During yesterday’s drama in the Commons Theresa May accepted four amendments proposed by Jacob Rees Mogg’s European Research Group. A few of those amendments arguably put the ‘backstop’ agreed by the UK and the EU in the Joint Report in doubt.
One of the amendments states that, “It shall be unlawful for the HMG to enter into arrangements under which Northern Ireland forms part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain.” This seems to conflict with the EU’s interpretation of the backstop. Another amendment forces the Government to have a separate VAT regime from the EU. There are worries that this could lead to checks at the border.
Debates about the amendments and their implications for the backstop will rumble on for weeks. All this before the EU has formally responded. For some of Northern Ireland’s political parties, the latest Commons showdown makes the prospect of ‘no deal’ more likely. The EU has been very clear that the backstop must be included in the Withdrawal Agreement.
As a unionist you have to wonder why the DUP appears to be so sanguine about all of this. If the latest drama makes ‘No Deal’ more likely by the day then we are heading for a hard border. Polling suggests that a hard Brexit could have implications for a united Ireland. Why aren’t the DUP nervous?
It’s my own, personal hunch but I suggest that the DUP are blind to worries about a hard border and a united Ireland because, on some level, top brass believe it’ll never happen. There are sections of political unionism that think the same thing.
It’s a common attitude in some hardline unionists. I’ve experienced it when arguing with family members. They think a united Ireland is a fantasy, a pipe dream written on the back of a napkin. The idea that voters might consider the idea is laughable. They point with ease to the financial cost of a united Ireland, the implications for Northern Ireland’s public sector and say that nobody will ever vote for it. There’s a reason why some unionists use the phrase, “The south don’t want us.” They think that even if Northern Ireland wants to leave the union, the Republic will save us from ourselves. They hold on to that belief like it’s written in scripture.
What of small ‘u’ unionists whose support for the union is wavering? Even among more ‘pragmatic’ types there is the belief that they are are having a ‘strop.’ The ‘lundy leash’ is a powerful tool. Hardliners think they can shame people back into line.
I don’t think there’s a straight line between a hard Brexit and a united Ireland. At the same time, I wouldn’t be relaxed about the prospect of a hard border. The old battle lines and loyalties in Northern Ireland will not last forever. Unionists should be wary. The Ulster Covenant was not a binding contract. Our families didn’t sign our names in blood.
Unionists who voted for Brexit know better than anyone that shocks can happen. Sometimes scare stories that have worked for decades stop having an effect. Sometimes the people you thought you could count on go in a different direction. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen if there’s a border poll.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.