Unionists should become more Carsonite over Brexit

The great unionist leader Sir Edward Carson. In many ways the creator of Northern Ireland, he stepped away from politics soon after its establishment, embittered
The great unionist leader Sir Edward Carson. In many ways the creator of Northern Ireland, he stepped away from politics soon after its establishment, embittered
Share this article

Many unionists are angry at Dublin playing hard-ball over Phase I of Brexit.

But, far from ‘doing Sinn Féin’s work for them’, the Irish government’s approach has actually served to ensure that the best outcome for the UK as a whole – and the preservation of the Union – is a firm possibility.

Carson's statue in front of Stormont: his unionism was founded on his conviction of the strength of common interest shared by Britain and Ireland. Unionism needs a strategic version of Carsonism

Carson's statue in front of Stormont: his unionism was founded on his conviction of the strength of common interest shared by Britain and Ireland. Unionism needs a strategic version of Carsonism

There are four ways in which Brexit could play out. A ‘no deal’ scenario is not inconceivable, although it would have particularly disastrous consequences here.

A UK/EU Free Trade Deal that somehow avoids a hard border is inconceivable when viewed against the facts of international trade law and norms.

Meanwhile, ‘full alignment’ of the UK to relevant EU customs and market rules could prove difficult to sell to hard Brexiteers.

This makes the fourth scenario – ‘specific solutions’ for Northern Ireland – currently the most likely outcome. But this is far from ideal for either Dublin or the DUP.

Dr Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen's University

Dr Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen's University

Dublin knows it would entail enormous complexity without addressing the east/west barriers that would hit the Irish economy much more than a hard land border. For its part, the DUP is wary of making Northern Ireland’s position in the UK even more distinctive. Besides, Stormont hardly seems ready for greater responsibility.

Nevertheless, if the choice is either permanently ‘aligned’ EU-rule-taker status for the whole UK or some additional regulatory divergence between NI and GB, there is little doubt as to which the hard Brexiteers would prefer.

The biggest threat to unionism today comes not from Dublin but from those who would sacrifice anything – even the Union – to distance England from Brussels.

To head off that risk, unionism should become more ‘Carsonite’.

Paul McGrade, a former diplomat

Paul McGrade, a former diplomat

Carson’s unionism was founded on his conviction of the strength of common interest shared by Britain and Ireland. Carson was only an ‘Ulster’ Unionist as a poor second best to keeping all of Ireland in the Union.

Although in many ways the creator of Northern Ireland, he stepped away from politics soon after its establishment, embittered:

“What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”

A century on, a similar fate looms large for unionists.

If London succeeds in pushes the alignment choice onto Stormont, Northern Ireland’s political divisions would take on a sharp new economic forms. Not only would this set back the process of ‘normalisation’ here, it would make every post-Brexit bankruptcy, redundancy and disinvestment a political grenade.

Far better to take the initiative now to stave off unnecessary risks to both unionism and Northern Ireland more broadly.

The DUP has the leverage to see the UK government minimise the risk of harder borders anywhere around Northern Ireland. The reality of the situation means that a ‘soft Brexit’, including ‘full alignment’, would be the only outcome compatible with the manifesto aims of the DUP.

Its 10 votes could transform the arithmetic in Westminster at this critical time. It must use them carefully. Every DUP vote for a hard Brexit increases the likelihood of harder borders all around Northern Ireland, creating problems for unionism that endure long after this government.

The alternative? A strategic version of Carsonism in which the DUP exploits Dublin’s work in Brussels to leverage a soft Brexit for the good of Northern Ireland and, yes, even the Union itself.

• Katy Hayward is a lecturer at Queen’s University and Paul McGrade is a former diplomat