Tensions between unionists and nationalists are likely to worsenby David McKittrick / July 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
Arlene Foster, the unionist First Minister of Northern Ireland, urged her supporters to vote to “Leave” the European Union. Yet she has conveyed no sense of celebration when Brexit became a reality. Instead, she went on television to solemnly intone: “People should not panic.” She insisted that far from facing dangers to the United Kingdom, “We are now entering a new era of an even stronger UK.”
Given the turmoil produced by the result, her supporters could be forgiven for wondering how she could display such certainty. While there are no signs of actual panic in Belfast, the result is causing much concern. In particular, it has stoked the old anxieties of unionists whose primary political purpose is to preserve the link with Britain.
With the formidable Nicola Sturgeon manoeuvring in the direction of Scottish independence, the unionist nightmare is the disintegration of the UK. Where, they worry, would that leave Northern Ireland?
Unionist history and politics emphasise their British identity, stressing the fact that many of their ancestors were immigrants from Scotland. Today many proudly describe themselves as Ulster-Scots. They brought with them a frontier mentality with an ingrained sense of insecurity. Unionists have already been made uneasy in recent decades by a steady growth in the Catholic—and therefore nationalist—population, as well as by a brain drain of Protestant students who go to study in Scotland and England and do not return.
With Sinn Fein now in government in Belfast the general unionist sense is one of Catholic gain and corresponding Protestant loss. Yet Brexit has appalled nationalists as well as unionists, one Sinn Fein leader admitting that many republicans felt “devastated and scared.”
Nationalists have made much progress in recent decades, winning a guaranteed place in government and benefiting from the disappearance of almost all their previous disadvantages in employment and housing. The number of Catholics has risen steadily, as has their social and economic profile. Britain has meanwhile has consistently shown respect for their Irish identity, resulting in a growing Catholic contentment with life within the UK.
Since the 1970s, nationalists north and south have also come to place great value on their links with Europe, which they have embraced as a auxiliary addition to their identity. The desire for an eventual united Ireland is still alive, but today’s relative peace is much appreciated and the idea of Irish unity is for the moment confined to the realms of the aspirational.
But now Brexit has suddenly struck at two key aspects of their identity, at a stroke brusquely detaching Northern Ireland nationalists from Europe and raising the prospect of a much more obtrusive border with the south.
The notion of being a little bit Irish, a little bit European and a little bit British has until this moment suited quite well: what they don’t want is movement in the direction of a little Britain.The Northern Ireland vote, with most nationalists apparently favouring “Remain” and most unionists favouring “Leave,” was yet another unwelcome reminder that the two traditions view the world in very different ways.
Most nationalists regard themselves as outgoing and internationalists, while many unionists tend to be isolationist and identify solely with Britain. To put it another way, most nationalists are happy to be described as Europeans while, probably, most unionists are not.
This is a long-established pattern. Unionist leaders in the 1970s regarded European institutions with great suspicion, but over the years that original sense of menace evaporated. However, a residue of dislike has persisted—unsurprisingly, given that their default position is that anything which even theoretically weakens the union with Britain should be avoided.
But one of the lessons of the peace process was that a key to unlocking the decades-long deadlock was an expansion of the political arena, with the constructive involvement of elements such as the Irish government, the US administration and to some extent the EU. Now there is an underlying fear that the Brexit upheavals which lie ahead might endanger a process which has often looked fragile and susceptible to destabilising crises.
Issues will certainly arise such as the question of what sort of measures will be needed to secure the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which will be the UK’s only land border with the EU. There was huge approval when the peace process led to the border’s disappearance, but now there is dread at the prospect of a return of the intrusive and highly unpopular security checks.
This is just one aspect of the challenges Brexit will pose in Northern Ireland. It is of course too early to foresee all of them, or to predict how they might be dealt with. But it is unrealistic to believe there will be no turbulence, or that the changes will result in “an even stronger UK” for unionists, or will win the approval of nationalists. It is more likely that tensions between the two communities will grow sharper, with one determined to hold on to the British connection and the other seeking to maximise connections with Dublin and with Brussels.