of the political parties had to pay a political price. When the policing costs for contested marches and events spiral into millions, the organisers never receive the bill. The disconnect between the gathering and spending of taxes means no one feels responsible for the shortfall in revenue caused by, for example, not introducing water charges or tuition fees…Devolution, which was supposed to bring responsibility closer to local level, has failed to do so in Northern Ireland.”

Given Sinn Fein’s onward march in the Republic, the unionists have the most to lose from more failure and marginalisation. I have recently been reading Paul Bew, Peter Gibbons and Henry Patterson’s thought-provoking study of political forces and social classes in the North between 1921 and 1996. Two of its most recurrent themes are the lack of interest in London in strengthening the union and Whitehall civil servants’ exasperation with their Stormont counterparts’ spendthrift habits and lack of accountability.

As we enter another ‘marching season’, the atmosphere of political inertia in a tense and directionless society is palpable, exacerbated by unionist paranoia that there is a ‘culture war’ going on aimed at removing their symbols of Britishness. This was indicated depressingly in a Belfast Telegraph poll last month which showed that 67% of young people aged 16-24 saw their future outside the province, and 65% did not believe that peace had been achieved. Of those wanting to stay in the long-term more than 60% described themselves as Catholic, but under 40% said they were Protestant.

In the longer-term, there is a real chance that if the British and Irish governments lose interest – and the former gets tired of paying Northern Ireland’s huge annual subsidy of more than £10 billion – the province could end up like Northern Cyprus or Nagorno-Karabakh: a frozen small fracas that nobody cares to help resolve any more as other more important theatres of civil and international conflict loom large.

That won’t bother Northern republicans too much – with their tiocfaidh ár lá (“our day will come”) mentality – but it is something that unionists concerned about the future of their community on this island should ponder very seriously.

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