Unionists are threatened by an alliance of Remainers indifferent to the nation state and UK-loathing nationalists
It could have been a golden age for Ulster unionism. In 2016, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) played a small but significant role in securing a majority for Brexit in the European Union referendum. Then, following the 2017 general election, the party held the balance of power at Westminster and negotiated a confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives that gave Northern Ireland politicians unprecedented influence at the heart of government.
Just over two years later, Arlene Foster’s 10 MPs no longer offer the Tories a working majority under the new prime minister, Boris Johnson. Even before he took over from Theresa May and the current administration began to unravel, many unionists felt as demoralised, beleaguered and friendless as they had been in nearly a century of Northern Ireland’s existence.
They’ve come under relentless pressure to accept a Brexit backstop that could drive an economic and political wedge between the province and the rest of the UK. The devolved executive has not functioned since January 2017, after Sinn Féin walked out of government and intensified a campaign to imply that any sign of Britishness in Ulster is a breach of “rights” and “respect” for nationalists. This means that, in republican-speak, symbols of the UK state, like the Union Flag on court buildings, Royal insignia and even the prominence of BBC television broadcasts are cast as signs of inequality, with which emblems of Irish nationhood should at least enjoy “parity of esteem”.
‘Large sections of Northern Ireland’s middle class are abandoning unionist parties at the ballot box ’
Perhaps most woundingly, large sections of Northern Ireland’s middle class, traditionally staunch supporters of its place in the UK, are abandoning unionist parties at the ballot box. The growth of this cohort, which tends to be pro-remain and socially liberal, has encouraged the idea that a majority of voters could be persuaded to back an all-Ireland state, rather than the Union.
The father of Fifty Shades of Grey actor Jamie Dornan has become an unlikely figurehead for nationalists who hope they can persuade unionists to accept a 32-county republic. Professor Jim Dornan, a retired obstetrician known by generations of people in Belfast as the “baby doctor” who lives on the genteel “gold coast” in North Down, now spends a great deal of time espousing his openness to Irish unity in the media and political meetings.
“I would traditionally be thought of as being quite happy with the Union . . . it’s been very good to me educationally and health-wise and everything else in my life,” he maintains. “There are a lot of people nowadays, not just me, who are saying, if somebody offers me a good deal . . . then I would go for it.” The argument isn’t robust, but the fact that it exists at all is a worry for unionists.
The simplistic explanation is that unionism has suffered a reversal of fortunes because of Brexit. There is a branch of commentary devoted to the theory that unionists deserve to see their links to Great Britain severed, because many of them backed Leave. But this Schadenfreude is only part of a more complicated story. The referendum intensified many of the existing pressures on unionism, but its problems are rooted in trends that predate the 2016 vote.
Whether the UK eventually accepts the backstop, part of the backstop, or whether it is removed completely, the unremitting propaganda in its favour will leave a psychological mark on unionists. EU negotiators, the Irish government, Irish nationalists, Theresa May’s government, remainers across parliament and Ulster’s pro-EU liberals have incessantly repeated the nostrum that this “insurance policy” is required by the Good Friday Agreement.
These claims continued without pause, even while one of the agreement’s architects, Lord Trimble, argued that the backstop infringed the “principle of consent” that formed the basis of the 1998 treaty. The Northern Ireland protocol, as it became officially known, was opposed by unionist parties from the start and Boris Johnson rejected it strongly. Yet, there has been no equivalent to the ceaseless, sanctimonious campaign to erect an internal UK border, on the basis that it is necessary to secure peace in Ireland.
From the unionist perspective, it seems that nationalists’ need to pretend that the border with the Republic does not exist is prioritised consistently over unionists’ desire to protect Northern Ireland’s political and economic links with the rest of Britain. They do not view this as a novel development. They detect a pattern of behaviour, with nationalists repeatedly making doubtful claims of the Belfast Agreement, while ignoring its concrete provisions on consent, in order to insinuate that the document diluted British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, a newly aggressive approach from Irish nationalists across the island preceded the backstop offensive. Leo Varadkar and his officials, more than any previous Dublin government, drop into Northern Ireland without formality and use language that implies their authority extends to this part of the island. The Republic’s prime minister plans to offer votes in presidential elections to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland with no other connections to the southern state. He says he cannot agree to direct rule from Westminster if the Stormont Assembly is not restored, insisting that decision making should be “devolved” to British-Irish intergovernmental bodies, in direct contravention of the Belfast Agreement.
Varadkar’s deputy, Simon Coveney, feels free to intervene in the British judicial system, challenging the detention of a dissident republican terrorist, Tony Taylor, and commenting publicly on historical cases dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Republic’s officials even accredited media for a recent visit by the Taoiseach to Hillsborough Castle.
Varadkar, uninvited by a Northern Ireland Office minister, then used the UK government’s main official residence in Ulster to criticise Britain’s Brexit policy.
These constant, niggling slights to British sovereignty in Northern Ireland may seem trivial, but they have a corrosive effect. When unionists complain, they are often chastised for pettiness and mean-spiritedness. It’s difficult to imagine UK interference in Irish affairs being tolerated so casually. Dublin’s approach betrays the underlying nationalist assumption that Britain’s authority in Northern Ireland is illegitimate, or at least heavily qualified, despite being based on democratic consent.
It’s an attitude that seems, if anything, to be spreading—and not just in the expected quarters.
Sinn Féin’s hostility to unionism and Britishness is taken for granted, but the party’s claim that it refuses to restore devolution because “rights” and “equality” are being denied to nationalists is increasingly accepted without challenge by the media and the so-called middle-ground.
In January 2017, Martin McGuinness resigned as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, ostensibly because Arlene Foster, the first minister, refused to step aside during an investigation into a botched renewable heating scheme. That pretext was quickly forgotten, as Sinn Féin presented an extensive range of “red line” demands as its price for participating in devolved government. At the top of its shopping list was an Irish Language Act, designed to promote “Irish national identity” on the basis that Northern Ireland “is not British”, to quote its northern leader, Michelle O’Neill. More opportunistically, the party demanded legislation for same-sex marriage, to boost its claims to stand for equality and portray socially conservative unionists as old-fashioned and “regressive”.
Unionism is divided on social questions and many younger voters feel that the province has been left behind, because of the DUP’s stance on gay rights and abortion. Unionist parties, while they agree on maintaining the United Kingdom, span a wide spectrum of opinion and the views of their voters are changing in line with developments in the rest of society. Even the DUP, formed as a political home for Ian Paisley’s fierce evangelical Protestantism, now represents a broader coalition of interests. Thanks to its electoral success, it has attracted ambitious young members with a more secular outlook, though the Paisleyite wing remains influential.
The issue that draws unionists together, and inspires more anger than any other, involves republican attempts to use legacy investigations to portray the British state as the principal aggressor during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. There aren’t enough resources to police the past fairly, while the peace process was nudged along by pardons and “comfort letters” provided to members of the IRA who were on the run. Republican paramilitaries were responsible for two thirds of approximately 3,600 killings during the Troubles—the vast majority of them unsolved—but the current “legacy process” is focussed on a comparatively small number of deaths caused by the security forces.
This lack of balance allows Sinn Féin to promote the idea that the state was the chief orchestrator of a “dirty war”, while republicans were part of a continuous campaign for rights withheld by unionists and the British government. This distortion of history is sustained by a steady stream of inquests, criminal proceedings and civil trials aimed at soldiers. As a result, the republican version of the past has been widely accepted, particularly by many young people, and the idea that the IRA’s violence was defensible seems more mainstream now than when bombings and shootings were taking place.
If the government’s proposed legacy structures were likely to deliver for victims of paramilitary violence, Sinn Féin would have most to lose from their implementation. Instead, the party feels confident that bodies, including a planned Historical Inquiries Unit (HIU), will continue to direct their main effort at the security forces.
In other ways too, republicans use the legal system to undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and alienate Irish nationalists from the state. Currently, a litigant backed by nationalist parties and, extraordinarily, the cross-community Alliance party, is challenging the application of the British Nationality Act in Ulster. Emma de Souza claims that the Good Friday Agreement is breached by granting automatic British citizenship to people in this part of the UK, because they might choose instead to identify as Irish.
This is a deliberate attempt to confuse the issues of identity and citizenship, but a tribunal has supported her argument, with the result that the Home Office was forced to launch an appeal. When Theresa May looked for cross-community support for her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, she spoke sympathetically about De Souza’s case in Belfast and asked civil servants to review the law. For unionists, it confirmed that even the most basic building blocks of UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland are vulnerable to ministers with a weakness for nationalist grievance-mongering.
Previously, unionists could afford to be more relaxed about speculative political manoeuvres by republicans. They formed a clear majority in Northern Ireland’s institutions and the so-called “middle ground”, which refused to identify as nationalist or unionist, assumed its duty was to bring together the province’s two traditional communities. The Alliance Party, a steadfastly middle-class organisation with liberal unionist roots, was repelled by Sinn Féin’s paramilitary past.
‘The aggressive language of modern identity politics has been added to Northen Ireland’s enduring squabbles’
This emphasis on reconciliation has recently been replaced by uncompromising campaigning on social issues, an equivocal attitude to the Union and fierce opposition to Brexit. Alliance’s former leader, Lord Alderdice, observes that the party now represents, “a third element in society—they describe themselves as progressive—they’re not as devoted to the proposition that they are there to bring the two sides together”.
Instead, the aggressive language of modern identity politics has been added to Northern Ireland’s more enduring squabble over national identity. The former Alliance Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, joined Green Party MLAs recently in demanding that primary schools teach boys about “toxic masculinity” after two Ulster Rugby players were acquitted of charges of rape. When well-meaning citizen campaigners called for the Stormont parties to set aside their differences over divisive issues such as the Irish language and abortion in order to get back to work, one of the party’s rising stars, Sorcha Eastwood, tweeted, “rights aren’t divisive . . . if you think they are, you’re part of the problem.”
The Alliance and the Greens attract support from younger professionals and middle-class voters, who seem increasingly reluctant to describe themselves as unionists. Many have hazy memories of the Troubles and have experienced only relative prosperity, which helps foster a complacent attitude to the benefits of belonging to the United Kingdom.
Right across the UK, the response to Brexit has encouraged liberal voters to associate feelings of Britishness and patriotism with “regressive” politics, nationalism and the hard right. Writers like David Goodhart have pointed out that new political divides are opening up between people who feel an affinity with the nation-state and those who see it as old-fashioned and restrictive.
In England, this realignment creates difficulties for the traditional two-party system. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, where nationality and identity are disputed, it adds an unpredictable new element to the struggle to keep the Union together.
In recent elections, neither unionists nor nationalists won a majority in Ulster. The balance of power lies, in theory at least, with Alliance and the Greens. Previously, unionists could assume safely that most centre-ground voters would choose to remain in the United Kingdom, rather than risk social and economic chaos in an all-Ireland state. That may well still be the case if a border poll were ever held, but close relationships forged between Dublin, Irish nationalists and Northern Ireland’s pro-EU liberals after Brexit make the outcome less certain.
At the wilder edges of unionism, some loyalists accuse Alliance of joining a “pan-nationalist front” with Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Republic’s government. These allegations aren’t persuasive, because the party is composed of post-national liberals, but they resonate in working-class areas because Alliance is comfortable with suggestions of joint authority between the Irish and British governments. Alliance representatives have endorsed the idea that direct rule cannot be restored without a formal role for Dublin in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs. It backs republicans’ views on legacy investigations, their attacks on British citizenship law and their demands for a border in the Irish Sea.
As Brexit negotiations have taken place, the party has cooperated with the Irish government and Sinn Féin, while it attacks Britain’s prime minister in uncompromising terms, describing Boris Johnson as a “tin-pot dictator”. It does not advocate an all-Ireland state, but it is happiest thinking about Northern Ireland as a “place apart”, with institutions that reflect that status, rather than an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Unionists understandably perceive this approach as a threat to their constitutional position. However, some of the problems they now face arise partly because of a complicated relationship with the rest of the UK. The Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan is a pro-Union writer who argues that unionists’ attachment to Great Britain has always been deeply conditional. He recently cautioned readers not to “underestimate the canny, materialistic aspect of unionism”.
Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, the DUP, has become more engaged with national politics, thanks to the Brexit referendum and its link with the Conservatives. But its critics remain suspicious that its priority is to secure ever greater sums of money from the Treasury through Ulster’s block grant. It supports major differences between Northern Ireland law and the law in Great Britain, sometimes concerning sensitive moral issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but also extending to less emotive matters, like libel legislation and corporation tax.
The party used confidence and supply talks to secure £1 billion for the province. However, the provision of much of this money was based on the restoration of devolved institutions, which never happened, and the cash that did make it to Northern Ireland was often used to plug gaps in public services created by the lack of a functioning regional government. Things that may have formed a broader unionist agenda, like a push back on unbalanced legacy investigations or stronger resistance to the backstop, were not delivered.
Ulster’s parties have always contained UK unionists who want the province to play a full role in the economic, social and political life of the country, but, in truth, they’ve usually been in a minority. The founder of Ulster unionism, Edward Carson, was deeply sceptical about the creation of a home rule parliament in Northern Ireland, yet many of his successors grew deeply attached to devolved powers and prioritised asserting dominance over the Catholic minority, rather than creating a modern, integrated part of the UK.
And if references to the Belfast Agreement have repeatedly been used to undermine Britishness, that’s partly because unionists have been reluctant to own the document, giving nationalists room to make baseless claims about its contents. The DUP’s electoral success was fuelled by grassroots revulsion at prisoner releases and the disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, popularly blamed on David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party, which dominated unionism back in 1998.
Ian Paisley’s party grew quickly because it relentlessly attacked Trimble and the agreement. Its belated attempts to lay claim to the accord’s constitutional provisions, including the principle of consent that runs through it from start to finish, struggle for credibility. The current difficulties with the backstop and the de Souza citizenship case illustrate graphically how badly unionist politicians have neglected parts of this document that strengthen their constitutional position.
There is a widespread belief among unionists that they received very little in return for the trauma of freeing unrepentant terrorists and, in many cases, rewarding them with a role in Northern Ireland’s governance. They feel that they now have very little left to give. Rather than show contrition for its crimes, the republican movement collapsed the institutions at Stormont repeatedly and made incessant demands, while celebrating its bloody past and demonising unionism. The trappings of Stormont are attractive to the DUP, but even while it was sitting, the executive passed little legislation and failed to tackle Ulster’s most difficult issues.
One common view is that unionism in Northern Ireland is defined by a siege mentality, which encourages doubts that its fears for the future are rational this time. The Belfast Agreement determines that the province will remain in the UK until a majority of voters choose otherwise in a border poll. Though there is uncertainty about the outcome, this direct threat would probably be overcome if the social, economic and political consequences of an all-Ireland state were scrutinised in detail.
For some pro-Union voters, that is probably enough. For others, a place in the UK is meaningless unless Ulster can play a full role in its political, economic and social life. Their vision of unionism is particularly vulnerable to the effects of a new, pragmatic alliance between pro-EU liberals, who don’t value the nation state, and Irish nationalists, who want to advance their alternative national project by attacking the building blocks of the United Kingdom.
The greatest danger for the Union is that the existing expressions of Northern Ireland’s Britishness will eventually become eroded to the extent that it scarcely matters whether the province is part of the UK, Ireland or something in between.