On the building of walls…

Gavin Lafferty is a Slugger reader from Belfast…

It has been interesting reading some of the reactions to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s visit to the north, particularly among the harder edges of Unionism. Varadkar’s calls for increased co-operation from the British government and the need for a potential plan B should Stormont not be revived, was predictably negative from that quarter. The Newsletter has helpfully gathered some of the more colourful reactions

“DUP MP Ian Paisley called the Irish premier “a big mouth” while fellow DUP MP Sammy Wilson said Mr Varadkar has “a cheek” for demanding action on Northern Ireland’s affairs. Meanwhile TUV leader Jim Allister described Mr Varadkar as a “persistent interloper”.

Loyalist commentator Jamie Bryson was even more unrestrained in his tweets on X (formerly Twitter) with posts attacking everyone who interacted with the Taoiseach with civility, such as the example below attacking Linfield for hosting the Taoiseach (and there are several more to look up if you are minded).

Now, a great deal of the reaction to Varadkar is driven by his transformation into a Unionist bogeyman, the hardliner who drove the brutal deal with the British government that lead to the hated protocol, but there is also something deeper at play here in my opinion, something that Sammy Wilson touched on in his interview with Sky News.

The words, stock phrases and ideas that Sammy kept returning to are the critical clue. ‘This part of the United Kingdom’ was one part, as he attempted to emphasise the equivalence of the north to any other part of the UK and the continual casting of the south as foreign even when under UK law it no such thing (though the Sky News host dry rejoinder that ‘it’s not Germany is it’ momentarily flummoxed Sammy). Such talk seems to have been becoming increasingly common in recent years. And why?

In my opinion it’s all about walls.

One of the most common slogans uttered by disgraced former President Donald Trump in the United States, adopted rapidly by his supporters, was a call to build a wall along the southern US border with Mexico. Whilst plenty of commentators were quick to point out the problems with the idea, from its sheer cost to its environmental impact to the simple fact it wouldn’t work, none of that mattered. It was the simplicity of the idea itself that clearly appealed, a physical wall that would clearly mark out what was America from what was not. It was as much a statement as anything else.

I would argue that the point of Brexit for the DUP and core Unionism was at first to demonstrate their credentials as authentically British to English voters who normally don’t give a second thought to northern unionists (or even a first if we are being honest). After all, whilst forgotten now, Remain was expected to win in 2016. A chance to proudly wave the flag alongside the likes of Farage and Johnson was all the motivation that was required, the unique problems the north would face in the event of a Leave win were ignored.

But when the referendum was unexpectedly won by Leave, these Unionists seemed to sense a historic opportunity to drive a wedge between the north and the south. After all, with the Good Friday Agreement removing previous border infrastructure and with shared membership of the Single Market, there was a slow convergence under way on this island. Convergence is clearly seen as a strategic threat to unionism from some quarters, as it undermines the rationale for the union. The looming demographic changes have also clearly been gnawing at the minds of harder line Unionist leaders, if the practical case for the union disintegrates (as I would argue is either happening or has already happened), then lacking the psychological bulwark of an electoral majority who would vote for the union come what may must have been truly terrifying. Relying on the apathy of the middle ground to ward off a border poll can’t be the security they would seek.

Something clearly had to be done, if divergence was not happening naturally, it should be forced and in Brexit, many Unionists it seems saw an opportunity for its own wall. Not a concrete barrier as Trump proposed for America, but a barrier of checkpoints, of cameras, of bollards and customs officials. A way of putting down a physical marker that said ‘This place is different from that place’. The same instinct at play behind Tom Elliot’s ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland signage’ from a few years back but on a much grander and far more intrusive scale. And from their commentary at the time wherein they claimed such a border would be at the behest of the EU and they didn’t want one, it is not hard to imagine some Unionists chuckling to themselves that a hard border could be implemented on this island due to EU rules, and they could present clean hands to their devastated nationalist neighbours. It must have seemed irresistible.

We know what happened next, as Unionism grotesquely overplayed its hand and ended up with a light touch trade border in the Irish sea. Rather than stymying convergence, they super-charged it. Rather than proving their credentials as authentically British to the rest of the United Kingdom, they had it proven to them that the English would throw them under the bus without a hint of regret. And rather than take responsibility for their own foolishness in backing Brexit in the first place, they’ve turned Varadkar into a bogeyman because he defended Irish national interests.

The hostility exhibited by hardline Unionists towards Varadkar, and the south in general,is emblematic of their failure on Brexit and the psychological shock it delivered to them. Nor should it be forgotten that this shock has been compounded by them slipping into minority status as per the census, Sinn Féin becoming the largest party, the Centenary flopping and even the passing of long term constitutional fixture Queen Elizabeth II, each event has fed into each other event in the manner of a boxer receiving a flurry of headshots without respite.

As they can no longer have a physical border, I believe they strive to reinforce the border in the mind. The south is a foreign country, despite sharing five-sixths of the landmass of this island. Southerners are a foreign people, despite over half of the population of the north claiming an Irish identity in some form. The Southern government have no business interfering in northern politics, despite the blatantly obvious interest the south has had in the north from the moment of partition to the present day and for every day to come. And if they find Taoiseach Varadkar’s commenting on the north neuralgic, they may blow a gasket should a Taoiseach Mary Lou McDonald do the same. There is simply no reality in which the Republic will ever hold up it’s hands, acknowledge the north as a truly foreign country, and only inquire about it in the same manner Rishi Sunak would inquire about a Corsica to the French. We are simply too closely bound for that.

It’s a self-defeating strategy of course. Acknowledging the north was different and seeking to build a flexible union that would accommodate those differences could hypothetically sustain the political link for far longer than the inflexible approach unionism is currently wedded to will. Something that is inflexible ultimately breaks when subjected to enough pressure, and that seems to be the trajectory the union is currently on. But to accept that the north is different would mean accepting it really is a place apart, and that is seemingly a mental leap Unionism will refuse to take.

They’ll keep trying to build that wall one way or another, and if it can’t be of concrete it will be of thoughts and words and perceptions. But I fear they only thing they’ll end up isolating in the end is themselves.

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