Alex Kane: Unionism casting around for way out of its dilemma

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Belfast and further afield is presently awash with posters warning about the Betrayal Act and the Surrender Agreement.

A UVF poster in east Belfast notes: ‘Our British identity cannot and will not be sacrificed to appease the Irish Republic.’ A series of meetings has been organised across the Province, with one of the organisers stating: ‘(The) key commitment from political unionism at recent meetings; if the Betrayal Act goes through the Belfast Agreement is dead. All of the structures and mechanisms of governance will be deliberately made unworkable. Northern Ireland will face into a generation of instability and strife.’ Unionism is rattled in a way it hasn’t been since the Anglo-Irish Agreement almost 35 years ago. There are growing concerns about a new generation of young loyalists turning their backs on the current peace/political process and exploring other – as yet unclear – options.

The UWC strike of 1974 had no effect on Westminster's attitude towards the future governance of Northern Ireland

The UWC strike of 1974 had no effect on Westminster's attitude towards the future governance of Northern Ireland

All of this activity and angst raises a number of key questions. Why do so many people across unionist/loyalist communities (and, as I keep saying, there isn’t and never has been one clear, moving-in-the-same-direction unionist family) believe their British identity is about to be sacrificed? Why do they think a UK government would choose to appease the Irish rather than bolster the Union and stand shoulder to shoulder with its fellow UK citizens in Northern Ireland?

This is a question which has been asked many times in my lifetime, most notably in 1972 (prorogation of NI Parliament); 1974 (Sunningdale); 1985 (Anglo-Irish Agreement); and 1993 (British government has ‘no selfish, strategic or economic interest in NI). So far, unionism has never agreed upon the answer.

What is to be gained by the prospect of a ‘generation of instability and strife’? If Theresa May and Boris Johnson were prepared – knowing what the unionist reaction would be – to allow Northern Ireland to drift from its present constitutional moorings, why does anyone think they would recalibrate the relationship because of a threat? Northern Ireland was made ungovernable during the UWC strike in 1974, which saw the collapse of Sunningdale. But no UK government subsequently shifted on mandatory power-sharing and an ‘Irish dimension’. Within a decade de facto joint sovereignty was in the mix, and hundreds of thousands of unionists at protest rallies in 1985 didn’t overturn that. It will be no different this time.

Why is there so little obvious sympathy for ‘Ulster’ unionism across Great Britain, particularly in England? After almost 30 months of propping up two Conservative governments it looks like the DUP failed to sell unionism to a wider audience. Look at the national media coverage since 2017: Northern Ireland is still viewed as a ‘place apart,’ not quite part of the broader pan-UK unionist family. Poll after poll suggests that the vast majority of Conservative Party and Brexit Party members/voters accept that the loss of Northern Ireland is a price worth paying for Brexit.

Every single Conservative MP voted for a deal which, if implemented, would result in the constitutional relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain being significantly different to the relationship that has existed since 1921. Even the crises of 1972, 1974, 1985 and 1993, not to mention the concerns of some unionists about the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, did not change the constitutional dynamics as much as Johnson’s deal will do.

So, why has the DUP escaped with so little criticism? It cannot wash its hands of the present mess: it was, after all, played for a sucker all along. There were always other routes and strategies it could have pursued after June 2016 (and particularly after the confidence and supply arrangement in June 2017), yet it stuck to the same one.

I argued that Johnson was the sort of man who would offer to take your Alsatian for walk and then return with a one-legged Chihuahua. And I also noted that the ERG had inherited their sense of loyalty from the Borgias. But the DUP insisted on putting and then keeping all their eggs in one basket. A recent piece in The Economist noted: ‘The decision to sacrifice the Tories’ long-standing ally, the DUP, in order to solve the problem on the Irish border will go down in the annals of realpolitik.’ Yes, the DUP was betrayed. But it almost acquiesced in that betrayal.

As ever, when unionism is faced with a crisis, there are a number of responses. The DUP is talking about ‘new generation unionism’ (a term which was repeated a number of times during the annual conference two weeks ago), while also falling back on that old election favourite – circling the wagons. Some elements of loyalism have gone down the public meeting/poster propaganda route, complete with the sort of language and imagery which suggests they are looking at the tactics of 1912-14. The UUP has tried to find a place somewhere in the middle, but Steve Aiken’s inaugural speech as leader on Saturday suggests that it has yet to fully identify that place. Meanwhile, the vast majority of ordinary unionists are asking the same question: ‘How did we get into this mess and, more important, how do we get out of it?’.

The DUP – although, as I have said before, it couldn’t ever admit it – will be praying for just one outcome on December 12; namely, Johnson gets hammered and his deal, along with him, makes it to the ditch he talked about dying in. A comfortable victory for him would be a nightmare. A victory for a Labour/Lib-Dem/SNP coalition raises other problems, of course, but it’s probably the best option for killing off the Johnson deal and maybe even Brexit itself (which also suits the DUP).

Caution and measured response is what is required from all of unionism in the next few weeks. It need friends on December 12. It needs a majority in the House of Commons which understands it. This is not a moment to up the ante and issue warnings about dire consequences. Northern Ireland cannot survive without support from Westminster and understanding from Great Britain. And nor can it survive without majority support for the Union among the local electorate. Unionists ignore those facts at their peril.