Writing this on 24 October, I forecast that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, despite parliamentary delays and perhaps a general election, will eventually pass through the British parliament (the 30 vote Commons majority for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill deal earlier this week was an important straw in the wind) . That will mean the DUP, along with the bulk of the unionist community which supports them, will be on the losing side again.
Johnson’s deal will see Northern Ireland’s link with Britain, which they prize above all things, weakened in two important ways: from the end of 2020, there will be both a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, with the North covered by EU customs rules and closely aligned to the EU’s single market on goods regulations. It is inevitable that over time this will mean growing influence in the North’s affairs by Brussels and Dublin, and less by London.
Personally I believe this is as good a deal as Northern Ireland will get out of a British government absolutely determined to implement the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU. In my anxiety to be conciliatory to the unionists, I have probably been too critical of the Irish government’s steely line on the backstop in previous blogs. But in the end Dublin played a weak hand extremely well, with the importance of the NI peace process, and EU solidarity with Ireland as a member of the European family, being the key cards played by Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and their superb diplomats. Varadkar’s ingenious (and highly complex) proposal in Liverpool on 10 October that in return for no customs border in Ireland, Northern Ireland would be able leave the EU customs union along with the rest of the UK and thus benefit from any new British trade deals, seems to have been the breakthrough.
However I also recognise that this will be the latest defeat for unionism in the past 40 plus years. In Seamus Mallon’s words, most nationalists “have little or no concept of what has been done to the unionist psyche by a whole range of happenings in recent decades”: the killing of so many of their people by republican paramilitaries; the ‘betrayal’ of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement; the drastic reform or abolition of the RUC and UDR; IRA leaders like Martin McGuinness becoming cabinet ministers without a single IRA weapon being handed over; the DUP being put into the position of holding the balance of power at Westminster and then badly over-playing their hand.
And now this. The key thing that has to be remembered about the unionists is their politics is based on fear: they see conspiracies to drive or trick them into a united Ireland at every turn. That is why DUP politicians resort to such incendiary language when they sense trickery by Dublin or betrayal by London.
But it also needs to be remembered – and this is very difficult for southerners to accept – that unionists are sometimes right. They were right to point out that a customs border down the Irish Sea has been central to the Irish government’s backstop strategy since the beginning.
They were right to be furious when Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay belatedly revealed that not only would there be checks on east-to-west goods coming into Northern Ireland, but also Northern Ireland’s businesses would be forced to fill out export declaration forms when sending goods to Britain under Johnson’s deal. This is an extra blow for a small exposed economy which which is facing new checks on the three quarters of its imported goods which come from Britain.
They were right to call the backstop anti-democratic. The clearest explanation of this came from the London correspondent of the US news magazine The Atlantic, Tom McTague (no unionist he!): “Under the backstop’s provisions, Northern Ireland will be bound by EU law, without its ongoing democratic consent: no elected officials from Northern Ireland will be able to vote on new EU laws that will apply in Northern Ireland. It is regulation without representation. Whether this is a price worth paying for stability in Northern Ireland and an orderly Brexit is a different question than whether it is democratic, which it is not.”¹ That democratic deficit has now been partially covered by the agreement that the proposed arrangements can be changed by a simple majority vote at Stormont – although this will not happen until the end of 2024 (the DUP are right to say that this is in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement, although they don’t add that they never signed up to this accord in the first place).
I may be mistaken, but I don’t think I have ever seen the unionist position on this lack of democracy spelled out anywhere in an Irish newspaper or on RTE (except by Dan O’Brien and Eoghan Harris in their respective columns in Independent newspapers). There are plenty of highly articulate unionist politicians, academics and journalists – David Trimble, Jeffrey Donaldson, Professors Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, Alex Kane – who could have done this. It was left to Tony Blair’s former adviser, Jonathan Powell, to make it clear in the Irish Times that “at root the DUP fear is that this is the beginning of the slippery slope to a united Ireland which they cannot stop if the principle of the cross-community agreement is undermined” and that “we should take their concerns seriously and do what we can to assuage them if we want to maintain the peace brought about by the Belfast Agreement.”²
One rarely sees or hears a Northern unionist on a southern TV or radio programme (although I am glad to see that recently Ben Lowry, deputy editor of the Belfast Newsletter, has appeared on a couple of radio discussions). Over 50 years ago Garret Fitzgerald, then a young senator, urged RTE to include unionists in its discussion programmes. It is still not happening except in the most tokenistic way. We don’t understand unionists because we rarely if ever hear from them.
It is a problem I have referred to frequently in these blogs: the unwillingness south of the border to recognise that large numbers of unionists are sincere people with legitimate arguments. It is much easier to paint them all as prejudiced right-wing bigots (“antedeluvian troglodytes” in Jonathan Powell’s phrase), thus excusing southerners from facing up to the huge challenge of pondering seriously how these difficult people might one day be accommodated in some new and agreed Ireland.
Because, like it or not, there are something close to 900,000 people in Northern Ireland who feel passionately British – in exactly the same way as most people in nationalist Ireland feel passionately Irish. A significant few, such as rugby captain Rory Best and golfer Rory McIlroy, manage to feel at home in both worlds: British and Irish. Although some future constitutional recognition of this dualism is probably one of the ways forward to a new dispensation in Ireland, most people in the Republic simply do not understand it.
The failure to understand and respect northern unionists’ Britishness and legitimate opposition to Irish unity is a huge barrier to hopes for reconciliation throughout the island. My impression from conversations with southern friends and acquaintances from all social backgrounds is that because of Brexit ordinary people here have become more anti-British and more anti-DUP since 2016. It is as if the benign years of ‘live and let live’ following the Good Friday Agreement never happened.
A smart and open-minded Northern unionist politician of my acquaintance last month recalled a recent conversation with a Fianna Fail senator about unionist reluctance to contemplate Irish unity. He told the senator: “You are asking me to give up my country. How would you respond if I demanded that you gave up your country?”
Are we prepared to welcome into our cosy little state Ulster unionists who may want to declare their primary allegiance to Britain, wave the Union flag, sing ‘God Save the Queen’ and even support Orange bands marching through some of our town centres? Gregory Campbell, not my favourite politician, has pointed out that in the UK there is cultural provision for both Britishness and Irishness, whereas in the Republic there is no equivalent provision for the expression of Britishness.
If we are not prepared at least to tolerate expressions of Britishness in the ‘new Ireland’, we have no business demanding that unionists accept unity. Politics, history and demography may not be on their side. But we, citizens of this Republic, have to learn to treat them as equal fellow Irish people. They are not always an attractive bunch: a Northern friend of that persuasion says “there is an element of begrudgery about Northern Protestants, a lack of generosity, a lack of grace.” These faults arise largely from the fearful nature of their identity politics and Calvinistic religion, not helped by 30 years of being bombed and killed by the Provisional IRA.
It isn’t going to be easy. Mindsets have to be changed radically in both parts of the island. Wouldn’t it be nice for a change if these arguments in favour of treating unionists as people with legitimate political views were to come from somebody from a recognisably southern nationalist viewpoint, rather than from an Englishman like Jonathan Powell or a northern-born Protestant like me? That would be a small but important start.
² ‘Hard border in Irish Sea is a real problem for the DUP’, 19 October