Unionism is being abandoned by Ireland’s middle class
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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 proEU 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.