Confident unionism needed
The recent crisis or crises in unionism, and the DUP in particular, should not be the opportunity for schadenfreude since taking pleasure in others’ misfortune is the last thing which Northern Ireland needs. This is for several reasons. Militant and military extremisms flourish in political uncertainity in Northern Ireland. And mediation and negotiation theory – and experience – tells us that for agreements to be made and stick, the different sides need to be relatively confident and secure. Whatever the future of and for Northern Ireland, there has to be a forward-looking unionism to stand up for its people in a reasonable way and help fashion the future.
Unionist dominance in Northern Ireland is at an end. Of course that does not necessarily mean the end of instransigence on any side (unionist, nationalist, British, Irish). Perhaps the last fling for unionist dominance came through the throw of the electoral dice in the UK as a whole which gave the DUP inordinate influence over Theresa May’s British government policy, then backed Boris Johnson, and significantly helped fashion a ‘hard’ Brexit.
A hard Brexit was against the wishes of an arithmetic majority in Northern Ireland which did not want to leave the EU at all. Polls show a majority in the North today want the UK to align its standards with the EU as a means of dealing with Britain-Northern Ireland trade checks. The DUP justified its Brexit policy by referring to the small overall UK decision in favour of Brexit but that did not by any means necessarily entail or justify a hard Brexit either. And it is probably disengenuous of unionists to choose as their primary ‘democratic unit’ either the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or simply Northern Ireland according to which suits them best.
While favouring the UK union, as well as thinking about themselves unionists it is in their interest to also think about the whole people of Northern Ireland. When the statiistics are released in due course for the recent census, it will be clear that cultural Protestants no longer outnumber cultural Catholics in the North, and may even be a minority. As stated here frequently before, this does not in any way automatically translate into a united Ireland just around the corner but nor does it necessarily mean that a united Ireland is not just around a few corners.
The problem unionist leaders have had, for fifty years and more, is that moving from a position of dominance to one of equality can look like submission, failure, and the dominance of the other. This feeling of being dominated is the understanding of many unionists and loyalists in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed by the UK government with the EU. This may look like Northern Ireland being a place apart in its membership of the United Kingdom but the whole point is that it is a place apart, across a sea from Britain and part of a country which was colonised. Given the disastrous DUP backing for a hard Brexit, and the original, and democratically flawed UK decision to leave the EU in the first place, there was going to be a border either on ‘the Border’ or in the Irish Sea. So a seeming victory for one side, whichever, and defeat for the other was guaranteed.
No longer able to dominate, the choice for unionism is further change and compromise or a negative intransigence which may take Northern Ireland more rapidly into a bitterly fought united Ireland, and certainly no further forward. To maximise the possibility of Northern Ireland continuing as part of the UK, unionists need to bend over backwards to meet nationalist demands within the Northern Ireland context. Acht na Gaeilge? Tomorrow. North-South cooperation? 100%. Specific and comprehensive human rights legisation for Northern Ireland? Next week. The last would also be a wise move for unionists in protecting themselves in the future.
Obviously delivering on this would be a complex task for unionist leaders. It may go over many people’s heads but actually explaining what is necessary in terms of negotiation and decision making, and why, may help many Northern Protestants and unionists to understand why something which might look ‘weak’ (‘giving in’ to the other side) is actually strong and in their interests. It is understandable why unionists feel betrayed – because they have been by Boris Johnson – and they certainly should be listened to carefully. But they are no longer in a position to make one-sided demands, and this also needs pointed out by their leaders; they still have, and should have, a certain amount of power, but it is ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’ others.
While they certainly can try, it is highly unlikely unionists and loyalists can force a removal of the NI Protocol – and no one has suggested any realistic alternatives; putting a boundary at Dublin and Rosslare ports is unrealistic since the Republic was firmly of the decision to stay with the EU – and why should the Republic suffer more than it already has because of a UK decision which has already impacted negatively on it?. And a boundary at the North-’South’ border is going to exchange one set of undesirable repercussions for another, albeit with a different set of people suffering the consequences.
And demographic change is not in unionists’ favour. You have to go well into middle age cohorts to find a Protestant majority in the North, and at primary school level Catholic schoolchildren far outweigh Protestant ones. What direction the Republic takes in terms of social policies including healthcare may be a critical factor in who in Northern Ireland wants to remain in the UK and who wants some form of united Ireland. What kind of polity a united Ireland might be is also a major factor.
If all sides play their cards for the common good as well as their own sectional interest, Northern Ireland could traverse difficult waters with a modicum of self respect on all sides. It will certainly not be easy and it is a big ask but not an insuperable one. And what is even in someone’s sectional interest can be counter-intuitive; witness the comment above about unionists being willing to accede to nationalist demands within Northern Ireland. It has to also be stated that if republicans push too far too fast with a united Ireland agenda they may end up with what they wish for and an extremely disunited and violent people, a Pyrrhic victory.
Unionists may not want to engage in discussion about what form a united Ireland would take, if it came about, and that is understandable. On the other hand it is, in Peter Robinson’s words, an insurance policy. It also makes sense, as we have stated here before, that if there was a move to a united Ireland that it would be a process and not an event. If it is clear that it is going to happen in due course, whatever, then it is clearly in the interests of unionists to get what they consider the best deal possible and most would engage.
But it is also necessary to point out that the current situation is dangerous. If unionists and loyalists dig themselves into a hole over the Northern Ireland Protocol (that it has to be replaced, end of story, rather than mitigated) they may help precipitate the very outcome they don’t want – further moves to a united Ireland – as well as in the mean time an even more divided, and violent, Northern Ireland. It is as yet unclear if the new DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has enough resolve and political dexterity and room to manoeuvre not to jump into the hole that has already been dug.
The British government and the EU have the major roles to play in dealing with the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Full and fulsome British cooperation and EU flexibility can, and hopefully will, help defuse a rather volatile situation, and the economic advantages for Northern Irish exporters may come to outweigh the disadvantages for Northern Irish importers (and obviously some economic enterprises may fit both categories). If there is full real time disclosure of trade across the sea from Britain to Northern Ireland that should show the EU any risk, in what is a relatively small market in European terms, North and Republic, of single market regulations being flouted. And any such risk could then be quickly assessed. However more lies and flag waving from Boris Johnson’s government will only exacerbate the situation.
We also need a clear understanding that unionism, like nationalism or any other ideology, is not monolithic, and never has been despite greater uniformity in the past. Scratch the surface and all sorts of different pictures emerge, a theme well captured by Susan McKay in relation to Northern Protestants in general. The majority of Northern Protestants vote across several different parties including increasingly the middle ground Alliance Party. It also means that all sorts of things are possible. Just as the pattern of immigration to Ireland over the last few decades has been positive in many ways, economically and culturally, we can learn to celebrate diversity – something well done in the Belfast Mela intercultural festival. We can learn to appreciate difference as part of the richness of life, including across the major divide in Northern Ireland, both ways. Now that is a goal worth achieving in and in relation to Northern Ireland. Unionism has a role to play in that, and will do so, whatever political outcomes emerge in coming decades.
Armed to the teeth?
The emergence of a network on the arms trade in Ireland, encompassing people in various locations on both sides of the border, is a very welcome development in opposing the further development of the military-industrial complex in Ireland, and militarism in general. See news item about StoP, Swords to Ploughshares, in this issue.
While the pictures either side of the border are quite different, with Northern Ireland being part of a NATO-member state, the Republic is increasingly drawn into alignment with NATO, not least through developing EU militarism and support for it which is closely linked to NATO.
Under PESCO, the Republic is obliged to dramatically increase the amount it spends on the military. The Irish political elite, in most of the major parties, clearly see this as a Good Thing and it is the slippery slope to doing the equivalent of serving King and Kaiser. The media often play the same game; an article in The Irish Times of 19/6/21 declared “ ‘Gaping gap’ in Ireland’s airspace defence” without defining how significant real risks existed that needed a military response. Developing European militarism is not to be welcomed since hearts can follow money, and policies follow possibilities, and stronger military capability leads to perceptions that this can be utilised. If there are resource wars later in the 21st century, expect the ‘European army’ to be in the thick of it.
The best form of defence Ireland has is non-offence, i.e. neutrality. The best role Ireland can play in relation to conflict is that advocated in the constitution, i.e. arbitration and its corollary, mediation (which was not so developed when the Irish Constitution was written or it might have been explicitly included). Part of Article 29 of Bunreacht na hÉireann reads: “Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality. Ireland affirms its adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination.”
It is dealing with conflict through early warning systems, support for developing conflict mediation services, and, of course more broadly, international justice and fair economic systems which are needed, and in very considerable need of resources. Money spent on arms is a dead (sic) loss. Ireland needs to put money into the pacific resolution of conflict, not into armed force.
An underlying problem is drift. Ireland is very well linked into international economic systems and ‘naturally’ firms with arms link may come to Ireland, or indigenous dual use and arms related manufacture develop. In relation to Irish neutrality, there have been considerable steps away from neutarlity since Ireland joined the EEC, now EU, in 1972. In both arms production and policy, each step backwards towards militarism is only a step but collectively it amounts to a change in policy.
We should not give up hope. The story of Raytheon being kicked out of Derry [see links in the news item on StoP in this issue] is both inspiring and instructive. The population of the Republic is very much in favour of neutrality. ‘Arms are for linking’ and military arms and the arms trade is a costly trip up a violent one way street. That anyone in Ireland, especially the North after what it went through in the Troubles, should even or ever consider any involvement with the arms trade beggars belief. These are all points which we can utilise in working for a peaceful world and an end to arms madness.