Ben Lowry: Last night some unionists celebrated a small movement towards Irish unity

Last night at the gates of Stormont loyalists and Brexiteers celebrated an event that has led to the biggest move towards Irish unity since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921.

Saturday, 1st February 2020, 12:02 pm
Updated Sunday, 2nd February 2020, 9:35 am
Pro-Brexit supporters outside Stormont in Belfast, to celebrate the UK leaving the European Union on Friday January 31, 2020. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The coming Irish Sea border does not mean that full unity is close or that the Brexit deal brings us halfway, or even a quarter of the way, towards Irish unity. But it is a bigger move away from unfettered UK membership, and towards all-island structures, than the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement which caused lasting unionist resentment.

So try to imagine a reverse scenario to what happened last night.

Imagine that both London and Dublin had, for some reason (such as the Irish authorities concluding that they could no longer be bothered with the hassle of Northern Ireland) decided that they wanted to edge politics away from the prospect of Irish unity.

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Jim Wells joins Pro-Brexiteers outside Stormont. Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Imagine that the two governments had then made a major political, even constitutional, change to the current arrangements for handling and overseeing and helping NI — say a move to minimise formal all-Ireland bodies or a movement away from the Irish government having any say whatsoever over Northern Ireland.

Then imagine both governments had made this change rather complicated, and disguised it with reassuring comments about how their changes were in fact designed to increase cross-border co-operation and harmony between the two communities.

Can you imagine republicans having fallen for such a betrayal of Irish nationalist hopes by the government of the Republic, working in tandem with UK government?

Can you imagine them having actually celebrated it in public with Tricolours?

That is the situation in which unionism seems to have found itself.

Last night I was at Stormont to talk to some of those celebrants, to see why they were so happy, and whether they shared any unionist concerns as to what has happened.

My report on those conversations will appear in Monday’s paper.

Meanwhile, here are some possible reasons why any unionist might have celebrated last night.

One reason is that some Northern Ireland unionists are among the most eurosceptic people in the continent. Ian Paisley and his Free Presbyterian friends and colleagues were anti Europe before the UK even joined the then common market in 1973 and hostile to the European project all along.

They were anti in 1967 when the European Coal and Steel Community became the European Economic Community (note the ditching of specific industries to become a wider economic entity).

They were anti when that EEC became the European Community (note the ditching of ‘economic’ to become an entity wider than just commerce).

They were anti after the 1993 Maastricht Treaty when the EC became the European Union (note the use of a name that sounds like a state).

And they were anti the EU creation of a single currency, typically a core characteristic of a nation state, which in 2002 led to the issuing of actual coins and bank notes.

As recent letters to this newspaper have shown, citing biblical verse, some hardline sceptics have a religious objection to the EU, seeing in it the realisation of grim prophecies.

Naturally such people are going to be delighted at any major political blow to the EU project, such as it losing one of its richest and most powerful nation states. Even if their euroscepticism is so intense it trumps their unionism, such people are delighted to be part of the disruptor, departing state – the UK.

Then there are unionists such as Jim Allister, who outlines some of his thinking on the opposite page.

The TUV leader told Stephen Nolan yesterday that he would not choose Brexit over the Union, but his euroscepticism is so deep that today he has mixed feelings, of delight and dismay.

People such as Mr Allister say that they still hope for a full Brexit in Northern Ireland.

Then there are Brexiteer unionists who think that Northern Ireland will get the best of both worlds. They believe Boris Johnson’s assurances that the Irish Sea border will be seamless, and see opportunities for NI to be treated differently, much as a ‘free port’ economic zone might be treated differently from the rest of the country.

This pro unionist pro Brexit view of developments was articulated on these pages by Aaron Rankin of the NI Tories this week.

Then there is another, smaller category of unionist — you might call it a self sacrificing category — who thinks that we must accept what is best for the nation, even if the nation decides that one part of it, Northern Ireland, has to be partly left behind for the bigger project.

Brexit, goes such thinking, is for the best for the country overall.

Then there is another category of unionist that might welcome this Brexit deal which treats NI differently —a category which might be described as pragmatic or even defeatist. This group of unionists thinks that to keep the Union alive, you always need to make concessions and keep happy people of a nationalist cultural background.

But among those celebrating Brexit in Northern Ireland there is also a category of unionist which has not grasped what has actually happened.

This is partly because much of Brexit is so complicated that even those of us who follow it closely are often unsure what a particular development means or what its ultimate implications will be.

Some of the details around the various iterations of the backstop or the so-called NI protocol are so complex that it is easy for a Boris Johnson type figure to bamboozle people as to its actual impact (if the said Johnson type even understands it themselves).

My own sense is that we will never be allowed to return to an unfettered position within the UK internal market. Stormont simply won’t vote for it, as in theory it can.

And the idea that Ireland will start to detach itself from the EU is also far fetched. The EU would have to implode first, as shown by the patronising way in which Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have not even toned down their rhetoric now that there is a guaranteed open Irish land border, and talk as if they are the German chancellor or French president, scolding the UK about its unrealistic trade hopes.

Recent events show that Dublin cannot even be generous about the RIC a century after it ceased to exist. Dublin is agitating for mooted Troubles legacy structures, which could destroy the reputation of UK forces who prevented civil war.

It all hardly suggests that Ireland is likely to be sympathetic to unionist concerns any time soon.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor