I remember back in 1984 being on holiday on a Greek island and wasting an evening drinking largely on my own while a friend who hailed from the loyalist part of the Donegall Road, spent hours trying to convince a friendly English couple that he was British not Irish. After around two hours of the best persuasive arguments he could muster, the woman said, ‘But you’re Irish!’
I learned a couple of lessons that evening, one was not to waste precious time on holiday being a political evangelist, the other was that while we may have our own sense of identity, we have absolutely no control over what labels others put on us.
Life is full of unpleasant realities which we either accept or deny. In Northern Ireland, people may spend their lives residing in a state they have little or no affinity with. That is a reality for Nationalists, but Unionists will also have to deal with the fact the political entity they cherish is:
- Not regarded in the same way by a large proportion of the population
- That proportion is rising, while their own percentile is shrinking
- The state they hold allegiance to does not reciprocate their loyalty
The great desire, indeed fantasy of Northern Ireland Unionists, is to be treated in the same manner as the rest of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, for the past 100 years, it never has been. Until Scotland obtained a devolved administration in 1999, Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK to have a devolved government. Until 1971 the attitude of the UK government was essentially laissez-faire so unlike the rest of the UK, we had a completely different form of policing, institutionalised discrimination and gerrymandering. Northern Ireland was also exempted from conscription, and was offered to the Irish Free State as an incentive for it to join World War II on Britain’s side. In short, we are not as British as Finchley and never have been.
Along came the Troubles and Britain had to get interested in what happened here. Unfortunately, hard-line Unionism defied any political solution because it refused to acknowledge the reality, that Northern Ireland was very different from GB as we had a permanent political majority and minority based on national identities. Despairing of finding agreement within Northern Ireland, Margaret Thatcher went over the heads of Unionism and negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. Unionists were angry that a ‘foreign’ government had a say in the running of the place and demonstrated in vast numbers, protested, rioted and worse. But the Agreement stayed.
In fact, it stayed until it was superseded by the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Once again, elements of Unionism, the DUP and TUV, fought this proposed solution tooth and nail and continued to do so despite 71% voting in favour of it in a referendum, an overwhelming majority by any standard. The DUP only got onboard once it became the largest unionist party and was entitled to the top job. The First Minister, Ian Paisley, was then brought down by his own party when he seemed to be serious about reconciliation and working with his former enemies. Since then, the DUP has continued to play its part in the institutions but rather begrudgingly and has focused on dividing power rather than sharing it.
Moving onto more recent times, backing the hardest possible Brexit seemed to the DUP like a Trojan horse they could use to turn the clock back. They knew, as the Tories did, that the EU would fight to maintain the integrity of the Single Market, so if they refused to accept being in the customs union or the single market, as some non-EU counties are, there would be…. quelle surprise, a customs border at Newry by default. But they miscalculated.
The DUP, entirely predictably, thwarted Theresa May at every turn, making her downfall and Johnson’s subsequent succession inevitable. No matter what noises he made about cherishing the union, his ambition was to be the Prime Minister that took the UK out of the EU and if betraying Unionists was the price of doing so, it was one Johnson was happy to pay. What he negotiated was the hardest possible Brexit short of leaving on WTO terms. The DUP would be quite happy with WTO terms and associated tariffs but they are not responsible for the UK economy, Boris Johnson is. Official figures put the decline in UK exports to the EU at 40.7% in January of this year. Some of that may be down to teething problems, but many small firms have simply given up trying to negotiate the paperwork. The figures may improve but then again, they might not, and the long-term prospect for exports will be much worse if tariffs come into play, which they inevitably must if the NI Protocol is simply scrapped.
Going forward, the UK’s relationship with the EU will remain important and it is in the interests of both parties to smooth out many of the ridiculous issues in the protocol, which needs amended. Successive UK and Irish governments have decided it is in both their interests not to have a hard border in Ireland; that is extremely unlikely to change. Nor is the EU likely to abandon its protection of the Customs Union and Single Market, those things are the very raison d’être of the organisation. Like it or not, the most efficient way to manage divergence in standards and tariffs is at a handful of ports, not at over 200 roads.
Post-Brexit, the UK needs other arrangements to make up lost trade and the United States, with the world’s largest economy, is the obvious choice. However, the Biden administration will not tolerate a hard border in Ireland and lest anyone should think that Trump or Trump 2.0 will be more accommodating in four years’ time, they should consider trade deals are approved by congress and there are strong Irish lobbies in both main parties. The relationship with Washington has also been the cornerstone of British foreign policy since 1941 and will remain so. Loyalism will not dictate otherwise.
Loyalists are angry, yes, we get that. They have been betrayed, there is no other term for it, but betrayed by the UK government through an act of parliament their own political representatives supported. Northern Ireland is now in economic terms, semi-detached from the UK. It is the political equivalent of Johnson serving divorce papers or ghosting Unionism. He’s just not that into you and in truth neither is most of Great Britain. I once did a three-month training course in England which I flew to and from every weekend. One of my colleagues thought I was lucky as I could buy Duty-Free every weekend. I asked how and he said because you’re going to Ireland. I asked him what it said on the cover of his passport and he hadn’t the faintest idea. Nor was my friend an isolated case. In the minds of most people in England, we are part of Ireland no matter what flag we wave or who we maintain we are.
Loyalists complain they are not listened to, which is partly true but they are not very adept at listening to others. Some have been warning for years that a Hard Brexit would produce exactly this situation. Brexit is driven primarily by English nationalism which cares nothing for Northern Ireland or even Scotland. The protocol is just the first bitter fruit of a disastrous harvest. Rioting will gain attention, but attention is not necessarily listening. People in the world beyond our quarrel watching Loyalist violence will be turned off by it. Winning friends and influencing it is not, and if Unionism ever needed friends, it is right now.
I suspect that the rioting we have just witnessed is a statement by some Loyalists that they will not go quietly into the night of a United Ireland, even if a majority here votes for it. It remains to many, a Doomsday scenario, an utterly absurd idea to nationalists but Arlene Foster has now said in two interviews she will leave the country if there is a United Ireland. She shares the same dread of constitutional change as the rioters but obviously articulates it differently. I think she is far from alone in that.
Feeding this thinking is a deeply ingrained social apartheid, largely self-imposed, whereby it is entirely possible for someone to be born, go to school, go to work and socialise entirely among the same demographic and social group for an entire lifetime. Imagine going through your entire life without a single meaningful and positive exchange with someone from another group that may live just a few streets away. Any of us, constantly surrounded by people with a certain outlook will inevitably tend to think the same way. The only way to break this mindset is to integrate society, not simply manage division but that will take imagination and political courage, qualities in short supply in Stormont.
With regards to Loyalist violence, it is up to Unionism’s political leaders to state unequivocally that they will accept the result of any future border poll even if they do not like the result. There cannot be a Unionist veto, to suggest otherwise will only encourage violent minorities to insist upon having their way no matter what. That is not to say the views of Unionists should be disregarded or that reasonable accommodation should not be made. If a United Ireland is about revenge and humiliation, I’d consider joining Arlene on the boat, but what happens in the future is a blank sheet of paper. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Alternatively, for the United Kingdom to be worth having it must be, if not attractive, then at least tolerable to as many people as humanly possible. Thus far, in its long history, unionism has made no worthwhile effort to reach out across the divide. This is somewhat strange as the Union can only exist in the long term if substantial numbers of Catholics are content within it. Unfortunately, the next election result is always more important than the bigger picture.
We all expect material benefits from our preferred constitutional outcome but there must be more than that. A divided society will be like a volcano that erupts every so often spewing out death and destruction. Sectarian violence predated partition and unless there are drastic changes in Northern Ireland it will postdate it too. Our politicians talk about tackling the divisions in our society, but their actions suggest they have zero interest in doing so. For the sake of future generations, we simply cannot go on like this.
- https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/bulletins/uktrade/january2021#main-points ↑
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam