Less than two years ago, in the early spring of 2016, any unity discussions existed only in the fringes of republicanism and nationalism and the prognosis for the next half a century was that Northern Ireland would firmly remain part of a confident, prosperous country as part of the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, it was expected that the integration and interconnectivity of the all Islands’ markets would grow steadily as the economic models of both countries, despite the disparity between the Eurozone and sterling blocks, converged. It was a win, win for all.
Then came BREXIT. The Union is indeed secure but there are those within the obvious political parties and unfortunately the Irish Government who seem intent on exploiting people`s fears around Brexit to advance the cause of the ‘unity project’.
I voted for and campaigned to remain. It was a democratic vote across the United Kingdom and the people voted to leave the EU. I am a democrat and totally respect the outcome of the referendum. That`s democracy. Now we have to get the best deal possible for all the people as the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
At the time, the reason I voted to remain and campaigned for remain was to me, clear.
A vote to leave may offer, as an unintended consequence, an opportunity to opponents of the United Kingdom to ‘sectarianize’ the BREXIT process and reopen nationalist debate across the United Kingdom and beyond. I feared that some would seek to exploit uncertainty and that is exactly what nationalist parties and the Irish Government have sought to do.
This linkage of BREXIT to a United Ireland is the thesis of Kevin Meagher and likeminded Labour supporters and has also attracted support from Alliance supporters, through the SDLP, Sinn Fein, and increasingly from some of the Republic’s intelligentsia who, probably for a combination of sentimental and ideological reasons, have seized upon BREXIT as a misplaced belief that it offers an opportunity as the only realistic chance of achieving the ‘national project’ this century.
So where does Unionism sit in respect of this pan united-Ireland ‘momentum’?
Kevin Meagher, in his book, “A United Ireland, Why Unification is inevitable and how it will come about’’ – I think on page 203 – points to Unionists having to actually persuade nationalists about the merits of the status quo; something that I fully admit we have been woeful at doing and in which we need to seriously engage now.
As Unionists we need to clearly define the benefits of being part of the 6th largest economy in the world, we need to make clear that being part of a nation that will have well over 70 million of the world’s most globalized citizens by mid-century, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Centre of global Research and Development, the nation of the global city – but more importantly a 21st Century United Kingdom – and we must, in my opinion, also look to embrace 21st century British values – we need to catch up with the rest of the UK.
Unionism cannot sell 1950’s Britain as the argument for remaining part of the UK for two key reasons – firstly it appeals to a very small and narrow base, secondly our United Kingdom, my United Kingdom, the United Kingdom in which well over 600,000 Irish citizens are determined to stay, is, or hopefully will be 10 years after BREXIT, the dynamic, innovative and globally focused nation that provides the best opportunity for us all. The country that is reckoned to have the 2nd greatest ‘soft power’attractiveness, a nation of the BBC, the creative industries, globally leading in bio-tech, automotive engineering, aerospace, et al, coupled with a vibrant, democratic and legal system.
I don’t believe in wrapping myself in the Flag, indeed my patriotism is understated, which as a proud British citizen I believe it should be – but the United Kingdom has much of which to be proud.
I also accept, as a self-critical Unionist, that in nearly 1000 years of history, many of the things that were done, in the name of Empire, economic progress and security deserve/need to be considered through the lens of how others see us. I fully agree with what Her Majesty the Queen said when she visited Dublin in 2011: “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”
We should recognise that in order to influence and bring our fellow citizens of Northern Ireland along the journey of remaining within the UK we need to explain, contextualize, and if necessary walk in the shoes of others.
Equally, and republicanism and nationalism have developed a collective myopia on this issue, there should be a recognition from the Irish State that the ‘physical force’ tradition of Irish nationalism is wrong and was wrong. Its destructive legacy has made it, for many in my community, impossible to see any meeting of minds while armed rebellion is seen as a ‘legitimate’ form of political action.
I also worry, as a close friend of Republic of Ireland, who wishes the Republic every economic success, how President Macron’s brave new Europe will look. I cannot foresee Leo Varadkar and those that come after him being able to resist the loss of neutrality within a European Defence structure, the harmonization of tax laws and business rules and regulation, the rising tensions between the EU and the US, and as the Republic of Ireland moves into its second century its further integration within the EU Eurozone ‘fast track’ federalist state.
This, I regretfully believe, will be inevitable.
The counter arguments to our continued ‘United Kingdom’ are based around two scenarios; scenario 1 is the Sinn Fein Matt Carthy and Michelle O’Neill argument that there will be soon be more of ‘usuns’ that ‘yousons’ so you’d better do a deal (that we’ll dictate) with us now (or else) – this being coupled with Declan Kearney’s outreach’ to all of us misguided Unionists and won’t life be great in 2022 with Gerry’s valedictory referendum delivering 50% + 1.
For Unionism, and indeed for every reasonable and intelligent voter across Ireland, the proposition of Gerry’s 32 county socialist utopia will receive the short shrift it deserves.
Scenario 2 is where the real danger lies – it is this – if we allow the current political uncertainty surrounding BREXIT to undermine the friendly and pragmatic relationships built across these islands’ over the last 40 odd years. It doesn`t have to be that way. Speaking as someone who, through the British Irish Chamber of Commerce fought hard to put the economy at the centre of the UK/Irish relationship, I have seen the importance of the €65 Billion economy; the integration, interconnectivity and interdependence across our nations – this figure represents hundreds of thousands of jobs, firm relationships and understanding, recognition of what really matters and what was a strong and enduring friendship.
We have already seen the new Taoiseach and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs using BREXIT as a bargaining chip, as has the rest of the EU, regardless of the real issue between the UK and the EU which is, and has always been, the money. The rhetoric around Northern Ireland and whether there will be a hard, soft or wet border is being used in the ‘ grand strategy’ (if such a thing can be said to exist) between the UK & EU – the legacy of such bargaining undermines politics within Northern Ireland and between Dublin and London and further adds to the instability we have to deal with.
So how does Unionism deal with scenario 2? The first very obvious point is ‘not as it’s being done now’. As an academic (as well as a politician) I can see the future strands of history and political science being written now; indeed the question which will launch a hundred PhDs is how, with all the advantages that Arlene Foster and the DUP had in the early spring of 2016, how did they manage in a few short months to take a position of stability and acceptance of the Union and turn it into an existential crisis? It is very clear that the DUP do not have the answers.
Secondly we need to debate and take our arguments about both the ‘long term’ benefits of closer relationships on these islands between the UK and the Republic and the dangers to the Republic of Ireland of closer EU integration to as wide an audience as possible. It’s not a straightforward binary position and the sooner we get traction on this case the better. We need to explain why a United Ireland is unfeasible. We have to raise our case from not just this Island but in a much wider and broader international context – we need to no longer shy away from the United States, RTE prime time or the think thanks of Brussels and beyond.
Thirdly we need to base our arguments around a 21st century view of the United Kingdom and we need to sell that message to everyone in Northern Ireland, the Republic and beyond.
Any debate would need to based around facts including by the United Kingdom being the 6th largest economy in the world, the advantages of the National Health Service, taxation, public sector jobs, infrastructure, our education system and above all, for me, how do we avoid, as anyone who has read ‘Buried Lives, The protestants of Southern Ireland’ by Robin Bury, the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Unionist identity on this Island.
Finally, I believe that Unionism’s main problem is its lack of confidence; we need to break away from ‘project fear’ espoused by some unionist politicians which has come to define our psyche and at times has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The DUP’s election strategy, while tactically successful, has been a strategic disaster, not just for unionism but for all of the people. The failure to articulate a vision that incorporates everyone, to talk about how Northern Ireland will be a success, how our 2 million citizens (within the wider context of the UK being Europe’s most populous country by 2050) will prosper, and how we will have strong and respectful relationships with our friends across the border are critical failures.
As Unionists we need to focus on the long term goals, not short term expediency, and until Political Unionism can develop and articulate the vision for our future, very real challenges remain before us. Unfortunately, I cannot see Arlene Foster, or indeed any of her current potential replacements within the DUP, having the leadership, magnanimity or foresight to provide that vision.
It is time for a New Unionism.