“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
Beyond the reactions of some, including Sir Iain Duncan-Smith MP and John Redwood MP, both of whom seem to have an unbridled capacity to straddle conviction and irrational sabre-rattling, the stance which the President-elect and fellow Democrats like Nancy Pelosi opted for on Brexit negotiations prior to the Presidential election, hardly reflects a nuanced understanding or respectful concern for the complexity of the issues arising within Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
The consent of the people is as enshrined in legislation here, as in the USA. When candidate Joe Biden, during his campaign in September 2020, said: “We can’t allow the GFA that brought Peace to NI to become a casualty of Brexit” he lacked the deft touch of a Bill Clinton or Senator George Mitchell and, content to cherry-pick what the consequences of Brexit could mean for NI, displayed a lazy, if not provocative, partisanship in his thinking.
For those who are pro-Union and open to engagement on what a Shared Island could look like, albeit that calls for a border poll and a timetable for re-unification are not high on their agenda, there is an expectation that unionism will be taken seriously and not set aside by the pseudo- Trump tactics on display during the election campaign.
When candidate Joe Biden, camouflaged in concern for the Good Friday Agreement, put on the green jersey to voice conditional threats over a trade deal with the United Kingdom, he provided reasons, for those who perennially seek them, to strengthen their prejudices and make working towards a shared future that bit more difficult.
Coming as it did on the heels of the Internal Markets Bill and the reaction within Ireland and the EU, it cannot have been any less than beneficial to harden the line for Irish-American voters. Whether or not this was encouraged by the Irish Diplomatic service as some have speculated, it was not out of step with Dublin’s recent policy position on who’s to blame for lack of agreement on a deal or measured silence on the potential damage arising from the imposition of a sea border within the United Kingdom.
Trust will be a casualty. In retrospect, it might have been more useful to encourage both the EU and the UK to show flexibility and find agreement on a trade deal that would address the inclusive needs of the shared island and not just one jurisdiction. Both sides need to move closer and live with the reality that no one can have everything they want and an agreed outcome now is preferable to prolonged wrangling into the future where the UK and the EU will finally have to trade and accommodate their mutual interests on many fronts. Reinforcing this, instead of peddling a partisan platform, would have been worthier of the individual and the office to which he has been elected.
The new President will have a full in-tray of issues to address in a country that respected British Washington-based commentator Andrew Sullivan recently described to a Centre for Policy Studies audience, as politically deadlocked. The election was not entirely a repudiation of Donald Trump who improved his vote across traditional and non-traditional voters. Clearly, many Americans are happy with his politics, if not the exhausting style of his presentation.
Class fissures and racial fault-lines run deep. There is a view that in addressing differing expectations within the coalition that is the Democratic party, in addition to competing agendas in the US Congress, he will display his strength as a neutral unifier focused on stability and normalcy. Time will tell if he will even have that many opportunities to meet such expectations.
It is a strength that was less clear prior to his election in regard to Northern Ireland. Predictably, it has already fed into the fragile political sensitivities of narrow unionism whose proponents feel more justified in the trenches. It is unlikely to cost the President-elect much sleep that two DUP councillors on a committee of Derry City and Strabane District Council could not bring themselves to support an invitation to Joseph Biden to visit the city but it is an all too real microcosm of the distance those chosen by electors as representatives need to move in terms of leadership that can resolve issues. More rather than less encouragement is desirable. If further evidence is needed, it is evident in the recent stance of the UUP with regard to the Shared Island Unit.
In addition to disparaging remarks alluding to the motives of the Taoiseach, Michaél Martin TD, the UUP is hedging its bets by referencing a Shared Islands approach within the structures of the GFA’s 3 strands. At present, it does not send an elected representative to the GFA Implementation Committee in Dublin nor has ever fully embraced All-Ireland bodies.
This current position represents a calculated-risk approach as opposed to a strategic one.
Had unionists bothered to attend the All-Ireland Dialogues, they would have observed that an all-island dimension to many aspects of life in the two jurisdictions operates well beyond the GFA structures. Political unionism has a low capacity to trust itself in engaging with those who might hold a view that is different and it would appear that this is still in place.
For a variety of reasons, political unionism is stalling on engagement with the potential of a shared island. Trust, understanding and reconciliation require nurturing. Impediments did not need to be put in their way by a US President-elect.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.