Unionism: so what’s the plan ?

The BBC reports this evening the following remarks from DUP North Antrim MP, Ian Paisley:

Northern Ireland will not be used as a pawn – we opposed the withdrawal agreement, we warned about this protocol, we said it would damage the integrity.

“I am glad, maybe at the last minute, the PM has wakened up to the serious threat that this poses to the union,” he said.

“If the prime minister has the mettle to finish the job I welcome that but we will find out this Wednesday if he has a tinfoil spine and if he is not prepared to stand up to Europe, as the people of NI do not deserve to be treated differently to people in the rest of the UK,” he added.

There is a general pattern of favourable comments coming from Unionist politicians concerning Johnson’s plan to tear up the agreement he signed, fought an election on, and pushed through Parliament. Edwin Poots suggested that Johnson’s bill means that work on port controls could be halted. Sammy Wilson also offered characteristically belligerent rhetoric on the eve of the announcement of the new bill. Arlene Foster has been rather more circumspect, a contrast which has led to some speculation about a behind-closed-doors power struggle within the DUP.

A couple of things are fascinating to me here. The first is that Unionist politicians, particularly in the DUP, seem to think that the UK Prime Minister is going to act to support their interests, despite being shafted twice in a row by both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and in the context where Johnson is publicly threatening to repudiate a deal that has his own signature on it.

But the second thing is more serious, and is emblematic of Unionism’s age old problem – not being able to see the wood for the trees. What is the strategy here; exactly do they think is going to happen next ? What happens if they get their way ?

The horse that Unionism is backing here is a no-deal horse, the inevitable conclusion of the UK repudiating its own agreement. No deal may mean no border in the Irish sea; but it will also mean, among many other things, a border within Ireland. The problem with this is not security (a security threat can be met with a security response, provided people are prepared to pay the cost) but the fact that most people and businesses in Northern Ireland are against it, which has implications for the union by itself which I will discuss further below.

Secondly, Ian Paisley is wrong to say that the withdrawal agreement is a threat to the union. In fact, the opposite is true. In the world we now live in where Unionist political parties are holed below 43% of the vote, the threat to the union comes from swing voters, most of them from “nationalist” backgrounds, most of the being pro-EU and most of them having no particular problem with either the union or Irish reunification, who are dissatisfied with nationalism and nationalist political parties. For these voters, the Withdrawal Agreement dulls the sharp edges of brexit just enough to keep them voting Alliance or Green. Taking the Withdrawal Agreement away, installing a hard border and imposing a bunch of food shortages and delays is a pretty good way to stir these voters into an angry reaction.

I cannot claim to speak for all Alliance or Green voters – far from it. But I know that I don’t want a border poll and I’m quite happy for reunification to stay on the shelf gathering dust (and I suspect there are a good many people in the south, not least in Leinster House, who privately feel the same way) provided some sort of sanity is prevailing. This is not because I am pro-British, or anti-reunification, but because I want us to sort out our other problems first before we take on new ones, and I don’t accept that reunification will automatically solve them. This is particularly true in the middle of brexit, COVID, and the disquieting state of the world’s major military powers. The Withdrawal Agreement offered the opportunity to maintain the status quo for the time being and create the needed space to continue working on all of this.

Removing the Withdrawal Agreement nullifies this argument by it taking away the means to sustain the status quo and (re)introducing a range of new problems. For many of us in the centre ground it will cause the question of reunification to be taken down from the shelf, dusted off and be given a second look. This does not strike me as being in Unionism’s interest.

I’ve long since given up on trying to understand the collective psychology of Unionism over the past century, watching as it repeatedly saws off the branches upon which it is perched. I can’t get over the way it, as a self-defined guardian of British culture and values, would align itself so enthusiastically with those who have no regard for decency, fair play, honouring agreements and your good name, and respecting the rulebook.

Unionism has the disposition of a gambler staking his last coin. At not one, but several key critical stages, it chose not to spend its political capital on pushing the UK towards a path which would have avoided distancing Northern Ireland from the union, and instead chose to bet the house on a silly far-right pipedream. It, and it alone, is culpable in whatever happens next.


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