Back in the bad old days a mitigation presented for loyalists convicted of unlawfully possessing firearms was that the guns were stored for a ‘Doomsday scenario’, the doomsday in question being a United Ireland. Nationalists should consider that for a moment. For many Unionists, a united Ireland spells the end of life as they know it, an unknown, full of dread. As a child at the start of the Troubles I can remember such fears being voiced and although one can often be forgiven for thinking nothing much has changed, the reality is today’s Ireland is unrecognisable to that of the past. De Valera’s Ireland was inward looking and socially and economically backward; its narrow view of what constituted ‘Irishness’ was never going to appeal to Unionists and let’s be honest, it suited Irish governments not to have to deal with them. Northern Nationalists paid the price of southern governments enjoying a near homogenous state.
Forward on one hundred years and the South is now more prosperous than the North, and more socially progressive to boot. Modern Ireland is far from paradise but nor is it Mordor. Northern Ireland too has changed, superficially not as much, but changed it has. Economically it has gone backwards and is far too dependent on public sector jobs and state benefits but social attitudes, in line with plummeting church attendance in both jurisdictions, are closer to those in the South than they have ever been. Ironically, the Free Presbyterians of the DUP are finding common cause with the Catholic church on social issues. Northern Ireland, no matter how much some may hanker for it, is no longer a Protestant state for a Protestant people and the pro-British majority which seemed unassailable when the border was so carefully chosen, now seems precarious.
The union is safe in the immediate term but even five years from now things may be very different. Brexit has alienated many unionists from the state they felt part of and nationalists who could lead Irish lives in the UK under the GFA and enjoy an unobtrusive border, now see that at risk. Unity, once an aspiration that could only take place in a distant future now seems almost within touching distance.
We are all familiar with the arguments but in the push for a border poll one thing that is largely being ignored is what Unionists might do if they lose it. Arlene Foster is already on record as saying she may pack her bags and while some may say ‘good riddance’, what about the rest? Those with the money to move will probably be the least affected by any change and home is home. For those without funds, becoming a refugee in Glasgow or another British city is hardly an enticing project. The vast majority of unionists are likely to stay put just as nationalists did in 1921, what they do next is the key issue.
The DUP seem to be preparing a contingency for losing a border poll. We constantly hear ‘cross community consent’ in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol but I suspect it has more to do with setting a precedent whereby major constitutional change cannot take place without the consent of the majority of Unionists, or in other words, never. This is a very dangerous game and encourages fantasies of reliving 1912 and also gives a massive boost to Republican groups still engaging in violence. How can we spend decades persuading Republicans to play the political game and then move the goal posts if they look like winning it?
I have no doubt there will some kind of violent reaction to a lost border poll but how much? Demonstrations and riots can be taken as read but the level and severity of violence will depend on what is actually been voted for and the margin of victory. An undefined vote for change like the Brexit referendum, with a similarly small majority is a recipe for chaos. My guess is there will be a Good Friday style proposal with significant detail on pensions and finance and a poll will not take place unless the outcome is close to a foregone conclusion. This will be after a succession of pro-unity election results, not one or two opinion polls. In those circumstances Unionism will have had time to realise change is on the cards and a vote for Irish unity may not be a prelude to civil war, even if there are 12,500 edgy Loyalist paramilitaries.
The UK government will not hang onto Northern Ireland if a majority votes to leave the UK. It just won’t; internationally it would be crucified and domestically only a lunatic fringe would support such a policy. The political pain would be too much for absolutely no gain.
It should also be borne in mind the Loyalist paramilitaries are thoroughly infiltrated by the intelligence services. That was the case when John Stevens investigated collusion in the 1990s and with MI5 now leading operations, the intelligence situation can only have improved. It is highly likely that a high proportion, if not the majority, of Loyalist paramilitary leaders are state agents. In other words, a concerted campaign of violence cannot happen unless HMG permits it or colludes in it. Given that Britain shall finally have the honourable exit from Ireland it is has long sought, this is highly unlikely. The Irish authorities can expect a high degree of British co-operation in making any transition as peaceful as possible.
What would violence achieve? Loyalism can’t force the UK to keep N Ireland against the will of the majority of its inhabitants which leaves in my view, only two alternatives: independence for Northern Ireland, effectively the parts of it Loyalists can gain control of, or an accommodation with Dublin that respects the rights and sensitivities of the new minority.
Loyalists could create type of no-go areas where Dublin’s writ would be more notional than real. This would Balkanise the North into areas of government control, splashed with isolated pockets of resistance. These areas would suffer economically and military resistance needs a clear and achievable political objective to have any chance of success, otherwise, what is the point?
The other possible outcome is one where unionism including paramilitaries, sits down with the Irish and British governments and their Nationalist neighbours and negotiates the best deal it can for its people. This is not an implausible scenario, there have been informal contacts between Irish governments and Loyalist paramilitaries for years. It is to everyone’s benefit they continue. These things can be done before or after Doomsday but they will have to be done.
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-55151249 ↑
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