Alex Kane: UK will always placate Irish nationalism because for them Northern Ireland has become place that dare not speak its name

Ben Lowry ended his column on Saturday with this line: ‘The hysterical reaction is a reminder that the British establishment trembles if Ireland is upset about something.’

It’s an important point precisely because it’s true. Pick almost any moment from the prorogation of Stormont in March 1972 and you will find evidence to support the argument that successive UK governments have always been determined to placate/buy-off nationalism, republicanism and Irish governments.

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It was evident all the way through the direct rule era from March 1972 to 1998 and in the occasional rebooted direct rule phases until 2007. Indeed, there’s also a mountain of evidence to support the argument that UK governments have continued to prioritise anti-unionist interests since April 1998 to ensure that Sinn Fein didn’t abandon the peace/political process.

Margaret Thatcher is one of many Conservative prime ministers who have down unionism few favoursMargaret Thatcher is one of many Conservative prime ministers who have down unionism few favours
Margaret Thatcher is one of many Conservative prime ministers who have down unionism few favours

I can understand the willingness of UK governments to address the grievances of nationalism in Northern Ireland from the late-1960s and to ensure that the era of ‘one party rule’ was replaced with genuine political/societal opportunities for everyone. But it’s not so easy to understand why the pro-Union argument has continued to be undermined or why successive governments have insisted on keeping Northern Ireland at arm’s length rather than ending the ‘place apart’ identity and embracing it within a much broader pan-UK identity.

That chance, by the way, has now gone. Shifting demographics and the electoral rise of Sinn Fein has meant that no UK government will now seek to prioritise a UK identity here. If that means abandoning local unionism, then so be it. An opportunity will be found next year to facilitate some low-key celebration of Northern Ireland’s creation in 1921, but there will be no key speeches by the prime minister or monarch in Stormont or Belfast City Hall. Actually, sometimes it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Northern Ireland has become the place that dare not speak its name.

For all its present problems the UK remains a country with might and clout; and it’s certainly big enough to face down political challenges from the Republic of Ireland (even with the backing of the EU). Yet it always seems willing to tread with enormous caution when it comes to the Republic. Why is that? Why do the arguments and interests of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland seem to be of less relevance than the interests of the Irish government and an anti-unionist community?

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As I noted in last week’s column I’m not persuaded that the UK’s departure from the EU is, in fact, an existential threat to the GFA. That said, there is clearly a view in the Republic, the EU and nationalism in Northern Ireland that it’s perfectly acceptable to pursue a ‘special arrangement’ which would (as the NI Protocol does) represent an existential threat to NI’s constitutional position within the UK. But that, it seems, is ok: and it’s ok because all of nationalism in NI has now decided that the Union is on its last legs and dying breaths.

That being the case – which it isn’t, of course – anything which doesn’t ease the path to a united Ireland is automatically portrayed as a threat to the GFA, a threat to the peace process and a ‘return to the bad old days.’ It was always possible to find a perfectly workable solution to the ‘border problem’ between the EU and the UK, but such a solution was not in the interests of either the EU (which doesn’t want to send the message to other members that leaving is easy); or Sinn Fein (which never gave a toss about EU membership prior to 2015, but wasn’t going to miss the chance of playing a possible ‘England’s misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity’ card).

I also noted in last’s week’s column that pillars of the UK’s political establishment, like Tony Blair and John Major, hadn’t raised a voice of concern about Theresa May’s backstop proposals or Johnson’s NI Protocol; and nor had most of the Conservative parliamentary party at the time, including some who are now concerned about Johnson’s new bill. None of that surprises me.

I remember talking to the unionist MP Harold McCusker a couple of days after the House of Commons pushed through the Anglo-Irish Agreement with barely the whiff of a protest in November 1985. I still recall the look of shock on his face and the question he left me with: “Who can we trust, if not our own government and parliament?” That question remains relevant 35 years later; and even more so now that we have someone like Johnson who is, as he has proved many, many times, capable, like the Queen of Hearts, of believing (and doing) half-a-dozen stupid things before breakfast.

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A question I’ve raised often in the column down the years is why unionists have so few friends where it really counts? Even at moments when unionist votes where needed by governments with small/non-existent parliamentary majorities there were no long-term rewards. UUP leader Jim Molyneaux, who had worked closely with Margaret Thatcher when she was opposition leader, was shafted by her shortly after she became PM; and again in 1985.

He was also shafted by John Major (whom he had helped during the Maastricht rebellion from his backbench Euro sceptics). The same fate befell the DUP – who ignored all the warnings about what May and Johnson were likely to do. It’s worth remembering, too, that at key moments when unionists were under pressure they were nearly always abandoned by their supposed friends in the Conservative media. And while there are a number of very distinguished pro-Union academics making the case for unionism here, there is scant evidence of their clout or influence.

All of which brings me back to another question I’ve asked many times in the column: what does unionism do in the continuing absence of friends it should be able to trust?

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Alistair Bushe