Britain’s divergence from Europe does not necessarily benefit traditional unionists

Ed Curran’s column comparing the Ulster Covenant era with today’s is full of good sense. His message is that no State, least of all the Republic, is fully independent in the era of globalisation and bailout. But the state of flux in Europe is beginning slowly to form into a new political landscape.  Budgetary and fiscal union combined with closer political relationships seems inevitable for the Eurozone. Britain, historically on the edge of Europe, is sworn never (“never, never, never?”) to join.

You only have to read the Dublin newspapers with a smidgeon of attention to realise that  what goes on politically in Berlin, Frankfurt and Paris is at least as relevant if not more so, than what goes on in London – and just as strikingly- in Belfast.

The trend clearly sets the Republic and the UK on divergent paths. How divergent over time remains to be seen. Today it’s the UK which is infected with the spirit of Sinn Fein, Ourselves Alone, at least with regard to Europe. Irish affection for the EU may have diminished since the bailout but there no sign of them leaving the euro and working to peg a new punt to sterling. That for many of them would be a far worse surrender of independence than anything required by the institutions of the EU.

For now the direction of supranational political travel is too uncertain to  supplant the traditional national loyalties. John Hume’s dream of burying our communal differences in a dynamic and reconciled Europe today seems just that, a dream.  In our little universe, social and economic forces will diminish them but perhaps at a pace as grindingly slow as any in Europe today. Or perhaps suddenly, like the Europe of the fall of the wall twenty odd years ago?

What does this uncertainty mean for the established nationalisms in Northern Ireland? On this island in the short term at least, the trend is bound to favour the sort of Union with Britain that was created in 1998. But before the  conservative minded unionists begin to gloat, they should remember that the union of the GFA is institutionally far more flexible  than the Union of 1922. Militant nationalism on both sides is retreating onto narrower and narrower ground surrounded by an amorphous mass of  “not sure,  don’t know”  opinion which is hard to analyse – by me anyway .  A two speed Europe is unlikely to be their game changer in the old zero sum contest.  Digitisation can help overcome some of the distortions to trade and cross border shopping fever.  While differences are now more complex with growing economic divergence, the border itself is barely a line in the road. Ironically it is the single market, a British initiative, which has helped produce that benign result. Cross border trade and the growth of relationships it brings, can probably counteract the structural differences when the economies pick up. This is no longer a view that divides the political groupings.

Not all the old fears of 1912 have disappeared. The stubborn institutional conservatism of the Catholic Church today as it faces – or still refuses fully to face – the paedophile scandals provides a plausible echo of the old Rome Rule fears which many Catholics indeed would share. But apart from that, most of the old tigers are slain. Only diehards refuse to  look forward to the new one waking up.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London