British-Irish friendship and its implications for unionism

Former journalist Andy Pollak
Former journalist Andy Pollak

Few News Letter readers will have followed the first state visit by an Irish president, Michael D.Higgins, to Britain last month.

But I believe unionists need to take careful note of what happened in Windsor Castle, Westminster and Whitehall in the second week of April 2014 – because the events surrounding that largely ceremonial occasion indicated the dramatic change in British-Irish relations that has been gathering pace in recent years.

This change was first highlighted by Queen Elizabeth’s phenomenally successful 2011 visit to the Republic of Ireland, and her much remarked upon gestures of reconciliation at the Garden of Remembrance and Dublin Castle. The Queen’s strong personal commitment to peace and reconciliation in Ireland again played a part this time, with Martin McGuinness citing it as one of the main reasons he took part in the proceedings.

The warmth of the language used by the various leaders was unprecedented. The Queen said that the most pleasing thing since her 2011 visit was that “we, the Irish and British, are becoming good and dependable neighbours and better friends, finally shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other.” President Higgins spoke of the Belfast Agreement being “a key milestone on the road to today’s warm, deep and enduring friendship.” David Cameron said the UK and Ireland now had “a very special partnership...not just good neighbours, but really good friends and deep friends.” It appears that the new ‘love in’ between the British and Irish establishments will even stretch to a member of the royal family attending the commemoration of the Easter Rising in 2016. So where do the unionists stand in this brave new world of British-Irish reconciliation? Largely ignored and on the fringes, one has to conclude – not an unfamiliar position for them. But it is nevertheless a dangerous one. David Cameron has said privately that never on his watch will Northern Ireland be allowed to interfere with issues of national UK importance. The British and Irish governments’ exasperation with unionist parties’ refusal to go along with the extremely moderate Richard Haass proposals on flags, parades and the past is well-known. They have made it clear that they will be pushing for a resumption of inter-party talks on these issues as soon as the election season is over.

London and Dublin are right to be impatient with the snail’s pace of movement towards reconciliation in Northern Ireland. As Dr Paul Nolan says in his latest Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report: “Failure in Northern Ireland comes cost-free. The whole society may pay, but not particular political actors. When the multi-party talks on flags, parades and dealing with the past ended in failure, none of the political parties had to pay a political price. When the policing costs for contested marches and events spiral into millions, the organisers never receive the bill. The disconnect between the gathering and spending of taxes means no one feels responsible for the shortfall in revenue cause by, for example, not introducing water charges or tuition fees...Devolution, which was supposed to bring responsibility closer to local level, has failed to do so in Northern Ireland.”

As we enter another ‘marching season’, the atmosphere of political inertia in a tense and directionless society is palpable, exacerbated by unionist paranoia that there is a ‘culture war’ going on aimed at removing their symbols of Britishness. In the longer-term, there is a real chance that if the British and Irish governments lose interest – and the former gets tired of paying Northern Ireland’s annual subsidy of £10 billion – the province could end up like Northern Cyprus: a frozen small fracas that nobody cares to help resolve as other more important theatres of conflict loom large.

That won’t bother Northern republicans too much – with their “our day will come” mentality – but it is something that unionists concerned about the future of their community should ponder very seriously.

Andy Pollak, born in Ballymena, is a former Irish Times journalist and was director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh from 1999 to 2013.