Nobody can doubt that Brexit has challenged the stability of the Union, not only in Scotland and Northern Ireland but in England too.
In a lecture in London last night he entitled “The Nightmare of History, Brexit, Ireland and the English Revolution,” Fintan O’Toole warmed to his theme, familiar to Irish Times readers, of pouring scathing contempt over the Brexit case, which he dismissed as post imperial “imaginings.” If he’s right and Brexit is creating a revolution at least in the minds of committed Brexiteers, it’s beating a tortuous path to nirvana. Maybe that’s what happens in revolutions. On the one hand it’s founded on the “nightmare” of the Leave case and dreams of Empire; on the other hand it moved O’Toole in Q&A to imagine the ideal of an English republic founded on English civilisation, “one of the greatest in the world.” As far as I understood him, (the rhetoric rather overwhelmed the thesis), Irish nationalism has reached a more advanced stage than the current English surge. It has outgrown the narrow imaginings of the independence struggle to emerge with a greater appreciation of diversity. Indeed so. The English variety is still at the primitive stage of nightmare. Well, perhaps.
What of the DUP? O’Toole shares the general opinion that they’re playing the traditional unionist game of heading straight into the last ditch to defend their idea of the Union, but with two huge differences today: first, that unlike the days of Carson, they are not the majority either in the Brexit referendum or in elections which show them with only 30% of the vote; and secondly, that they can no longer rely on English nationalist, and therefore largely Conservative, backing. There is some striking evidence to support this, as he writes today:
83 per cent of Leave voters and 73 per cent of Conservative voters agree that “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit that allows them to “take back control.”
If we strip away all rhetorical decor, this is what the union means: the voter in Gloucestershire loves the union enough to share her money with Arlene and Michelle. And here is the really big news: if she’s a Brexiteer, she damn well doesn’t. In the latest Future of England survey, there is a buried landmine…. It has received some attention for the breathtaking revelation that fully 83 per cent of Leave voters and 73 per cent of Conservative voters agree that “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit that allows them to “take back control”.
The DUP is aggressively biting the only hands still willing to feed it: screw you and your money!
So far this result has not set a trend. Transfer payments made under the mysteries of the Barnett formula have indeed become more contested in England – if you want self government, pay for it yourselves. But the arguments have not yet peaked, being largely submerged by Brexit and the north-south divide in England. Perhaps their day will come. But English patience is a wonderful thing and is too lightly appreciated. During thirty years of the Troubles and for all the machinations to reduce the commitment that went on just below the public’s radar, the Troops Out movement barely spread beyond the Bennite (now Corbynite) left. Contrast that with the reaction to Iraq.
For “these islands” O’Toole imagines an English republic surrounded by an arc of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic, not like some ancient Celtic kingdom (come back Dal Riaida!) but in a relationship that allows Ireland to unite, accomplished with the help of a Scottish association to reassure northern Presbyterians. (He may have missed the Presbyterian Church severing ties with the dangerously liberal mother Church of Scotland).
But w4hy would we go through all that to create yet more borders in a sort of benign former Yugoslavia that feels more like Irish nationalism’s revenge on Britain? We are struggling mightily now to prevent the revival of the only contested border in these islands for three hundred years, alongside the growing pains of the recently devolved UK and the GFA. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that Conservatives however bitterly divided over Chequers would have taken this line on the backstop without having to rely on the DUP for a majority. And if you insist on polling snapshots in the current chaos, this one shows that although it will remain foreseeably contestable, it would be crazy to write the Union off.
Are there any words to be said for the DUP? One of two perhaps. The slippery slope argument is plausible without guarantees that so far aren’t agreed.’ As I’ve written, the support of Scotland’s outward- going Conservative star Ruth Davidson for “no border in the Irish Sea” eases their grim isolation as Theresa May’s blackmailers.
So is the choice to be The Union or No Deal? The binary question looms. For the Union longer term, the idea is plausible, that if Northern Ireland goes, Scotland will follow. That raises the stakes to a level that “England” has started to wake up to. In the Commons yesterday it was strikingly accepted even by centrist English Labour MPs who are among the DUP’s strongest critics over marriage equality and abortion. Brexit aside, if the rights of Irish/EU citizens need to be protected, so do the British rights of all citizens in the North, with or without Stormont. Progressive England has discovered Northern Ireland causes they can support at last! Hallelujah!
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