The UUP’s Jim Nicholson released a statement on Friday, saying Theresa May’s successor “needs to be a strong unionist”.
He’s right, of course; yet it is extraordinary that he still felt the need to say it. The problem for unionists is that for almost 50 years successive UK governments have been unwilling to follow the line that what happens in Northern Ireland is a matter for the UK alone.
Which explains why Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May have all, at one time or another, been described as ‘traitors’ or the ‘enemies of unionism’ by key players within the UUP and DUP.
It all goes back to October 1972 when Heath’s government released The Future Of Northern Ireland discussion document. This was the document that brought the concept of the ‘Irish dimension’ into play, as well as stressing that no UK government could hold on to Northern Ireland against the wishes of a possible pro-Irish unity majority.
It followed on from a speech Heath had given in November 1971: “Many Catholics in Northern Ireland would like to see Northern Ireland unified with the South. That is understandable. It is legitimate that they should seek to further that aim by democratic and constitutional means. If at some future date the majority of the people of Northern Ireland want unification and express that desire in the appropriate constitutional manner, I do not believe any British government would stand in the way.”
This is not what unionists wanted to hear as a new IRA campaign was taking hold; while the October 1972 document, coming just six months after the prorogation of Stormont, sent shock waves through the entire unionist community.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise that they reacted so badly to the Sunningdale Agreement, with its mandatory coalition (unionists still had a substantial overall majority within the entire electorate) and Council of Ireland.
They looked to Margaret Thatcher as their saviour. Yet for all her frequent references to being the leader of the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ (the description used by May as she announced her resignation), and Northern Ireland being as British as her own constituency of Finchley, she still signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 (the agreement that put meat on the bones of 1972’s Irish dimension).
In November 1990, within weeks of her leaving office, Secretary of State Peter Brooke — with the approval of new PM John Major — stated that the government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. It is not the aspiration to a sovereign, united Ireland against which we set our face, but its violent expression”.
Within a couple of years it became clear — despite Major telling the House of Commons it would ‘turn my stomach’ — that his government had been in negotiations with Sinn Fein and the IRA.
Tony Blair was to do much the same thing when, even though the IRA had ended their ceasefire in February 1996, it became clear that he had reopened channels to them after he became PM in May 1997.
For all of her talk about the ‘precious union’ and her Confidence and Supply deal with the DUP, Theresa May still introduced the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) into the EU negotiations without consulting Arlene Foster or Nigel Dodds.
And even though she was fully aware that the DUP, UUP and smaller unionist parties remained opposed to the WA she still tried to get it through on two subsequent occasions. Worse, from a local unionist point of view, she eventually persuaded the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg to support it.
So, let me return to Jim Nicholson’s statement about a ‘strong unionist’ with this question: Is there a potential prime minister (and, for the sake of argument, I’ll include Labour) who would prioritise the particular demands and interests of unionists in Northern Ireland above broader UK interests?
David Cameron made a referendum a key part of the Conservative’s 2015 manifesto even though some advisers warned him that it could raise problems in Northern Ireland if Leave won. Theresa May ignored unionist concerns with the WA and was willing to do it again a fourth time. Boris Johnson — who is one of the clear favourites to succeed her — backed the WA, even though he stood in front of a DUP conference audience a few weeks earlier and rubbished the backstop.
I’m no fan of Johnson and never have been. I don’t actually know what matters most to him, other than his own ego and love of publicity. I don’t think he gives a damn about Northern Ireland —he has rarely mentioned it in his entire political/journalism career; that said, I don’t think he would do anything which would jeopardise the British/Irish relationship and force him to fight on another political front.
Put bluntly, he will be no friend of Ulster unionism. Johnson enjoys the rhetoric behind a fight. He doesn’t really enjoy the fight itself.
My gut instinct — and it’ll probably come back to haunt me in a few weeks— is that Johnson won’t win. He had a moment to stage a real, full-throated coup during the Conservative conference in October, but bottled it.
It didn’t take all that much to force him out of the leadership contest to succeed Cameron. I wrote at the time that he’s he sort of person who wants to be handed the crown rather than fight for it; and those are the sort of people who never really rise to the challenges of leadership. More important, the Conservatives need a unifier right now, not someone who will add to the divisions.
I wrote this in March: ‘Ah! Boris Johnson — who believes that a haircut; the eating of every word he has said and written since June 2016; the inability to be embarrassed by anything at all; and a blindingly shiny brass neck; are the only qualities he regards as necessary for him to be PM’
I wouldn’t change a word of that.