Sam McBride: A failure of unionist diplomacy has left it more isolated than for decades

More than a decade ago, one of the most influential but least well known Northern Ireland civil servants wrote something which received little attention.

Saturday, 20th March 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Sunday, 21st March 2021, 8:01 pm
US President Joe Biden, pictured in the Oval Office on St Patrick’s Day with a bowl of Shamrock flown to Washington by the Irish government. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

Robert Ramsay set out concisely a reality which has existed for more than a century, but which is more starkly clear now than has been the case for decades.

Dr Ramsay, who as principal private secretary to Brian Faulkner was at the side of the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland as the old Stormont parliament was swept away in 1972, was also principal private secretary to the first Northern Ireland Secretary of State and eventually a senior Brussels bureaucrat.

The Ulsterman would become the European Parliament’s director general for research and then chief of staff to the President of the European Parliament, Henry Plumb, in the late 1980s.

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Yet, with Brussels politically as well as geographically distant from the UK, Ramsay is largely unknown in Northern Ireland; there is not even a Wikipedia page recording basic details about his fascinating life.

In his memoir, Ringside Seats, which was published in 2009 – a time of relative political tranquillity – Dr Ramsay wrote: “Among the power brokers in Britain, Ireland and the US, the unionists are virtually friendless and without influence”.

It was not the savage criticism of a foe, but a blunt truth spoken by someone who cared about his homeland. Twelve years on, unionism’s isolation is more severe. This week’s intervention by US President Joe Biden – who made clear that he supports the Irish Sea border – emphasised that fact.

Until Wednesday, Mr Biden had repeatedly said that he supports the Good Friday Agreement and does not want anything to damage the accord. But that was an oblique message which unionists and nationalists could interpret differently, because one believes the NI Protocol destroys that agreement and the other believes the protocol is necessary to save that agreement.

Therefore, saying that he supported the agreement was like saying one supports world peace – it could be taken as a commitment to pacifism, or as justification for war against regimes acting to disrupt peace.

But this week the new president’s administration went out of its way to convey its stance on the key dispute in Northern Irish politics. Unusually, the News Letter was invited to a telephone briefing with a senior official in Mr Biden’s administration on Wednesday evening, during which it was made clear that he supported the Irish Sea border.

The following night, after Mr Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had held a video call with Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, the White House emphasised the point, saying that the President and Vice President had “conveyed support for the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

It is highly unusual for the US government to take sides in an emotive issue of this significance which is dividing unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland, and not something which happened accidentally.

With Boris Johnson – the man who has openly betrayed the DUP at least twice on the road to this point – desperate to secure a trade deal with the US, there is little reason to believe that he will have any principled objection to trading the retention or expansion of the Irish Sea border for the economic prosperity of the part of the UK which elects him.

But the episode exposes a wider issue: the failure of unionist diplomacy. There has always been an isolationist tendency within a section of unionism but for more than a decade there has been a decidedly undiplomatic approach by the DUP, something at least partially explained by the party’s reliance on pressure rather than persuasion to produce the outcome it desires.

That stance is encapsulated in East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson’s appearance last month on Kremlin-backed channel RT (Russia Today). Rather than seeking to persuade Mr Biden, the DUP veteran hurled an insult, referring to “the bigoted ignoramus who has now taken over in the White House” and saying that he doubted if Mr Biden had ever read the Belfast Agreement.

Mr Wilson and North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr had vocally backed Donald Trump, something which can’t have helped with any sort of diplomatic attempt to persuade the US – if there had even been any such attempt.

A senior unionist now out of frontline politics recently privately bemoaned how poor the leaders of unionism had been over the last decade in cultivating links in the US and explaining their position. There is no coordinated unionist attempt to influence opinion in the US and to counter the decades of strategic work by Sinn Féin.

While republicans have an easier message to sell to Irish America, many Americans are not instinctively opposed to the Union. Yet unionism’s diplomatic failure there is mirrored in Brussels, in other global capitals – and even as close to home as London and Dublin. Unionists and loyalists have few powerful friends in Washington or Brussels. Many of them identify with Brexiteers as fellow outsiders. Yet it is Brexiteers who have sold them out.

Their main party is the DUP, yet it is the DUP which has presided over this disaster – and done so while swaggering, when it should have acted with humility to build long-term alliances.

Some observers dismissed the significance of Mr Biden’s move this week, saying it could not represent him taking sides against unionism because the British government supports the protocol. But that is to misunderstand the relationship between Ulster unionism and London. Unionists in the north of Ireland have not for more than a century trusted London to represent their interests.

That was shown in the Anglo-Irish Agreement where unionism vehemently rejected an accord signed by a conviction unionist, Margaret Thatcher. Unionism’s response to that agreement was about as far-reaching as any non-violent reaction could be – mass rallies, the resignation of MPs from Parliament, a refusal to meet government ministers or senior civil servants, a refusal to pay various government taxes or charges, and more. That was allied to violence on the streets, while the threat of violence was endorsed by then DUP leader Ian Paisley who set up his own paramilitary force.

But it all ultimately failed. The rallies grew smaller. The resignation of MPs backfired when one of them lost their seat in the subsequent by-election. High-profile politicians refusing to pay charges were taken to court and ultimately relented.

The violence and threat of violence turned many unionists against the campaign and strained UUP-DUP relations. And ultimately Dr Paisley disowned the paramilitary force.

If that response was to be repeated, it ultimately is likely to end in the same place – and probably even sooner because unionism is far weaker than in 1985.

Some nationalists hope events inevitably push unionists to see that they would be better off in a united Ireland – that they are unloved and unwanted in the Union, and really have nowhere else to go.

For some people, the logic of that argument will convince them. But it is because identity runs deep in Northern Ireland that such appeals rarely see voters switch constitutional sides. Many unionists will recoil from such a proposition.

Dr Ramsay wrote in 2009 that “the minority community does not face an identity crisis, as they are now secure in the present and have the future to shape as they wish; the unionists, on the other hand, are linked, in their identity, to a constitutional concept which is progressively and perceptibly fading away”.

Ironically, his prescription for the problem he diagnosed was for unionism to embrace Europeanism; to recalibrate itself as an ethnic group – the Ulster Scots – which would be easily understood, and afforded protection, in an EU used to dealing with Catalans, Basques, South Tyroleans, and the like.

As it is, unionism has failed to stop a border which is damaging the Union, failed to persuasively explain its position, failed to build alliances, and now finds itself pushed into a corner. Some of unionism’s opponents will delight in that, but history points to how dangerous such a situation can be.

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