Unionists are threatened by an alliance of Remainers indifferent to the nation state and UK-loathing nationalists by Owen Polley
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 healthwise 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
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.
‘Large sections of Northern Ireland’s middle class are abandoning unionist parties at the ballot box ’
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. e