Ulster Stands At The Crossroads – By Eamonn Mallie

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“I believe you know me well enough to appreciate that I am not a man given to extravagant language.

“But I must say to you that our conduct over the coming days and weeks will decide our future. As we face this situation, I would be failing in my duty to you, if I did not put the issues calmly and clearly before you all.”

The political events of today in 2018 are not unrelated to the issues addressed by former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill back in 1968 when he moved to assuage nationalist concerns about some of the injustices being visited upon them by Unionism and which were being highlighted by the Civil Rights movement.

The impact of the June 2016 decision by a majority of the people in Britain to vote to leave the EU and the determination of a majority in Northern Ireland to remain in Europe will be resonating in fifty years time as are today the political happenings of 1967/8 during the Civil Rights campaign era.

Fifty years later there are sections of Unionism among them the DUP still determined to pull the handbrake on rights for nationalists. This coincides with the Arlene Foster led Democratic Unionist Party exploiting the Brexit crisis with its 10 MPs nestling in Theresa May’s arms in her hour of need as she fights to personally survive and to keep her party in government.

Yes Northern Ireland finds itself in a different space today compared to even twenty years ago when the Good Friday Agreement was signed but progressive social legislation, language rights and issues of identity are still not a given by unyielding elements in the Democratic Unionist Party.

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 Tony Blair was at the helm as British Prime Minister.

Economist David McWilliams pointed out in Saturday’s Irish Times: Blair was winning elections from the deep Centre with 120-plus seat majorities. McWilliams also said: this ‘represented a broad wing of the Labour Party that could be described as its social democratic centre.’

David McWilliams underscores too that the Tories, once the “one-nation” party of commerce, are being dragged to the weird nationalist right by a man who recently dismissed business with the colourful quip of “fuck business”.

The one-nation, centre-ground party of Major, Heseltine, Clarke, Cameron and Osborne is gone. It has been replaced by the Brexiteers, enthralled by the tyranny of nostalgia.

Twenty years ago too we had Bill Clinton in the White House who proved himself to be correspondingly constructive in his approach to both nationalism and unionism when push came to shove. (Sadly, one cannot say with any degree of certainty President Trump has much interest in our collective wellbeing in Northern Ireland). Trade wars and protectionism appear to be his stock and trade.

Twenty years ago something else obtained – a confluence of courage, confidence and vision among political leaders like Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, GFA Talks Chairman Senator George Mitchell, clergymen and extraordinary British and Irish civil servants who navigated a pathway through the political jungle that was Northern Ireland.

Today we are back in that political jungle for very different reasons. We thought the constitutional issue had been settled in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement of 2006.

The GFA acknowledged the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, reflecting the wish of the majority of citizens. It also established a principle of consent – that a united Ireland could come about if and when a majority of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland wanted it. In this instance, the British government would be bound to hold a referendum, and honour the result.

Can nationalists be any longer certain this is the situation?

They are becoming increasingly sceptical about the intentions of the Conservative government. In the eyes of nationalists Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s tenure of office has been unremarkable and remote from their needs or concerns. The fallout from Brexit has proven stultifying and divisive in practically all sets of political relationships in these islands and across Europe.

The poverty of politics is such in Britain that survival of the London government is dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party’s MPs, a party which expends a disproportionate amount of its energy these days fire fighting alleged internal and external scandal much of which has not come into the public domain. Conclusion – this British government is not seen to be acting dispassionately or impartially as a co- guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

This Conservative/DUP love-in is also taking place against a backdrop of the Renewal Heat Incentive scheme scandal, currently the subject of an inquiry which hangs over DUP leader Arlene Foster and senior figures in her party like ‘the sword of Damocles.’

Judge Patrick Coghlin, Dame Una O’Brein and Dr Keith MacLean have given us a few pointers – signalling their direction of travel.

The symbiotic relationship between the DUP and the Conservatives gives us the regular spectacle of Nigel Dodds and his fellow DUP MPs acting as cheer leaders for an embattled PM Theresa May in a mutual orgy of sycophancy: witness Mrs May flying to County Fermanagh, to join Brexiteer Arlene Foster to find out how the local people feel about the possibility of ‘a hard border.’ She and Mr Dodds host a dinner for Mrs May over two and a half hours.

How does Mrs May think nationalists view her decision to stay overnight and dine with Arlene Foster and Mr Dodds? There is a non Unionist MP in that constituency.

Throw into the Fermanagh pot a short time later a reported DUP £50 a head fund raising dinner attended by Gavin Williamson Secretary of State for Defence. These are not the only examples of crassness.

I am keeping my eyes peeled on this DUP/Tory shotgun marriage.

I will also watch with interest the outworking of what PM Theresa May said in the wake of the Salzburg meeting with EU leaders. The Irish border, the Good Friday Agreement and even the Union are all now in the Great British/EU Bake Off.

Commenting on the notion of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK Mrs May said:

“It is something I will never agree to – indeed, in my judgment it is something no British prime minister would ever agree to. If the EU believe I will, they are making a fundamental mistake.”

Nigel nods approvingly. Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Jim Molyneaux foolishly nodded too, gullibly believing some weeks before Mrs Thatcher signed the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985 she wouldn’t do it but she went over the heads of Unionism and betrayed them. Governments have interests not loyalties Nigel.

Let me further remind baby infants readers of history about what the former Conservative party leader, the so-called Iron Lady wrote, having approved a message sent secretly to the IRA hunger strikers in 1981:

“If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory & there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny it took place.”

Thatcher biographer Charles Moore lays bare all this in his authorised biography on the political life of Mrs T in Parliament. This is the Margaret Thatcher who publicly spoke of cutting off ‘the oxygen of publicity’ to terrorists and then ended up secretly increasing the flow of oxygen to those same Republicans.

What too of John Major on not talking to the IRA? He told MPs in the House of Commons:

“I can only say that would turn my stomach: we will not do it.”

I incontrovertibly proved in 1993 his government did engage the IRA after which Northern Ireland Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew offered his resignation when I outed him.

With this in mind I am reserving my judgement as to where Mrs May will eventually land. The jury is out. To the DUP I say ‘caveat emptor.’

I can’t help asking however are we getting the full picture? Brexit is a contagion which may evolve into a pandemic across Europe.

It was not Brexit which caused the dry rot besetting relationships between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

That started back in August 2013 with First Minister Peter Robinson’s letter from America which crashed the McGuinness/Robinson Agreement for a Peace Centre on the Maze Prison site. (That site today remains a white elephant apart from a few buildings servicing the annual Balmoral agricultural show).

The co-equal status of the office of First and Deputy First Ministers envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement died with that letter.

What was remarkable was that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive lasted until January 2017 when Martin McGuinness concluded that Sinn Féin in government was having a negative impact on the party at grassroots level with the message coming across that the DUP was increasingly hollowing out the essence of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements through maxing out advantage because of its numerical strength.

It wasn’t Brexit which decided for DUP grassroots to reject the party’s agreement with Sinn Féin in February earlier this year.

It was Arlene Foster’s inability to manage her base.

She and her senior colleagues had poisoned the party faithful about Irish but having pragmatically swallowed the Irish Language Act pill (disguised in a trinity of acts) during negotiations, the DUP leadership could not sell the package. Hence there is no Assembly and no Executive at Parliament Buildings.

Out of self-interest obviously the London government has not called the DUP out on its bad faith behaviour back in February.

Against all that is set out above, I am now positing the following: in the event of a ‘no deal’ between the EU and the British government: Northern Ireland will not have a devolved administration.

  • Firstly the DUP leadership is incapable of selling the February package today or tomorrow.
  • Secondly Sinn Féin, having come close to prostituting itself to test the DUP’s bonafides on buying into a minimalist deal in February established for once and for all ‘parity of esteem’ is not on offer now or in the future if it remains in the gift of the DUP.
  • Sinn Féin would pay heavily today at the polls should it consider lowering the price it paid for the February deal.
  • As long as Theresa May has to cling to the DUP to survive that party will not budge to accommodate Sinn Féin having got burned byits base in February over the Irish Language Act.
  • In reality, the British government will not be mindful either to legislate for same sex marriage, an Irish Language Act or for matters which are an anathema to their DUP bedfellows.

In the past eighteen months I have regularly drawn attention to a seismic shift in attitudes in middle class nationalism. Two words have altered the psyche of nationalism: ‘crocodile’ and ‘Brexit.’ Nationalists are boldly declaring they want nothing to do with Arlene Foster or the DUP.

The die was cast when the DUP leader back in Feb 2017 said:

“Since there were more people in Northern Ireland who spoke polish than Irish, perhaps there should be a Polish Language Act as well.

“If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more,” she went on.

That ‘crocodile’ remark had an echo of remarks uttered by former Northern Ireland PM Basil Brooke (also from Fermanagh) on 12th July 1933 when he said:

“Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I have not oneabout my place. Catholics are out to destroy Ulster…If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work on our farms we are traitors to Ulster…I would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible, to employ good Protestant lads and lassies.”

The pejorative portrayal of catholics in senior roles defined Brookeborough in history in the minds of nationalists.

Arlene Foster’s anti Irish language stance comparing an Irish language aspirant to ‘a crocodile’ is and will remain the stuff of the nationalist folk memory for decades to come.

It is a truism as I stated above governments do not have loyalties. They have interests.

One witnessed that in 1993 with John Major and Albert Reynolds at an EU meeting throwing SDLP leader John Hume to the wolves at a time when he was burning himself out in talks with Gerry Adams trying to persuade the IRA to end its campaign of violence.

All this coincided with secret talks taking place between the IRA and the British government behind Hume’s back and that of the Irish government.

I have been around for too long to trust the word of Prime Ministers. I have seen and know enough to accept that there are times when governments engage in what might be deemed in accordance with the norm ‘unethical’ behaviour or in the immortal words of Tony Blair ‘constructive ambiguity’ but eventually the bus has to stop.




Northern Ireland’s historical problems have been and remain a millstone around the neck of every citizen. Add to this the Brexit conundrum and we have an incendiary concoction.

Thinking Unionists now find themselves at the crossroads too. Many of their concerns are chiming with the anxieties of sheep farmers, grain growers and scores of milk producers dairy farming, along the border. There is a fear that the EU subsidies destined to continue to be enjoyed by Southern farmers could put the smoke out for their Northern Ireland counterparts.

For the first time I detect some people of a unionist persuasion asking themselves whether a United Ireland is the preferred option?

Will truck drivers be able to move uninhibited between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Europe?

Any border checks would be immensely troubling issues for companies considering locating inward investment in Northern Ireland not to talk about companies already operating here unsure about how to grow.

Do such companies elect to expand in Northern Ireland or to establish a base in the Republic of Ireland?

In their latest analysis organisations representing manufacturers in Northern Ireland are warning of the impact Brexit could have on local production if there is a threat to the contribution of UNSKILLED Europeans.

Air authorities are drawing attention to a potential interruption between UK airports and airports in Europe.

Logically Dublin airport could be the winner on this island in that eventuality and inevitably unionists will elect with their feet to fly out of Dublin to European destinations.

So where will the EU/Brexit bus stop for Northern Ireland and who will be under the bus when the shakedown takes place?

Will nationalism buoyed up by the Irish government holding a referendum to empower people outside the Republic of Ireland to vote in presidential elections be emboldened in the event of the EU winning the day with Northern Ireland staying within the Customs Union and the Single Market? What if the nationalist vote grows and eclipses the unionist vote?

Will the bus reach its terminus to coincide with a disillusioned Protestant unionist community getting another taste of what historically nationalists called ‘perfidious Albion?’

Will that section of marginalised Unionism and Loyalism stay its hand with ever growing nationalist demands for a border poll?

Both London and Dublin governments ought to be looking down the road in these days of such fluidity.

Will Theresa May end up driving the bus with the DUP enhancing their numbers at Westminster?

Northern Ireland’s historical problems have been and remain a millstone around the neck of every citizen. Add to this, the Brexit conundrum and we have an incendiary concoction.

Will‘Boris Johnson Liar’ end up screaming at us from the front, sides and back of the bus?

Will Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ERG friends end up under two buses?

Will we see the end of the line for the EU bus if Mrs May wins the day?

History has a very long tail.


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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. The nationalist vote will grow to eclisp unionists of that there is no doubt. Coupled with young forward thinking protestants who want equality for all and see this in the southern state then a unite Ireland within Europe is inevitable. The sooner the better.

    • Yes, Liam – is is precisely what is happening but you will be told that Nationalists are not allowed to express these sentiments – but Unionists are, of course, entitled to claim that a Re- United Ireland will never happen.

  2. As a unionist, small u, the absence of a generous spirit in today’s unionism is disappointing. Must it always be too little too late.
    A seemless border down the Irish Sea would not be the end of the world, could have economic benefits with NI attracting investment from UK business wishing to have an operation within EU and would win back the moderate nationalists or at least remove a united Ireland from their agenda
    Why can’t we make an asset of our position being part of UK, inside EU rules and in a seamless Ireland

    • An interesting point. The problem is that for many unionists Northern Ireland is ‘their’ state-they are it’s raison d’etre and it is a zero sum game. The tunnel vision that results from a siege mentality, settler v native dynamic is visceral and precludes all reason. Stepping beyond the trench means having to deal with the rest of Ireland i.e the other 87% of the people who live in Ireland, and that would be the end for all that bathes their DNA.Grasping at straws to keep back the tide in a world of fear, waiting every moment for the ultimate betrayal must be awful. A border in the sea, coupled with a Stormont that in future will see itself more in all-Ireland terms than looking desperately for a ‘mainland’, an increasingly confident European and Irish demographic means that being in or out f the UK would be irrelevant. Northern Ireland as an entity that is not a unionist by definition will have the same fate as and East Germany that is not communist by definition. It no linger has a reason to exist.

  3. There are a lot of questions in this well written article but its just more whataboutery food for thought type stuff. It doesn’t really give me any insight to what Northern Ireland’s future might be. Reminds me of Alex Kane’s articles – well written recaps on the past combined with a “here’s where we are now” and “this person needs to be careful because…”

    I understand you need to understand the past to help you make sense of today but I guess simple minded folk like me turn to journalists for some hope because we get none from our politicians.

  4. Will be an ironic day if and when NI votes to leave the UK but voters in the Republic vote against unity leaving Northern Ireland trapped in a loveless relationship with Westminster-that is how I see things panning out-If UK finds NI impossible to deal with what makes anyone think the Republic would find it any easier to manage?

  5. To state the obvious I think we should recognise the fact that the dup’s decision making revolves around what is perceived as strengthening the union. The decision to withdraw the liofa bursary (the straw that broke the camels back more so than the crocodile comment) at the time in the throws a £500mil RHI scandal, supporting, campaigning for and unscrupulously funding brexit, the crocodile comments, the ILA – unable to sell it to our base debacle and the failure to even countenance staying in CU and SM with all its potential economic benefits are all actions which play to the base. The ridiculously obvious fact that it’s not the base that needs to be won over and that these actions have resulted in small n nationalists, neithers and small u unionists opting for a new, secular, liberal, Eurocentric Ireland seems inexplicably lost on the current unionist leadership.

  6. For some time business has enjoyed an all island market, sourcing customers, suppliers and employees across the border with only currency rates to concern it. It has been feasible for business owners and employees to benefit from this while still being politically in favourite of NI being firmly entrenched in UK. This has been possible because the two lines have run in parallel. Now we are looking at a political solution to an economic question which is the point that the two lines cross. This effectively puts a cost on the border which may vary from nothing to something quite considerable depending on the individual. This may give some Unionists pause for thought over the medium term about the All Ireland question and this potential paradigm shift could bre accelerated if London does sell out the DUP in the final throes of the Brexit negotiations

  7. To be honest, Eamonn, Teresa May is better pulling the rug from under the DUP like she did but didn’t do last December. She won’t go down well in history as the leader of the government who allows this (now becoming clear to be) ill-fated Brexit to proceed. Added to this, demographic changes and the changes in attitudes that you mention will become more apparent in 2022 than they did at the last Assembly election – this also influences the DUP stance on Stormont. I hesitate to say the game’s up but it looks like the DUP don’t care for much going forward except to put up a wall – the last recluse of the entrenched.

    Boris and Rees Mogg’s crowd are only too willing to end the progress made here to put their own names in the history books and this is bad news. However, as much as they are rocking the carriage, I hope May still has the reigns – as uncomfortable as she seems. She could turn out to be the worst or the best British PM in this.

    On which, what is the status of the Back-stop agreement? Agreed or not?

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