How brexit is destroying NI’s centre ground – and could take the Union with it

The brexit negotations are not going well.

During the course of the past few weeks, we’ve seen a sharp deterioration of Anglo-Irish relations as the Irish government found themselves with no choice other than to call out the UK government’s lack of preparation or proposals on how it would approach the sensitive matter of the Irish border in the context of the UK’s departure from the EU. Today, we’ve seen the DUP intervene to scupper an agreement that had been reached, tentatively, between the UK and EU negotiators.

In every sense of the word I’ve found these developments heartbreaking. We are watching the deterioration of relations which were constructed painstakingly and carefully over decades, starting with the diplomatic groundwork of John Major and Albert Reynolds, and continued by their successors. Most recently it led to the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland. An unsung highlight of the peace process was, for me, excellent Anglo-Irish relations built on a foundation of genuine partnership and friendship.

But the tenor of the present-day debate in general has led me, and I believe many people in the centre ground, to reach the point where we are struggling to find reasons to support maintaining the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Anecdotally, I’ve found many of my friends feel the same way. I can’t say how many of us there are, and I can’t claim to be representative. What I do know is that in my wider social circle people who would never have even considered discussing reunification are now giving serious thought to how it could be satisfactorily accomplished.

I believe, without some sort of reversal, and without some sort of change in attitude within the ranks of the DUP, that this brexit process is going to create a new legion of non-nationalist supporters of Irish reunification who, within our lifetimes, will vote Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.

How did we get here ?

Back in June 2016, just before the referendum, I wrote of how the status quo, both within Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole, was broadly a comfortable and hassle-free place, not just for the centre ground, but for many nationalists. I pointed out that many nationalists – certainly not a majority, but a sizeable number – would be quite happy with “British like Finchley” .

The point I find myself reflecting on is that despite all of the talk of parity, the DUP and UUP seem to view the Union as a vehicle to ensure that Northern Ireland’s residents are denied many of the rights enjoyed by British citizens. Finchley is a place where a DUP MP could not be elected.  Gay British citizens living in Finchley can get married. Women living in Finchley benefit from choice and bodily autonomy. Newspapers published in Finchley are freer due to the libel reform which the DUP blocked in Northern Ireland. Political parties running for election in Finchley must publish details of their donors. Practitioners of Islam in Finchley are considered part of the community, rather than people who can barely be trusted to go to the shops. Politicians in Finchley do not use their authority to set up slush funds which direct funding to paramilitary-linked community groups. People in Finchley do not burn down party political offices because they discovered that the town hall wasn’t flying a Union flag 365 days a year.

But as well as wielding the Union like a weapon against British as well as Irish and other citizens in Northern Ireland, the DUP form part of a wider tendency within the UK which sadly wants to transform Britishness into a meaner, hunched-over, inward-looking version of itself. Regular attacks on globally-respected British cultural institutions such as the BBC are par for the course, but most significantly of all, they are backing to the hilt this gargantuan effort to erect barriers between the UK and the rest of the world in a course of action which many of us believe will accelerate the UK’s decline as a leading global economy.

There is no point in relitigating brexit. That debate is now over.

But it is worth reiterating that for many of us in the centre, Europe is about more than fishing quotas, tariffs, trade deficits or markets – although those things are important.

It is about an ideal to bring people together, breaking down old barriers, and encouraging nations, cultures and traditions across Europe to come together to build a united and prosperous future, free from conflict. Europe has its flaws, but it also has its many successes. The UK and Ireland have, in our view, each done well out of Europe. Europe is essential to Northern Ireland’s future. Northern Ireland absolutely requires access to the single market and the customs union to underpin its delicate transition from a difficult past to a prosperous and sustainable future. The idea of Europe encompasses many of the same ideals as the Irish peace process. It is not surprising that they fit well together.

I accept that brexit supporters do not agree with this. But they have offered nothing that explains how the UK will end up better off when this poorly defined, poorly planned, poorly managed and poorly executed process progresses to completion. Removing Northern Ireland will damage us directly, by restricting our access to markets, and indirectly, by dint of us being joined at the hip to an economy inflicting harm upon itself.

In forcing this interpretation of Brexit upon Northern Ireland – against the will of the majority of people who voted in the brexit referendum – the DUP are undermining the bilateral, consensus-based approach enshrined within the Agreement. To withdraw Northern Ireland from the European Union as part of the UK may not technically be illegal under the terms of the Agreement, but it is at the very least a serious breach of faith, and a breach of the spirit of the Agreement.

In considering this I also find myself reflecting on the DUP’s history since it assumed the leadership of Unionism in 2003.

The party deserves credit for its accomplishments in terms of pushing for the IRA’s complete disarmament, and for cross-party support for the courts, the police and the rule of law.

But the moment it faced a serious challenge, in the form of the loss of the party leader’s East Belfast seat, it went back to its old form, directing its fire upon those guilty of the crime of trying to moderate the Northern Ireland state and build cross-community acceptance for it. On two occasions within my own memory (and many other occasions beyond) the DUP have led crowds onto the streets who have caused serious civil disturbances. It has egged on people who have gone on to intimidate Alliance representatives in their own homes, attack their office and send them death threats. During the flags protests two police officers were lucky to escape with their lives and many more were injured policing the numerous riots that developed.

It is clear the DUP’s determination is to build a Union that is increasingly hostile to anyone outside of the 36% who vote for the party, or indeed out of the 49.2% who vote for Unionist parties. It is drawing electoral support to itself by promoting an ever-narrower definition of Unionism.

As support for the DUP grows, support for wider Unionism has continued to fall. In the Westminster 2017 election, the DUP oversaw not only a record result for itself, but also the first time in history where the Unionist vote became a minority – 49.2%. This continues a decades-long trend where Unionist support falls by approximately 1.5% every ten years. A rational person might think that in these circumstances, Unionism would be trying to recruit new Unionist voters, identifying more and more people to sell the Union to, and working to include the centre ground. In practice it is doing the opposite.

The DUP have spelt out to me something that is now crystal clear. I must now make a choice between the UK Union and the European Union. Previously, I could have both at the same time, with the happy side effect of political stability. But by creating this binary choice the DUP have engineered a situation where a constitutional middle ground cannot exist. Ironically, they are doing this in an electoral climate where it is the middle ground who determine whether there is a Union or not.

The next two weeks are going to be crucial. Here is what I think must happen next.

The DUP and the UK government must find a way to retain Northern Ireland within the customs union and the single market.

Any further borders, border infrastructure, tariffs, queues or customs delays within Ireland are completely unacceptable without the full consent of the British and Irish government acting in their respective roles as custodians of the Agreement. It does not need to be pointed out to the DUP that GB-NI barriers are similarly unacceptable.

The DUP must work to ensure that the social and economic rights of British citizens throughout the UK are enjoyed in equal terms in Northern Ireland. These include minority language rights enjoyed in other parts of the UK.

The price outlined here does not seem high. It amounts to little more than the retention of the status quo, as it is now. The only “concession” is that the DUP to be true to their word when they say that they that British citizens in Northern Ireland must be treated equally to those in the rest of the UK. It’s about the retention – insofar as is reasonably possible – of the economic order that has helped to establish the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy. This is the minimum that is required to ensure that the union is underpinned from the centre. It would also be nice to have a moratorium on whipping up crowds to engage in riotous behaviour.

The price is on the table. In considering it, the DUP need to think about what lies in the future.

If the centre ground continues to be squeezed, there’s only one other way this is going to go. It ends on a rainswept afternoon at Hillsborough Castle. With a slate-grey sky in the background, the diplomatic corps and representatives of the royal family and the Government are sitting behind an immaculately turned-out band playing Nimrod, then God Save the King, before lowering and folding the Flag for the last time. Sitting to the side, the invited Unionist politicians will be left watching in disbelief and wondering – as they did in the years following the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement – if these few cheap concessions would really have been that hard to make. Where did it all go wrong ?

Where indeed.

  • “before lowering and folding the Flag for the last time”

    I call this the Rhodesia effect, where its loyalists were loyal to the very end, not understanding their place in the Empire nor forging an acceptable future for themselves:

  • Georgie Best

    Facts play little part in DUP and Brexiteer reasoning.

  • T.E.Lawrence “Blue Parts of Glasgow” The famous Bridgeton Cross of the East End of Glasgow ! NO SNP HERE !

  • Lagos1

    But the brass neck of the DUP to blame Dublin, when they were waiting on a phone call from Brussels is beyond bizarre.

    I think we are all guessing as to what really happened and who knew what. However, it is perfectly reasonable for the DUP to want to prevent the Tories negotiating away NI’s interests. And certainly, allowing trade barriers to go up between NI and its main market is not in NI interests.

    Your asking my want in brexit?

    No, I asked you what type of plan you are looking for that doesn’t involve a trade discussion.

    We will get to trade in due course.

    Then you should expect frustration because very little can be determined that does not involve trade and any attempt to wring concessions from the UK on market arrangements whilst refusing to talk trade is just pure politicking. If the shoe were on the other foot, and it were Ireland that was trying to remove itself from the EU and the UK was behaving like the ROI, we would have heard a clamour of complaints about bullying.

  • No1celt

    Excellent article Brendan. I suggest when you and your friends are discussing a future all Ireland state you don’t waste too much time debating what Sinn Fein or the DUP might do. Because without root and branch reform both will be irrelevant

  • Damien Mullan

    The current existence of two jurisdictions have not impeded Sinn Féin’s existence, so a hard or soft border would not impeded that. It would only take a number of residents in NI to register that party in NI. I think the impact on distribution in local and assembly elections will minamal, as proportional representation operates, but it would be a factor in westminister first past the post. I don’t think you can indulge in nationalist pacts for westminister as that defeats the purpose of plurality. The issue will be to energise the Nationalist vote with greater choice, to push up voter turn out. Not every nationalist in NI subscribed to Sinn Fein, and the continuing demise of the SDLP hardly motivates people to turn out at all. Nationalism needs in its politics the full spectrum from right to left in its political parties. That would do wonders for turn out.

  • Old Mortality

    At both the national and local level, the referendum produced such feeble majorities, neither side being to able to claim a majority of the registered electorate, which should have been the threshold in the first place. It was an act of folly not to insert that into a referendum ,the result of which, unlike a legislative election, cannot be reversed within a few years.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    A more realistic assessment is that MI5 contained all paramilitary groups to the point that they had to accept that their campaigns were futile.
    As for military activity the small band of SAS commandos were more effective in bringing the war back to the IRA than the thousands of regular troops.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I don’t think the fact that the GFA doesn’t require a plan would prevent one being drawn up. Obviously there are things that have to be agreed with London following a poll which resulted in a UI but that doesn’t prevent an Irish government setting out proposals for internal arrangements for the new state.

  • tmitch57

    I wrote about a year ago that the only circumstance under which a united Ireland would make sense for the unionist majority is one in which the UK had left the EC and Ireland remained. This would allow foreign companies to set up manufacturing facilities in Belfast and then export to both the UK and the EU, while enjoying the benefit of a well-educated, English-speaking work force with many from what is today the Republic coming up north to work in Belfast. I didn’t expect it to happen, but it now appears more likely than before the Brexit referendum.

  • edenkee

    Discovered this blog via The Guardian, very interesting article/assessment of the situation. My family and all my friends in the Republic of Ireland voted for The Good Friday Agreement. I asked my brother how he felt about voting for a change to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution and he replied: if it saves a single life it will have been worth it. I had high hopes after TGFA in 1998 or in the immortal words of Séamus Mallon SDLP “Sunningdale for slow learners”. Slowly but surely however I began to have my doubts. “Parity of esteem” was one of he key phrases of TGFA but then a certain section of the unionist population or perhaps certain unionist politicians began to refer to every compromise as a “concession” to the other side. Tremendous work has been done by the ordinary people of N.Irl on both sides of the divide over the past, almost, 20 years but now I fear that the majority of nationalist who could have imagined accepting N.Irl as being their “home”will once again start looking for other accommodation as a result of Brexit.

  • edenkee

    Yes Dennis it ‘s very strange that the DUP are being feted as the party representing the “people of Northern Ireland” when in fact the “people of N.Irl rejected Brexit. If only SF , like all the other parties, had taken their seats in Westminster.

  • edenkee

    Demographics Marcus. North Down has a strong Unionsit majority South Down has a Nationalist majority. County Antrim has an overall Unionist majority but the other four counties? Nnationalist majorities, As a result of Brexit I’d say it’s a question of time, demographically speaking ,before, as Brendan put it, the flag is taken down for the last time.

  • edenkee

    Nationalists who hold Republic of Ireland passports will still be EU citizens after Brexit, albeit living in a non EU United Kingdom.

  • Marcus Orr

    Well In that case they probably won’t care about leaving the EU then.

  • Marcus Orr

    Yes I know all about the demographics, we’ve discussed that subject on other threads about a 100 times now. No idea what your point is supposed to be though.

  • edenkee

    “unionists have no chance of getting their country back”.

    “their” says it all.

  • redgrouper

    I think they might object to being part of a Brexit which is bad for the whole of Ireland regardless of them being able to old an EU passport. Any type of Brexit will damage Ireland. They still have to live there and see their economy and communities damaged.

  • Marcus Orr

    Yeah I can understand that and it’s a fair objection to have

  • T.E.Lawrence

    The DUP are not worried about losing votes to any other unionist party as they have scorched such political opinion into its voting fold by basically saying “If you don’t vote DUP you get Sinn Fein” Seems to be a winner for them as they got 300K votes back in June ?

  • Jess McAnerney

    In PR elections it would greatly increase the votes
    I vote Sinn Fein only as the only all island party so no 2nd or third preference
    I would give even FG a preference if they came north
    Nationalists lose out as no depth of options

  • Sub

    Indeed his posting history somewhat betrays his claim. I’m a great believer in the, if it walk like a duck and talks like a duck then it is a duck.

  • Des Donnelly

    “The problem is no-one posed the necessary follow-up question: if Brexit answer for the nation (the UK) is yes, then do we sacrifice the Union with UK to maintain EU membership ?”

    The Union card has been played many times but if one goes back as far as 1990 to the Peter Brookes “no selfish strategic interest” speech. Peter Brooke said Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland and would accept unification, if the people wished it. This could be said to have been a building block of the peace process.

    The primary fact in all of this is that the wishes of the voters is paramount. Any dissolution of the Union is written into international agreement and cannot take place without the full acceptance of all the people on the island of Ireland – not the politicians – the people.

    We are in the unenviable position that the only people who really want us are us and we cannot survive without support from; the EU, the British Treasury, the Irish Republic.

    Picking one of these to the exclusion of the other two will be hugely counter productive in terms of inward investment, prosperity and a host of other factors and is a step backward not forward imho.

  • Des Donnelly

    in the context of the original article what specifically would you like the English MP’s to vote on?

  • Des Donnelly

    “such feeble majorities”

    I cannot agree, a majority is a majority, plain and simple. In general terms voting has become such a waste of time that people do not vote. A 62.7% turnout was very respectable, FYI that is a majority of the registered electorate. A perusal of the voting by constituency shows that the ‘feeble majority’ felt strongly enough to abandon their traditional tribal voting patterns.

    That voting outside old tribal lines is representative of the progress we have achieved here and as articulated in Brendan’s article this is the saddest thing of this entire debaucle.

  • Des Donnelly

    The SF MP’s were elected on a platform of non attendance, as has been the case. Nonetheless there are are approx 9 million people of Irish descent in England, in the fullness of time it may well be that SF will stand candidates in England. Using Brendan’s example of Finchley I would hazard a guess that a SF candidate elected there would not have any issue over the oath.

    This would be interesting to explore at a later date under a tentative working title: The Leprechaun among the Pigeons?

  • edenkee

    I think that’s a rather flippant reply Marcus as EU law, regulations, rights and responsibilities will no longer apply. Furthermore my Irish friends living in England feel the whole atmosphere will change but perhaps they are being excessively pessimistic, let’s hope so.

  • edenkee

    “a question of time, demographically speaking ,before, as Brendan put it, the flag is taken down for the last time” that’s the point I’m making Marcus.

  • edenkee

    “a majority is a majority, plain and simple” mmmh, a discussion has already started in the Republic as to what type of majority should be required in the event of a re-unification poll. The GFA states that a simple “majority” is necessary but Leo V. has been making noises about that.

  • edenkee

    “The reality is. a great many people in the north do not feel as comfortable as you have done until recently apparently” I believe that this what David Trimble meant in his acceptance speech in Oslo when together with John Hume he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he said the following: “Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics” The speech is really excellent and for those who have never read it, here it is:

  • edenkee

    Actually islandman the one objective of the anti Home Rule campaign and the signing of the Ulster Covenant under Dublin lawyer Edward Carson was to keep all of Ireland in the United Kingdom, partition was the last thing that great Unionist hero Edward Carson wanted. Here’s the great man himself looking back on it all, looking back in anger so to speak:”What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power. And of all the men in my experience that I think are the most loathsome it is those who will sell their friends for the purpose of conciliating their enemies, and, perhaps, still worse, the men who climb up a ladder into power of which even I may have been part of a humble rung, and then, when they have got into power, kick the ladder away without any concern for the pain, or injury, or mischief, or damage that they do to those who have helped them to gain power”.

  • Jess McAnerney

    He would happily have the cold house returned based on his speeches since

  • edenkee

    N.Ireland is finished, stop looking to the past, forget N.Ireland forget the Republic of Ireland build a new Ireland for all the children and future generations who will live there.

  • Marcus Orr

    Yes, but I’m aware of that, it’s hardly the point at hand. Ever since the 1998 Belfast Agreement it’s been clear what the long-term trajectory of NI is.

  • Marcus Orr

    “EU law, regulations, rights and responsibilities will no longer apply”
    Sounds wonderful. We get our fishing waters back. Common law has precedence once again over EU law. Habeaus Corpus and centuries of British legal tradition destroyed through the European Arrest Warrant. No longer subject to the European Court of Injustice. No longer subject to our capital in Brussels. Sounds just delightful.
    Sorry I know that I sound flippant to you but I honestly don’t know why people are so excited about paying all their taxes into the EU superstate and propping up all these unnecessary laws and regulations. When we could all in friendship freely regulate our affairs as sovereign nations.

  • ‘island man

    Devolved government would have come to Ireland eventually whether Home Rule happened at that time or not. If it had of been put off for another 50 years say would Unionists have embraced it as a forward looking change? I doubt it. Unionism was the minority in an all Ireland parliament, and as such required partition for its own autonomy. There has never been an all Ireland dimension in the Unionist mindset, whether as a devolved as part of the UK or otherwise.

  • Des Donnelly

    Leo Varadkar said he;-
    “wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis”

    Certainly he does not like it, as a Fine Gael Taoiseach, since it will most likely remove the possibility of FG ever being in power for a long number of years. The same will apply to FF given that reunification will totally upset the status quo.

    Perhaps ultimately FG or FF could well be dependent on the support of the DUP in a minority All Ireland government. 😉

    Legally, despite his ‘wouldn’t like’, annex 1 of the GFA the text of the international Agreement Between The Government Of The United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland And The Government Of Ireland is unequivocal. Article 1 clearly states;

    The two Governments:

    (i) recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland;