Brexit and the burning buses of Belfast – The Endgame for Unionism in Ireland?

Joseph Healy writes: This week in the Irish Times the former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who together with Tony Blair orchestrated the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, wrote: “A generation not yet born 23 years ago, cannot become the one that allows us to slip back into violence. However fragile the fundamentals of our hard-won peace may seem, it is a foundation for the future. The Belfast Agreement is the basis for peaceful politics and mutual respect across these islands.” Ahern’s view is accurate but unfortunately those who drove Brexit forward from 2016 to 2020 knew nothing of and cared even less about the Agreement. For Boris Johnson and the Brexit hardliners this was an exercise in English ethnonationalism and one which they estimated would carry them to power. 

At the time of the referendum, those who had been centrally involved in organising the Good Friday Agreement warned of the fragility of the situation in the North of Ireland but this was totally ignored in the referendum campaign. After 2016 during the discussions about what form Brexit would take, Jacob Rees Mogg, who appears like some throwback from a PG Woodehouse novel, constantly stated that he did not need to visit the border region in the North of Ireland in order to understand what the problems were and why the people of the border region were so incensed at the possibility of a restoration of the hard border. When he finally was persuaded to visit he airily dismissed the concerns of those he met and went on to argue for the hardest possible Brexit.

Theresa May, who was a genuine UK unionist, recognised that a hard border in Ireland was impossible but that the only other alternative was to have a border in the Irish Sea. In order to deal with that she came to the conclusion that the UK as a whole would need to have a Backstop which would ensure that it remained in the customs union thus ensuring that there would be no border anywhere in Ireland. However, the greatest irony is that the DUP, who had propped up May’s government, refused to accept this on the grounds that they wanted the hardest Brexit possible, despite the majority in the North of Ireland having voted to remain in the EU. The DUP turned to Johnson and the Brexiteers who played their siren song to the DUP and promised them the hard Brexit they craved. Johnson even appeared at the DUP conference and was cheered to the rafters after promising them that he would pursue the hardest Brexit and ensure that there would be no border of any kind between the North of Ireland and Britain.

Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement in late 2019 was only agreed after the Irish Taoiseach had pointed out that there could not be a hard border in Ireland as this would breach the Good Friday Agreement and Johnson agreed to that. The DUP, who have been castigated by their own supporters and by many commentators in the North of Ireland for playing their hand very badly, enthusiastically supported Johnson in this. It was only later when it dawned on the DUP and Unionism that the alternative was a border in the Irish Sea that the cries of “betrayal” began and impassioned speeches in the Commons. The more astute Unionist politicians recognised that the Brexiteers had no interest in the Unionists or indeed in the North of Ireland and one commented: “We were so busy watching the Irish nationalists that we failed to see the threat from English nationalism”. This was indeed what had happened and the Brexiteers, draped in St George’s flag, had stabbed their erstwhile Unionist allies in the back while continuing to mouth platitudes about preserving the Union.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is only the technical agreement which ensures the customs details for administering the border in the Irish Sea. The Brexiteers don’t like it but realise that they have to accept it as otherwise the whole trade treaty with the EU would collapse. Indeed the EU is now taking legal action against the UK for having refused to implement certain aspects of it and the European Parliament has refused to ratify the trade deal as a whole until the UK withdraws these actions.

The Unionist areas of Belfast where the rioting has broken out are among the most deprived areas of the UK. The North of Ireland, despite the bung of millions of pounds passed by May’s government to the DUP for their support, remains the poorest region in the UK state. Economically it is years behind the Irish Republic. A decade of austerity and rising unemployment among Protestant working class youth has led to rising frustration and resentment. The DUP and the mainstream unionist parties are not seen as addressing these economic issues and support for them is declining in these areas. At the last Westminster election the DUP lost a seat and their vote share is expected to drop in the next election for the Northern Irish Assembly. This is partly the reason why Arlene Foster, the First Minister, has been so outspoken about the Northern Ireland Protocol, which they had no major opposition to until recently and also why she has been asking for the resignation of the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in order to shore up DUP support among the disaffected working class and more hardline Unionist supporters. However, many can see that the DUP has shot itself in the foot with its support for Brexit.

In the year when Unionism intends to celebrate the centenary of partition and the creation of the Northern Irish sectarian statelet, the pillars are starting to crumble in the edifice erected in 1921. The latest census is expected to show either a Catholic majority in the North of Ireland or, at best for Unionists, an equal number of Catholics to Protestants. There are growing calls for a border poll, as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. Talk shows and radio phone ins are full of people speculating on the possibility of a united Ireland and even the Dublin government is being dragged, kicking and screaming (as on a recent major discussion programme on RTE, the Irish state broadcaster) to consider a possible united Ireland.

Many leading Unionist statesmen, including Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader, have begun to call on Unionists to open a discussion on the possibility of reunification and for Unionists to psychologically prepare for it. One veteran Unionist recently referred to those Northern Irish Protestants who died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, as having fought for an empire that no longer existed and a state (the UK) that was in the process of disintegration. All of this is feeding psychologically into the Unionist community and creating a real feeling that these are the dying days of Unionism and the Northern Irish statelet. This is also one of the main causes for the unrest and rioting in the Unionist working class areas – a feeling of betrayal by both the DUP and the UK government.

As many warned the DUP in 2016 at the time of the Brexit referendum, Brexit would sound the death knell of the UK state as it placed English nationalism at the centre of a project which now laughingly refers to itself as “Global Britain”. It was also clear that the Alice through the looking glass approach of Brexiteers to the border in Ireland would lead to problems in Ireland and a breach of the Good Friday Agreement. The centenary of partition will lead to further unrest and the opening of old wounds in the North of Ireland. It is becoming increasingly clear that the sectarian state created a century ago has reached its endpoint and that thanks to Brexit the inherent contradictions within it can no longer be ignored. As the Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote in the Irish Times this week: “But it is also striking how we are witnessing an updated version of the unionist denial and delusion of 50 years ago and how the capacity to look forward and adapt to changed reality is so compromised by recourse to historic siege tactics.”

Brexit is the siege cannon which is gradually breaching the walls of the Unionist citadel and which, thanks to English nationalism, will ensure that the Northern Irish state does not survive long beyond its centenary.


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