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The Challenge of Unionism by K.V. Turley

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The Challenge of Unionism

A print showing Daniel O’Connell in the courts of Dublin, arguing for the repeal of the Act of the Union, on February 4, 1844.

Photo: Image courtesy of Picryl.

This should be a time of rejoicing for Ulster’s unionists. The state created for them has survived 100 years despite armed rebellion since its inception in 1921. But for Northern Ireland’s pro-British community, 2021—the centennial anniversary of Northern Ireland—has become a year of increasing unease and grievance.

There is something in the Ulster psyche that is easily—all too easily—given to fear, suspicion, and anger. This is combined with a deep sense of injustice—or, putting it more bluntly, a vague sense that “the other side” is winning. 

Unionists, Loyalists, Protestants are forever facing off against Nationalists, Republicans, Catholics. Despite recent attempts to talk of “political ideology” in Northern Ireland as opposed to naked sectarianism, the divisions in Ulster’s divide are ones of identity: an identity that is cultural, religious, and national. There are those who consider themselves British; there are those who consider themselves Irish. Northern Ireland is a place built on slogans such as: “No Surrender,” and is therefore the sort of place where compromise—essential in any mature democracy—is not only a dirty word but an insult.

The problem this time for the never-ending Ulster divide is Brexit. Northern Ireland occupies a unique position in the United Kingdom politically, geographically, and economically, because it shares a land border with the EU—namely, with the Republic of Ireland.

Some suggest that this uniqueness will prove an advantage in the post-Brexit world. But politicians on the island across the Irish Sea from Britain have always been more inclined to privilege discussion of “constitutional” affairs over economic ones. This predilection plays well with their voters but does little to improve the lives of the ordinary citizen.

A cursory glance at the history of Northern Ireland reveals it to have been a small, mismanaged jurisdiction of the UK that—perhaps as a result of its political stalemate—has been an economic backwater dependent on Westminster financial handouts since the beginning.

So does Brexit proffer the possibility, at last, of a possible economic ‘win-win’ for Ulster’s unionists and nationalists alike? Bringing jobs and investment while carving a unique economic position—surely something everyone wants and the region needs? Not quite.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into force this year, establishes that this UK jurisdiction will have access both to the UK’s internal market and, in a largely unfettered way, to that of the European Union. Therefore, the “border” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has been shifted in economic terms from the coastline of the island of Ireland into the Irish Sea and now lies between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

For Ulster unionists, what is termed the Irish Sea Border—which necessitates customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland—is a sign of a deep betrayal that extends far beyond the exigencies of trade.

Many unionists supported the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Many Ulster nationalists opposed it. The promise of Northern Ireland’s potential economic benefit from Brexit has, instead, become a divisive political symbol. For unionists, as for so many others in the UK, Brexit is about reclaiming national sovereignty for the UK from Europe. Today, however, five years on from the UK-wide referendum, unionists are shocked to find that Brexit has not only de-coupled them from the rest of the UK in terms of trading regulatory alignment but—and this is the real horror—has pushed Northern Ireland into a de facto “economic union” with the Irish Republic.

To say that unionists are infuriated by this new reality is an understatement. For months now, demonstrations against the protocol have been spreading across Northern Ireland among working-class Protestants. So far these have been peaceful; but they have also been ineffective in achieving anything of note. Given the troubled history of Ulster, one can never be sure that things will stay peaceful.

A sense of grievance is the cornerstone of politics in Northern Ireland. Unionists feel that a new layer of cement has just been added to that cornerstone; and

for once, the sense of grievance is not simply a matter of perception. The concrete reality is that every day, at Northern Ireland ports, goods from Great Britain have to undergo customs checks.

The growing unionist unease with the fragility of the UK received an unwelcome shock in June 2021 in the High Court at Belfast.

A number of high-profile unionists took to the courts to test the legality of the Northern Ireland Protocol and its legal framework that implemented Brexit for Northern Ireland and created the contentious Irish Sea Border. The court judgment was worse than unionists could have anticipated. Not only did the court rule that the Protocol was perfectly legal, but also that the Protocol had repealed elements of the 1800 Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain—the bedrock upon which today’s political union rests. In the June 2021 legal judgment, Ulster unionists heard a British court stating that the Protocol with its sea border was legal and, furthermore, that its existence had loosened the constitutional link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Needless to say, this court ruling is being appealed, but the damage is done—emotionally, psychologically, and to some extent politically—to the cause of unionism.

One wonders: what is left for unionists to remain loyal to? Unionists are effusive in their devotion to Crown and Country; however, the country in question—the rest of the UK—seems to them to be supremely indifferent to the current predicament and the constitutional implications that flow from the Protocol.

The truth is that Ulster’s much-talked-of loyalty to Britain has always been a one-way street. The average British citizen living in Great Britain is indifferent to the myriad political dimensions and sensibilities of Ulster. Any talk of the integrity of the UK and its constituent parts, which includes Northern Ireland, is a statement of fact only. Regardless of passport, the fact is that the British see the Northern Irish as different.

One of the shocks for many unionists when they come to Britain is the experience of being referred to as “Irish.” For them, the “Irish” are those south of the border. Unionists feel aggrieved by this subtle distancing of their identity. But as an Englishman pointed out to me once:  a sea lies between “us and them.” Unionists forget that the British are an island race; and Ulster’s unionists forget that they have always lived on a different island.

In any event, one suspects that ardent and exaggerated expressions of national identity are signs of weakness, not of strength. This is true also for Ulster’s nationalists and their fervent proclamations of Irish national identity. The grievance unionists feel in London is the same that northern nationalists feel when those in the Irish Republic view them as not quite “Irish.” 

In Northern Ireland, where culture is contested, symbolism is everything. The reason is simple enough: there are two cultures, both insecure, both in competition. Some unionists believe the current debate about whether the Irish language has been “weaponized” by Sinn Fein is part of a broader assault on British culture in Northern Ireland. The proportion of Irish speakers in the six Counties of Ulster is miniscule. Furthermore, they can all speak English. The movement to legislate the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, whether on signposts or in official documents, is a Sinn Fein initiative to align the North with the South, not a natural outgrowth of Northern Irish culture.

Wales is a more bilingual society than the Republic of Ireland. There are moves to make Gaelic more prevalent in Scotland—it is already more visible than ever on signposts there. Even in Cornwall there are grassroot attempts to revive the Cornish language. Compare all this with the ongoing, top-down debate in Northern Ireland, and one sees how this debate is really the test bed for a wider battle in Northern Ireland. That debate has backfired badly on unionists, reveals a fundamental weakness in their position.

Unionism has long been a negative creed—it has defined itself by being opposed to things—while her opponents appear, by contrast, progressive and modern. To win hearts and minds, unionists need to make a positive case for the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But today Ulster’s unionists appear more disunited and demoralized than at any time in the last century.

The largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, has gone through not one but two bruising leadership contests in recent months. The upshot is that the party will have had three leaders this year. The other main unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party, has also had a number of leaders in a relatively short time. Both parties look rudderless.

This shows in opinion polls, which remain unfavorable to any brand of unionism. Instead, the more moderate centrist Alliance Party is attracting unionist voters. By contrast, Sinn Fein, the party of Irish unity and the chief opposition to unionism, continues to enjoy solid support and is on course to become the largest political party in Northern Ireland by the next local Assembly elections to be held in May 2022.

The Northern Ireland Protocol born of Brexit has added yet another dimension to the vexed question of whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or become integrated into a united Ireland. The ongoing debate about the consequences of Brexit has quickly—and all too predictably—melded with the constitutional one that has raged in Ulster since the 1921 Partition of Ireland. Sadly, it remains as heated as it seems devoid of solution. And one that may be redundant in any event if a Sinn Fein majority gains the First Minister post as a result of the next elections in 2022. Then we may have a de facto “united Ireland.”  

K.V. Turley is an award-winning journalist and author whose work has appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. He writes from London.

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