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
‘The aggressive language of modern identity politics has been added to Northen Ireland’s enduring squabbles’
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”.
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.
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.
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
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