Keep your head on





In his excellent study of Ideology and the Irish Question, Paul Bew quoted a Ballymoney Free Press editorial of May 1912 at the height of the Irish Home Rule crisis. ‘The statement of Unionist Ulster’, it announced, ‘is that it merely wants to be let alone’. Unfortunately, ‘since Satan entered the Garden of Eden good people will not be let alone’. Unionists want to be ‘let alone’: unfortunately ‘good people will not be let alone.’

We are again at one of those moments which echoes that Ballymoney Free Press editorial. What has changed today is the sense of urgency and opportunity. Republicans are determined not to let Unionists alone on the matter of Irish unity.

Usually the achievement of unity is pitched another generation away. It was always (another)‘20 years’ hence – near enough to disturb unionists who want to be left alone but distant enough not to test the practicalities of nationalist destiny. Now we have breathless announcements of the march of history resuming at last and the end being finally in sight -‘for the first time in my life, the prospect of a united Ireland is not only credible but inevitable’ claimed one excited journalist. Siobhan Fenton:

Growing up in Belfast at the tail end of the Troubles, the so called “Irish question” always seemed a hypothetical one… Reunification was a position which I always considered somewhat fanciful; a naive sentiment which was expressed in republican pockets in Belfast and Derry, meriting few serious contingency plans. But Ireland now looks set to join the roster of political shocks and upsets we have seen rippling across the world.

Fenton’s is a classic example of history-less and thought-less journalism but its interest lies in its unselfconscious repetition of communal tropes. And what is the reason for Irish unity now? It is Brexit. What is the evidence? There is none – apart from wishful thinking.

And yet it is surprising how many people are prepared to mouth the platitude that Brexit equals Irish unity. Even Tony Blair has raised the possibility as a ‘factual’ statement. If evidence there is, it is evidence of the lack of perspective following 23 June 2016. On Brexit and unity the principle appears to be: when everyone is losing the run of themselves, why not join in the race? So what is the argument? There are at least three elements to it.

The first is demoralisation. If you can convince your opponents that the game is up and that there is no alternative but to accept your interpretation, then you are more than half way to success. The inevitability/demoralisation argument has been a consistent part of nationalist discourse. Brexit has pumped new energy into it.

The second is cutting with the grain of anti-Brexit left-liberalism in Great Britain. Here is a possible intersection of opportunity to associate the politics of Remain with the politics of Sinn Fein. Republicans have now an issue, rather like the old pseudo ‘anti-imperialist’ struggle of the 70s and 80s, to connect and find common purpose with a substantial cohort of British opinion. Unionists can be identified as supporting anti-progressive reaction and are best persuaded out of the UK and into a united Ireland.

The third is a local variation of left-liberal thinking, mainly Protestant, and attracted to Alliance. It is this group which, if it can be persuaded of the first (inevitability) in terms of the values of the second (the progressive position is to avoid Brexit through unity) then it puts the Union under pressure.

So it is good to read Lord Bew bringing some sanity back to the debate. His article on the Policy Exchange site is worth reading.

It is the political equivalent of Kipling: if all around you are losing their heads on Brexit, repeating its argument will make you an adult among the hysterical children.