Discontent: a bus set alight during riots in Belfast this April. Image: REUTERS / Jason Cairnduff

Unionism, nationalism and Northern Ireland’s unrequited love

Rival communities in the North identify intensely with Britain and Ireland respectively. But Britain doesn’t especially want the province—and nor does the Republic
May 1, 2021

Margaret Thatcher once said that people in Northern Ireland were “part of the United Kingdom—as much as my constituency is,” a line often misremembered as her saying the region was as British as Finchley. Either way, it’s not teenagers in Finchley who have been throwing petrol bombs at the police and complaining about a border separating it from other parts of the country, as they have been in Belfast in recent weeks.

The new flare up has been, in part, the product of unionist unhappiness over the Northern Ireland protocol that defined the future relationship with the EU that came into operation in January. It is also the result of a fatalistic malaise among unionists who think that they are treated as second-class citizens within the Union, in comparison to those living in Finchley—or anywhere in Great Britain.

What those young loyalists are finding out is that Northern Ireland is not the same as Finchley—indeed, it never has been—and that Brexit is emphasising that distinction. The Northern Ireland protocol, designed as much in London as Brussels, has put a trade border in the Irish Sea that makes it even clearer that Northern Ireland has a unique position within the United Kingdom. For the Belfast rioters the penny has dropped. It has been a shock to the psyche of those unionists who supported Brexit, who have, until recently, been in denial about what leaving the EU actually means. But denial is no longer an option. On 28th April, Arlene Foster, after a rebellion from within her Democratic Unionist Party, was forced to resign as first minister.

The long betrayal

Unionists have good reason to feel insecure. In moments of political crisis, the British government has often seemed to behave more like a fair-weather friend than kith and kin. One explanation for this is that although Northern Ireland has been an integral part of the UK since its creation in 1921, it has never quite been as British as Finchley. Put bluntly, it is on the UK’s political, economic and cultural periphery, rather than at the heart of its imagined community. The unionist fear of this harsh truth is one of the reasons some emphasise their Britishness so strongly—like those in Gibraltar, who equally fear for their constitutional future as Britain’s colonial legacy fades.

The phrase that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland, signed up to by John Major in the 1993 Downing Street declaration, was one of the golden keys that unlocked the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994, and it has been an article of faith ever since. The British government has never said this about Scotland, Wales or any other part of the UK. This is hurtful to unionists who feel that Britain should have a selfish interest in Northern Ireland. But it doesn’t, and it is unlikely that it will ever do again, however loudly unionists declare their devotion. Few relationships prosper if only one party is committed; it hardly inspires confidence either that the British government would be quite happy to get divorced as soon as the Northern Irish people want to.

David Lloyd George partitioned Ireland, cutting loose those unionists still living in what was to become the Free State, a price he thought worth paying for finally solving the “Irish question”—for a while at least. The wily prime minister was prepared to tell both unionists and nationalists what they wanted to hear to get them both to sign up to the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921. Such double dealing would become a familiar feature of British government policy in Ireland over the next 100 years.

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill dangled the carrot of Irish reunification in front of Irish taoiseach Éamon de Valera in return for the Free State supporting the war. (It stayed neutral.) While the real significance of this “offer” has been questioned—it carried the likely prohibitive caveat of requiring unionist support—it revealed an attitude of British expediency in times of national crisis, and foreshadowed more recent examples of this tendency during the Brexit negotiations.

In the 1970s, Edward Heath suspended the Stormont parliament that had been a seat of exclusive power for the entrenched unionist majority for 50 years, and imposed direct rule from Westminster. While unionists were incensed by this decision, it was taken by London because it deemed it to be in its own interests.

In 1983, Thatcher revealed (to her senior colleagues in government at least) that she regarded the region’s Britishness as a lot more conditional than Finchley’s by asking her Northern Ireland secretary, James Prior, if he thought her government should prepare for a “tactical withdrawal.” She was advised that it would lead to civil war. Then in 1985, instead of listening to unionist pleas, she signed an international treaty with the Irish government—though she later claimed in her memoirs to have regretted doing so. Her regret was pragmatic, however, rather than principled, based on the lack of improved security co-operation with the Irish government rather than unionist claims about the slippage of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK.

The Anglo-Irish agreement gave the Irish government a formal consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Unionists were distraught that the Iron Lady who had stood up for the Falklanders thousands of miles away had “sold out” their British “birthright.” The Democratic Unionist Party’s Peter Robinson, who would later become first minister, complained bitterly that Northern Ireland had been forced onto “the window ledge of the Union.” Yet few in Great Britain batted an eyelid; if they paid attention at all, they scratched their heads at how un-British those screaming loudly about being British seemed to be.

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Margaret Thatcher at the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement with taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in 1985. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Great Britain’s relationship with Northern Ireland has long been unhealthily contingent on capricious attitudes in London, where successive governments have failed to prioritise the political stability of the region when it has competing policy priorities. Brexit is therefore more of a continuity than a departure in the relationship, representing the latest example of political expediency in London resulting in collateral damage in Northern Ireland.

The unionist community has been poorly served politically. The DUP tied itself to Brexit without thinking through how it would work out, then played a strong hand badly. After the 2017 general election, Foster’s DUP held the balance of power at Westminster and kept Theresa May in office for two years. But the party rejected every version of Brexit offered and was instrumental in sinking May’s deal. The DUP lauded Boris Johnson for declaring that the “Irish backstop” in her withdrawal agreement would convert Northern Ireland into an “economic semi-colony” of the EU, thereby “damaging… the fabric of the Union.”

But once in No 10, Johnson became, like his predecessors, noticeably more pragmatic. He realised that his only route to a trade deal with the EU was to avoid a hard land border on the island of Ireland. He was left with two options. First, to crash out of the EU without a trade deal in a damaging and disorderly no-deal Brexit—which he had admitted publicly would amount to a “failure of statecraft”—and absorb the economic pain. Or second, protect the EU single market by placing the trade border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Johnson chose the latter option and, reneging on his earlier promises to the DUP, he did a deal with the Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar that replaced the backstop with the Northern Ireland protocol. From a unionist perspective, this was far worse than the backstop, not only because it kept Northern Ireland aligned with the EU, but because it did so in a way that did not apply to Great Britain; it imposed a potentially permanent internal trade border across the Irish Sea that once again emphasised Northern Ireland’s unique position within the Union.

Johnson played the part of political gigolo with aplomb, casting his former DUP lovers aside without a hint of remorse. In the Commons, Ian Paisley Jr condemned the protocol as a betrayal and claimed it made unionists “feel like foreigners in their own country.” Unrequited love can be a corrosive emotion.

One reason why British politicians can afford to be indifferent to Northern Ireland’s political fate is because none of the main parties hunt for electoral support there. Unlike in Scotland or Wales, the electorate is not able to vote for any of the prospective governing parties at Westminster. Voters in Northern Ireland have no say about which of the main parties takes power at Westminster—except in the rare situation of a finely balanced parliament, such as that of 2017. If the province’s voters lack leverage, those on the mainland lack interest. Polling for the Sunday Times in January found 57 per cent of English voters and 71 per cent of Scots reported they would either be “not bothered” or pleased if Northern Ireland merged into the Irish Republic. Some in Great Britain still see Northern Ireland as nice to have, but few think it essential.

The wound that healed

While unionists have been periodically disappointed by the UK’s commitment, nationalists in Northern Ireland have faced similar issues with the Irish Republic. Ever since partition, Dublin has officially regarded it as a raw wound, and been rhetorically committed to reunification. From 1937, when Éamon de Valera introduced a new constitution that laid political claim to Northern Ireland, until 1998 when this demand was converted to an aspiration as part of the Good Friday agreement, this goal was a constitutional imperative. But they have done little to hasten reunification in practical terms. A harsh truth for Northern nationalists is that many in the Republic—and certainly those in government—think Ireland can be Ireland without the North. While the aspiration to reunify is certainly present, it is sublimated beneath the more powerful desire for political and economic stability. A century of separation has seen a gradual distancing between the two parts of Ireland—quietly encouraged by successive Irish governments. Even de Valera himself, one of the architects of independence, wanted to have a 26-county state and dream about a 32-county nation. Virtually every taoiseach since has worked on the basis of paying lip service to reunification while getting on with the business of governing Ireland without the North.

This is not to say that the Irish south of the border do not care about nationalists (and unionists) in the North—they mostly do feel an affinity with them. Opinion polls suggest a majority would support a border poll on reunification; but this has yet to become a priority in Irish elections, which are concerned with economic and social policies.

Thus the fear for Northern nationalists is that the Republic’s appetite for reunification is shallow. Like unionists, they face a low-level ambivalence within their “patron-state,” where the aspiration for unity is contingent on agreement, consent and stability. Meanwhile, Brexit has brought the South’s latent hesitation to the surface. Northern Ireland was denied its self-determination, the crucial “consent” principle of the Good Friday agreement not applied to the question of Europe: so while its people had voted Remain, this was not a devolved matter. The concern that Brexit had damaged the agreement, and that it could lead to a hard border on the island—accompanied by instability, economic dislocation and violence—produced rising calls for a border poll on reunification from Northern nationalists. But these have been met with muted enthusiasm in Dublin.

“The British government has often seemed to behave more like Northern Ireland’s fair-weather friend than kith and kin”

Rather than welcoming the idea, the current Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin has pushed back against proposals for a border poll. Fighting a rearguard action against the enthusiasm of Irish American groups prior to his St Patrick’s Day meeting with the US president Joe Biden, Martin explicitly described it as a “mistake.” “I think it is divisive and puts people back into trenches too early. My view is that I want to develop a shared dialogue, irrespective of one’s constitutional preferences.” Instead, Martin referred people to his Shared Island Unit, an initiative he introduced in October 2020 with a €500m fund attached. The point is to support North-South co-operation and generate dialogue about how to share the island and respect all its traditions. A sympathetic assessment would be that this is an attempt to think beyond slogans, including about how plans for a potential united Ireland might be refined to attract those currently unconvinced. An unsympathetic assessment would be that it is an expensive talking shop, designed to delay rather than hasten reunification.

The hesitancy is not a matter of party politics: while Martin is leader of Fianna Fáil, in 2019 his Fine Gael predecessor as taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, argued that discussion of a border poll “only serves to sow divisions.” The Republic likes the idea of unity, but it also fears having to accommodate a large and unhappy unionist community from Northern Ireland. Linked to this concern, it has never really thought through how it would have to adapt the political, economic and cultural fabric of the country to accommodate them.

New dynamics

The outcome of any border poll would depend on some unpredictable elements: how far (or not) Brexit continues to destabilise Northern Ireland; how the reunification question is asked; and how attractive the alternative to the status quo looks. A take-it-or-leave-it “united Ireland” offer might attract fewer of the “undecideds,” who recent polls have suggested will determine the outcome, than a more generous-spirited nationalist proposal in which unionists are offered inducements. Mooted possibilities here include a permanent representation in the Irish government at cabinet level or a system of devolved authority, or federalism.

The irony is that Brexit has inverted the dynamics to the point where the Irish republican project is being driven by the British government, not by Ireland. The price that the UK was willing to pay to “get Brexit done” was to gamble with the Union itself—not just in the context of Northern Ireland but with Scotland, too. Unionists, for their part, might be better off trusting the Irish government over their constitutional future, rather than relying on Boris Johnson.