UK will always placate Irish nationalism because for them the North of Ireland has become a place that dare not speak its name

Ben Lowry ended his column on Saturday with this line: ‘The hysterical reaction is a reminder that the British establishment trembles if Ireland is upset about something.’

Alex Kane

(The article can be read here: ‘Tories criticise Boris Johnson’s bill to prevent worst EU interpretation of Irish Sea border but didn’t speak up for UK last year’)

It’s an important point precisely because it’s true. Pick almost any moment from the prorogation of Stormont in March 1972 and you will find evidence to support the argument that successive UK governments have always been determined to placate/buy-off nationalism, republicanism and Irish governments.

It was evident all the way through the direct rule era from March 1972 to 1998 and in the occasional rebooted direct rule phases until 2007. Indeed, there’s also a mountain of evidence to support the argument that UK governments have continued to prioritise anti-unionist interests since April 1998 to ensure that Sinn Fein didn’t abandon the peace/political process.

Margaret (The Iron Lady) Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher is one of many Conservative prime ministers who have down unionism few favours
I can understand the willingness of UK governments to address the grievances of nationalism in Northern Ireland from the late-1960s and to ensure that the era of ‘one party rule’ was replaced with genuine political/societal opportunities for everyone. But it’s not so easy to understand why the pro-Union argument has continued to be undermined or why successive governments have insisted on keeping Northern Ireland at arm’s length rather than ending the ‘place apart’ identity and embracing it within a much broader pan-UK identity.

That chance, by the way, has now gone. Shifting demographics and the electoral rise of Sinn Fein has meant that no UK government will now seek to prioritise a UK identity here. If that means abandoning local unionism, then so be it. An opportunity will be found next year to facilitate some low-key celebration of Northern Ireland’s creation in 1921, but there will be no key speeches by the prime minister or monarch in Stormont or Belfast City Hall. Actually, sometimes it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Northern Ireland has become the place that dare not speak its name.

For all its present problems the UK remains a country with might and clout; and it’s certainly big enough to face down political challenges from the Republic of Ireland (even with the backing of the EU). Yet it always seems willing to tread with enormous caution when it comes to the Republic. Why is that? Why do the arguments and interests of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland seem to be of less relevance than the interests of the Irish government and an anti-unionist community?

As I noted in last week’s column I’m not persuaded that the UK’s departure from the EU is, in fact, an existential threat to the GFA. That said, there is clearly a view in the Republic, the EU and nationalism in Northern Ireland that it’s perfectly acceptable to pursue a ‘special arrangement’ which would (as the NI Protocol does) represent an existential threat to NI’s constitutional position within the UK. But that, it seems, is ok: and it’s ok because all of nationalism in NI has now decided that the Union is on its last legs and dying breaths.

That being the case – which it isn’t, of course – anything which doesn’t ease the path to a united Ireland is automatically portrayed as a threat to the GFA, a threat to the peace process and a ‘return to the bad old days.’ It was always possible to find a perfectly workable solution to the ‘border problem’ between the EU and the UK, but such a solution was not in the interests of either the EU (which doesn’t want to send the message to other members that leaving is easy); or Sinn Fein (which never gave a toss about EU membership prior to 2015, but wasn’t going to miss the chance of playing a possible ‘England’s misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity’ card).

I also noted in last’s week’s column that pillars of the UK’s political establishment, like Tony Blair and John Major, hadn’t raised a voice of concern about Theresa May’s backstop proposals or Johnson’s NI Protocol; and nor had most of the Conservative parliamentary party at the time, including some who are now concerned about Johnson’s new bill. None of that surprises me.

I remember talking to the unionist MP Harold McCusker a couple of days after the House of Commons pushed through the Anglo-Irish Agreement with barely the whiff of a protest in November 1985. I still recall the look of shock on his face and the question he left me with: “Who can we trust, if not our own government and parliament?” That question remains relevant 35 years later; and even more so now that we have someone like Johnson who is, as he has proved many, many times, capable, like the Queen of Hearts, of believing (and doing) half-a-dozen stupid things before breakfast.

A question I’ve raised often in the column down the years is why unionists have so few friends where it really counts? Even at moments when unionist votes where needed by governments with small/non-existent parliamentary majorities there were no long-term rewards. UUP leader Jim Molyneaux, who had worked closely with Margaret Thatcher when she was opposition leader, was shafted by her shortly after she became PM; and again in 1985.

He was also shafted by John Major (whom he had helped during the Maastricht rebellion from his backbench Euro sceptics). The same fate befell the DUP – who ignored all the warnings about what May and Johnson were likely to do. It’s worth remembering, too, that at key moments when unionists were under pressure they were nearly always abandoned by their supposed friends in the Conservative media. And while there are a number of very distinguished pro-Union academics making the case for unionism here, there is scant evidence of their clout or influence.

All of which brings me back to another question I’ve asked many times in the column: what does unionism do in the continuing absence of friends it should be able to trust?

With many thanks to the: Belfast News Letter and Alex Kane for the original story.

Accommodating Unionists/Loyalists in a republic is simply not possible

I DON’T agree with most of it but I still think Paul Gosling’s book, A New Ireland, A New Union, A New Society, A Ten Year Plan (the 2nd edition has just been published) is one of the best made cases for a united Ireland.

Ireland A New EU Customs Code

It’s also worth noting that my engagements with Paul – on social media or at panel events – have always been very civil: and it’s worth noting because civility isn’t always given when it comes to people who support Irish unity. Mind you, it isn’t always given with people who oppose Irish unity. Anyway, my primary problem with Paul’s case (although, in fairness, he has included the opinions of others too, including some from a pro-Union background) is that it still doesn’t address the concerns of those who believe that unionism cannot survive in a united Ireland. Unionists support the United Kingdom. Unionists believe that the North of Ireland will always be better within the gravitational pull of the Parliament based in London. Most unionists fear that their beliefs, political values and very specific identity and sense of belonging cannot be accommodated outside the United Kingdom. Some nationalists argue that in the event of unity unionists would find themselves in the same position as nationalists who found themselves on the ‘wrong side of the border’ in 1921. That’s not so.

If it is an independent republic then unionism will have lost and indeed cannot exist. If that is so, what is the point of recognising British identity?

Nationalists were always able to carry the flaming torch for ‘a nation once again’ and campaign on the premise that a mix of circumstance and demographic shift would maybe deliver a united Ireland. Unionists would have no flame to carry (unless there was a provision for post-unity polls in what was the North of Ireland; and the possibility of rejoining the UK). A United Ireland kills off electoral/political unionism in its present form: a form which prioritises the constitutional link with the United Kingdom. So, how do you ‘accommodate’ unionism if the North of Ireland no longer exists? How do you accommodate a political/electoral strategy if the purpose and  intended outcome of that strategy has has been removed? Offering to recognise The Twelfth as a public holiday; or allowing people from what was the North of Ireland to be eligible for membership of the House of Lords; or having elements of the Union Jack included in a new flag; or writing a new national anthem; or recognising Scots-Irish; these have all been mentioned as forms of accommodation. But none of them is. At best they represent mere tokenism.

Having elements of the Union Jack included in the new flag

There’s an interesting appendix from Desmond Murphy QC: ‘However, in all texts considered, hard questions are avoided: What will be the form of the state. If it is an independent republic then unionism will have lost and indeed cannot exist. If that is so, what is the point of recognising British identity? The essence of unionism in the North of Ireland is loyalty to the crown and monarchy and to historical sacrifices on their behalf. If those links are snapped, fuzzy promises about holding British passports will be meaningless. Where would power lie in the new state, and more importantly what would be the distribution of such power. Unionists/Protestants could not exercise effective resistance in a new state unless there were artificial protections at the centre of power.’ At this point unionists are not engaging in a debate. Let me make a point here (and I mean no disrespect to those concerned, who are clearly following their consciences): some who are self-described or viewed by others as ‘civic unionists’ are taking part in a conversation with elements of nationalism.


But they they are a small minority and, generally speaking, have little input to or influence within mainstream unionism. I make the point because the assorted ‘accommodations’ which would be acceptable to them would not be acceptable to them would not be acceptable to the much broader swathe of mainstream unionism/loyalism. That’s why I agree with another point made by Desmond Murphy:’…it would appear impossible for any unionist to negotiate on any form of Irish unity prior to a referendum.’ But that doesn’t mean that mainstream unionism shouldn’t have an internal just-in-case discussion on the subject: and they could do a lot worse than beginning with Gosling’s book. A border poll may never come (which strikes me as unlikely), or it could come within a few years. Unionism must be ready to fully engage if the moment comes: ensure beforehand that the arguments for the union are thought-through and ready to be rolled out; and that unionists are thoroughly briefed well in advance.

With many thanks to: The Irish News and Alex Kane for the original story 

Alex Kane: Bullish Steve Aiken may find UUP a hard ship to control and steer

Editorial image

Steve Aiken doesn’t become leader of the UUP for another 13 days, but he seems to be going in all guns blazing.

This is what he said on Friday, a few hours before the DUP’s conference: “At Westminster, the DUP is synonymous with the antics of Ian Paisley and his luxury holidays, and Sammy Wilson and his denial of climate change. This will be the most important general election since World War II. It is time to get unionism back on track and to send sensible, competent representatives to Parliament who are capable of defending the Union. The DUP has made Northern Ireland a place apart in the UK and that is very dangerous indeed. Mrs Foster has led unionists into a disastrous position constitutionally. That will be her political epitaph.”

Ever before he is officially declared UUP leader Steve Aiken has been taking the fight to the DUP and Alliance

And just in case some critics suggest they’ve heard all this rhetoric before from UUP leaders, only to find it’s followed by some sort of ‘electoral arrangement’, he added: “The UUP will be contesting every seat in the general election. We will be aiming to win back Fermanagh and South Tyrone from Sinn Fein and South Antrim from the DUP. There will be no pacts with the DUP under my leadership.”

There will be sections of the party that will worry that this approach could leave the UUP not only still not winning seats, but actually costing unionism seats in places like South, East and North Belfast; and maybe even South Antrim, where a tussle between the UUP and DUP could allow Alliance to slip through. A recent study of the party by Professor Jon Tonge and others (The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party?) suggested that 41% of members ‘want the UUP and DUP to remain separate parties but with electoral alliances/pacts when it suits us.’ So Aiken has to persuade those members that the advantages of no pacts outweigh the risks to unionism overall.

He has also made it clear he wants to win back those former UUP voters who have drifted to Alliance: “I know Naomi well and respect and admire her immensely. She has done a great job for her party in a complex and difficult environment. But I want to bring those people who lent their vote to Alliance back to their natural home in the UUP.”

He knows he has no chance of winning back those votes from Alliance if he has a pact with the DUP: but he can’t be sure of winning them back even without a pact.

There is bad blood between the parties (which has got worse over the last 18 months) and the Tonge book indicated 64.5% of UUP members say there is ‘no chance, very unlikely, or fairly unlikely prospect of Alliance receiving a lower preference transfer vote from them’.

The biggest problem of all for Aiken is setting out a ‘vision’ that halts the ongoing decline of the UUP. He is right when he says that the next general election will be the most important since the last war (Arlene Foster said something similar in her speech on Saturday); but, especially if he has studied electoral statistics, he will know that in moments of crisis unionists tend to back the sitting MP, or else the unionist from the party considered most likely to win.

With the exception of Fermanagh/South Tyrone (and the rule only applies if it is just a UUP candidate – and there have been rumours that Tom Elliott might have another go) there are no seats where the UUP either holds a seat or is the lead party of unionism.

Aiken also knows he won’t be given a first-election-as-leader soft landing if he doesn’t deliver results. He needs to win bankable seats and committed votes: and not just the nudge to success that Mike Nesbitt got in 2015 (welcome though that was), only to see Assembly and Westminster seats tumble just two years later. The party has had far too many ‘could this be the turning point?’ moments since 2005, but not one has proved to have substance.

So, what will his ‘vision’ be? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. In political terms I have no idea what makes him tick. In the few conversations I have had with him he has struck me as thoughtful and decent (in the proper, old-fashioned sense of the word); but I’m not sure if he has what it takes to lead a party as occasionally ‘thran’ as the UUP can be.

There isn’t just one UUP, by the way, there are a number of them and each of them has a view of its own and a base of its own. His job is to try and bring the factions and bases together.

I know he comes from a background in which he gave orders and was used to them being obeyed. But many UUP leaders since the mid-1960s have discovered, to their cost, that the UUP is enormously difficult to contain, control and steer in one direction.

He may find, too, that a hard core of the UUP will agree with John Taylor’s comment: ‘The UUP may wish to show it is different from the DUP but it must rebuild its support by starting in PR elections for councils and the Assembly. To start at the top by splitting the unionist vote in first past the post elections to the Commons would help nationalism.’

I heard that view expressed by a number of UUP members in conversations over the weekend. Their fear – and it is an understandable one – is that the UUP isn’t strong enough to take on the DUP in a one-to-one at the moment; risks unionist seats being lost; divides unionism at a crucial moment; and, in the end, leaves the UUP worse off than it is now.

Aiken is obviously not afraid of a challenge and threw himself into the leadership race very quickly. But he has won without a contest, and becomes leader without any clear sense of what he stands for. His biggest challenge of all? Doing well enough not just to be remembered as the last leader of the UUP.

With many thanks to the: Belfast News Letter for the original story 

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