Last night’s exit polls came as a shock, the scale of both the Conservative and SNP seat predictions almost beyond belief. The cold hard reality of the morning after has brought little comfort. Remainers must be commended for fighting to the end, but the good fight is now lost. The roller-coaster has crested the summit, and Boris Johnson’s Brexit is now inevitable. If this truly was the Brexit Election, then the electorate have given their verdict.
Or should that be “verdicts”? The message from the electorate across the water is clear – Northern Ireland is a faraway country of which many know (and care) little. The opposition of every single NI party to the Brexit deal had the same effect as screaming into the void. The DUP and SF once held the Commons, briefly, in the palm of their hands. That window has now closed, and may not open again for a decade or more.
The political fallout poisons everything. Westminster has hardened its heart against the opinions of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Small businesses and farmers have been sacrificed to a flag. Arrogant dismissal and wilful ignorance have become virtues, and trust in the collective institutions of state wears thin. Scottish independence stirs, and may this time succeed. Northern Ireland is reduced to a loathsome appendage, its MPs cast aside having exhausted their usefulness.
I grew up in an Irish Unionism which viewed Irishness and Britishness as not just compatible but complementary. From one viewpoint, this was a principled line drawn against the extremes of both British and Irish nationalisms; from another a nightmare of cognitive dissonance and sheared loyalties. Partition was both a tragedy and a necessity; London simultaneously a faithful protector and feckless betrayer. Loyalty and dissent entangled in quantum indecision. To be and not to be.
All is now changed. The fresh betrayal of Brexit has gifted Irish Unionism a traumatic liberation. The union of nations that my father and grandfather held dear passed away last night. Its body remains on life support, but its soul has departed.
It is time to mourn the United Kingdom, and let it go.
There is another Union, one that remains an economic superpower, one that has stood by Northern Ireland throughout the Brexit crisis. The European Union has promised to help Ireland, including Northern Ireland, in its time of need. Let us test that promise now and ask for the EU’s political and financial support, as Northern Ireland cuts the cord and reorients its economy towards the largest market in the world.
Those of us who are both Irish and British will never forget our history, but the children of history must not live shackled to its corpse. People are no less who they are just because of a vote. British and Irish emigrants have not turned alien from living under French or Australian or American law. Identity is both internal and eternal. It grows and changes, but does not die.
It can be as simple as a transfer of sovereignty, so that Northern Ireland can graduate from a devolved region within the British union to an equal partner in an Irish union. Sovereignty need not be invested in Dublin but rather in the Strand Two institutions, so that the Agreements can continue to protect our hard-won peace. Further constitutional changes can be made in their own time and on their own merits. One foot in front of the next.
We are not yet ready for a border poll, but that argument will not hold much longer. If Scottish independence happens, a continuing Union of England, Wales and NI will be indefensible. It may soon be politically unviable even if Scotland chooses to stay.
No matter the future of the border, we must urgently dismantle the ugly scaffolding of mutual veto, so that Northern Ireland can stand up for its common interest within whatever Union it finds itself five or ten years from now. Mandatory coalition must mean mandatory government, and in exchange progress must not be vetoed by narrow bigotry. If the politicians who wish to govern us cannot or will not do so, we must show no mercy. The next generation will step forward, and the old will be cast aside.
This morning Northern Ireland grows up.
Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.