In the shadow of brexit, uncertainty and rancour reign. Whether or not Remain was Project Fear, the brexit lobby is definitely Project Unclear. We’re still in Europe but with a stay of execution of two years, to use a Carsonism (except we don’t know the terms or extent of severance).
All sorts of figures and predictions were made, few have come true. But nobody could have envisaged the savage mortality rate of leading politicians.
One thing was certain and predicted, and it came to pass – Brexit would be a boon for the SNP and other nationalists.
David McWilliams, Andy Pollak, Fintan O’Toole and Diarmaid Ferriter, and many more, all asked this question – Why would unionists vote for an EU secession that would embolden Scottish and Irish separatists, and emasculate the unionist argument? O’Toole, perhaps the most eloquent and compelling commentator on the brexit debacle, wrote:
“It beggars belief that the Democratic Unionist Party made common cause with a movement whose logical outcome is the end of the union.”
Even brexiteer and unionist Alex Kane said that leaving Europe would have a “deeper, broader impact” in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK. Perhaps this is why senior DUP figures, including Stormont ministers as businessman Tom Kelly said, privately backed a Remain vote in the EU Referendum.
Richard Haass and Alan Greenspan have both said #indyref2 is inevitable, with a YES vote as foreseeable. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon seized the moment and stood alone in a no man’s land of leadership, saying that a second Scottish independence referendum is on the table* – a “statement of the obvious.”
Gove made a statement of the deluded on the Marr Show, saying “there’s no appetite for #indyref2.”
Sturgeon’s stand for Scotland’s 64% has been rousing and has been quite irresistibly delivered, even for her detractors such as myself. In contrast Foster has been muted and opaque. Those unionists who have come out to articulate life after brexit for Northern Ireland’s 44% have seemed disingenuous, it’s certainly disorientating to see brexit-unionists from Ulster, who’re usually so keen to distance themselves from “liberal” England and Wales, now so rapturously follow the expressed will of the people of E&W.
The case for special treatment or dispensation for Scotland and Northern Ireland may seem repugnant to Unionists, but there is a precedent for exclusion, and its unionists who enshrined it.
William Ewart Gladstone said in his speech on the first Home Rule Bill 1886:
“I cannot conceal the conviction that the voice of Ireland, as a whole, is at this moment clearly and constitutionally spoken. I cannot say it is otherwise when five-sixths of its lawfully-chosen Representatives are of one mind in this matter. There is a counter voice; and I wish to know what is the claim of those by whom that counter voice is spoken, and how much is the scope and allowance we can give them. Certainly, Sir, I cannot allow it to be said that a Protestant minority in Ulster, or elsewhere, is to rule the question at large for Ireland. I am aware of no constitutional doctrine tolerable on which such a conclusion could be adopted or justified. But I think that the Protestant minority should have its wishes considered to the utmost practicable extent in any form which they can assume.”
Yes the voice of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as a whole, has spoken, with a majority of 51.9% seeking secession from Brussels. But, to use Gladstone’s term, there is a counter-voice – Scotland and Northern Ireland who at 64% and 56% respectively voted not to secede.
The whole vocabulary of Unionist resistance during the Home Rule crisis railed against “coercion” and later clamoured for “exclusion” by grace of the “self-determination” of Ulster. The unionist Spectator Magazine wrote in 1920:
“If self-determination within an existing political unit belongs to any community, it certainly belongs to the people of North-East Ulster. It is theirs by tradition, by blood, by religion, by political aspirations, and by geographical position.”
Should Ulster’s majority be coerced again?
The Home Rule crisis of the late 1800s and early 1900s prompted men to devise projects to get around the coercion of Ulster. William Ewart Gladstone also said in his 1886 speech:
“Various schemes, short of refusing the demand of Ireland at large, have been proposed on behalf of Ulster. One scheme is, that Ulster itself, or, perhaps with more appearance of reason, a portion of Ulster, should be excluded from the operation of the bill we are about to introduce…
What we think is that such suggestions deserve careful and unprejudiced consideration. It may be that that free discussion, which I have no doubt will largely take place after a Bill such as we propose shall have been laid on the Table of the House, may give to one of these proposals, or to some other proposals, a practicable form, and that some such plan may be found to be recommended by a general or predominating approval. If it should be so, it will, at our hands, have the most favourable consideration, with every disposition to do what equity may appear to recommend. That is what I have to say on the subject of Ulster.”
“It was generally understood that there was no possibility, with any advantage, of discussing any settlement except on the lines of exclusion of some sort… Sir Edward Carson said he would consider no settlement of any kind unless based on exclusion.”
James Craig, July 11 1921, speaking with Mark Sturgis in the Carlton Club with a message for Dublin Castle said:
“Tell Cope [the Prime Minister’s intermediary] I’m going to sit on Ulster like a rock, we are content with what we have got – let the Prime Minister and Sinn Fein settle this and if possible leave us out.”
“The Ulster question in its modern form appears to begin in that year when Gladstone introduced the first Home Rule Bill for Ireland in the House of Commons…
The subsequent course of Irish history was clearly indicated in the results of the 1886 election. What they indicated was partition, the exclusion of at least eastern ulster from an independent, nationalist Ireland. The electoral map has hardly changed since, despite the myriad hopes wasted upon it. From 1886 until 1920 ulster protestants were again a minority under threat, and the history of Ireland in that period is shaped by their absolute determination not to become a minority in an independent, or even semi-dependent, Catholic state.”
If we follow the unionist argument as articulated by ATQ Stewart, the June 23 referendum vote indicates the partition of Scotland and Northern Ireland from an independent, pro-brexit England and Wales.
For Carson, partition was Ulster self-determination. For republican belligerents, partition was an Orange veto.
Now consent is universally agreed (save for dissidents), it is for the people of Northern Ireland alone to determine their place in the Union. Peter Robinson said in 2012:
“We should remember that today, the right of self-determination for the people of Northern Ireland is a fundamental cornerstone of the political process. Perhaps if the right to self determination, which is so widely accepted today had been accepted in 1912, the history of the last century might have been very different.”
As a matter of consistency, shouldn’t Northern Ireland’s place in the European Union be decided as its place in the Union of Great Britain and NI was secured and is now maintained?
But precedence is as problematic for nationalists as it is for unionists.
The traditional view of Irish nationalists on exclusion is one of repugnance because it partitions the island unit and also opens the door to an ever-shrinking partition, as James Connolly wrote in 1914:
“The reader will also see that with a perfectly Mephistophelian subtlety the question of exclusion is not suggested to be voted upon by any large area where the chances for or against might be fairly equal, where exclusion might be defeated as it might be if all Ulster were the venue of the poll, and all Ulster had to stay out or come in as a result of the verdict of the ballot box. No, the counties to be voted on the question are the counties where the Unionists are in an overwhelming majority, and where therefore the vote is a mere farce – a subterfuge to hide the grossness of the betrayal of the Home Rule electors. Then again each county or borough enters or remains outside according to its own vote, and quite independent of the vote of its neighbours in Ulster. Thus the Home Rule question as far as Ulster is concerned, may be indefinitely prolonged and kept alive as an issue to divide and disrupt the Labour vote in Great Britain…”