An experienced journalist and author who has reported from both sides of the Atlantic, WALTER ELLIS grew up as a Protestant in east Belfast. Now he supports Irish unity, and here he explains why:
Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked that, for her, Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley. Leaving aside the fact that less than half the population of the north London borough are what demographers call “white British,” Thatcher’s claim never withstood serious scrutiny.
For a start, the former prime minister herself never believed it. In July, 1983, frustrated by her government’s inability to make progress on a peaceful resolution of the Troubles, she even sounded out then Secretary of State Jim Prior on the possibility of a British “tactical withdrawal,” leaving the natives to sort out their own mess.
Much more authentic than Thatcher’s rhetorical dictum was the heartfelt observation by Reginald Maudling, the Conservative Home Secretary at the time of Bloody Sunday: “Give me a large scotch. What a bloody awful country!”
In more recent times, until the breakdown of the Stormont executive in January, successive governments have kept their distance from events in Belfast and beyond, just as they did in the decades that led up to the start of the Troubles in 1969. It took the “confidence and supply” talks that resulted in the DUP shoring up the Tories at Westminster to remind MPs and journalists that a small corner of John Bull’s Other Island remained under the Union flag.
After all, neither the Conservatives nor Labour, nor any other mainland party other than Ukip, campaigns in Ulster. They stand in Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland, which is considered at best a semi-detached part of the United Kingdom.
The fact that national newspapers – which frequently display maps illustrating economic trends in the UK (such as house prices) that do not include Northern Ireland – felt obliged after this summer’s general election to explain what the DUP was, along with profiles of Arlene Foster, tells you all you need to know about the extent of the interest shown in what goes on this side of the Irish Sea.
British ministers, of both major parties, have never regarded Northern Ireland as a true member of the British family. If anything, they have always had greater fellow feeling for the Republic.
Southern Irish citizens fit easily and comfortably into Britain. They accept knighthoods and baronies. They join the civil service and run several of the country’s largest companies. The London and Dublin governments get on well together. They understand each other. Neither of them understands Ulster.
But if the ongoing feud between the DUP and Sinn Fein forced Britain to re-enter the political fray in Belfast, it was the potentially ruinous impact of Brexit that focused Britain’s interest once more on the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone.
The publication in August of the government’s position paper on the future of the border was ostensibly an attempt by Theresa May and James Brokenshire to address the specific problems for Ireland thrown up by the UK’s departure from the EU.
According to the prime minister, and since repeated many times, there would be no physical border infrastructure of any kind on either side of what would be the UK’s only land frontier with the EU. “I want people to be absolutely clear,” she said. “The UK does not want to see border posts for any purpose.”
Fine and dandy. Brexit, she added, should in no way undermine the relationship between Britain and Ireland. But by “Ireland,” did she mean just the Republic, or did she mean the whole island?
If the former, her priority is not obviously NI.
If the latter, the division, logically, is between GB on the one hand, and Northern Ireland and the Republic on the other. As indicated as long ago as 1993, when Britain declared that it had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in the Union, the inherent “Britishness” of Ulster would not be the starting point, but rather the interests of England and its remaining bits.
If anything, the August position paper was drafted in a vain bid to bully Europe into accepting a new customs arrangement between the UK and the EU as a whole. It was not arguing on behalf of Ulster, but using Ulster as leverage in the larger battle.
If the PM and David Davis can get Brussels to accept that bespoke rules can be written for Britain and Ireland, then why not with the rest of the 27? That, not a “frictionless border,” is the goal. Ease of movement between Belfast and Dublin would merely be the icing on the cake.
This approach may or may not make sense. We will have to see how the talks pan out – though I suspect Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt, the EU’s principle negotiatiors, remain underwhelmed. But whether it works or whether it doesn’t, it demonstrates that Northern Ireland is being used as a bargaining chip, having only a passing intrinsic value, and then only because Dublin and Brussels have chosen to make it a red line.
The truth is that Ulster has long been viewed as unfinished business by both London and Dublin. The UK would ideally like to get shot of us, but knows it cannot do so without the consent of a majority of the local inhabitants. Given that Catholics will be in a majority inside of 20 years and that most Catholics vote Sinn Fein, the liklelihood is that they will get their wish within the lifetime of those who are currently under 50.
Dublin, for its part, intends one day to reincorporate the North into a united Ireland, but fears the modalities and the cost. Again, however, as the Republic becomes richer and as more and more Protestants in the North see the economic and relational sense of unity, that goal becomes less of a nightmare prospect than – hopefully – a realisable dream.
Never underestimate the power of money. Even loyalty has its price. The Republic has largely shaken off the dire effects of the 2008 recession and has become once more a jewel in the EU crown. The Irish economy is more robust and much more flexible than Britain’s; the euro has stablised and left the pound trailing in its wake. You only have to visit Dublin, or travel on the Republic’s new roads and railways, to realise that Ireland is very much a going concern, with its feet firmly anchored in Europe.
History, which is never just about the past, is coming down in favour of unity – a unity in which Protestants and Unionists within a generation will have found their place. It is all about timing.
The two governments, once Brexit is done and dusted, may very well, with encouragement from the EU and the US, start coming up with workable proposals that would get Ulster out of Britain’s hair within, say, the next 20 years, and into the tender care of Mother Ireland.
The difficulties will be many and progress will be stuttering. But the direction of travel is clear and the time is fast approaching when unionists, as well as nationalists, should think further ahead than the next election and towards their ultimate shared future.
• Walter Ellis, 69, grew up a Protestant in east Belfast. He has lived outside Northern Ireland since he was appointed European Correspondent of the Irish Times in 1974. He spent 14 years in New York but now lives in France with his American wife