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.