Opportunity knocks





We don’t yet know how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland exactly, but the referendum result certainly revived the nationalist trope that Irish unity is ‘inevitable’.

The Republic’s national parliament recently published plans for a forum “to achieve the peaceful reunification of Ireland”, Sinn Fein blithely assure unionists that the “British identity” will be protected in a thirty-two county state and newspaper columnists rush to tell readers that the fourth green field will soon “bloom again”. One particularly excitable author, Kevin Meagher, a former special adviser to Shaun Woodward, (remind me again why unionists didn’t trust that former secretary of state), even called his book “A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable”.

In response, unionists have challenged nationalism’s “self-regarding, single certainty” in a series of astute articles.

On thedissenter blog a comprehensive essay offered a systematic take-down of the current combination of republican hopes around a “United Ireland, inevitability and Brexit”. The economist, Dr Esmond Birnie, frisked nationalists’ economic arguments thoroughly at Think Scotland. And the website This Union published a review that tried gamely (but in vain) to find any persuasive evidence in Mr Meagher’s book that backed up his claims.

The arguments that a united Ireland is not inevitable are clear and varied. They range from the philosophical point that the path of history is not pre-determined, to more practical considerations around the economy and proof of continued public support for Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.

Nationalists have been excited by the idea that Brexit may shift public opinion in favour of Irish unity and that has strengthened their predisposition to assume that a thirty-two county state is ‘inevitable’.

They’ve received encouragement from disgruntled ‘remainers’, such as those of the Alliance Party, who are willing to support a special status for Northern Ireland within the EU, which prioritises closer links with the Republic at the risk of distancing the province constitutionally from the rest of the UK. The Alliance Party seems to have formed an odd ‘progressive’ association with Sinn Fein, a Party which in only the past two years has been linked by to the murderous IRA (even if we’ll never know the details).

Yet opinion polling shows that there has not been a significant increase in support for a united Ireland in the aftermath of the EU referendum. In addition, the largest Northern Irish unionist party recovered from an underwhelming Assembly election result earlier in the year to deliver a decisive victory at the 2017 general election and the DUP now holds the balance of power in the UK parliament, with all the opportunities and dangers that that entails.

If Brexit has added ‘uncertainty’ to Northern Ireland’s politics, it’s not necessarily uncertainty that will benefit nationalism and disadvantage unionism.

Opportunities and threats

For thoughtful unionists, it’s easy to poke fun at people who believe in the ‘destiny’ of their perceived nation to achieve ‘independence’ or unite with another state. Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism is often quoted to add intellectual weight when we remind nationalists that one cannot predict the course of human history.

  1. The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge;
  2. We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge;
  3. We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.

It’s also a useful retort to any gloom-mongers within unionism who sometimes seem resigned to the breakup of the UK.

Still, if it is not inevitable that nationalists will prise apart our state successfully, neither can it be taken for granted that the Union will survive in perpetuity. Economic circumstances can change and, in any case, voters have other motivations besides the economy.

It’s important for unionists, in Northern Ireland and beyond, to think always about how the Union can be strengthened and, at the very least, to ensure that they do it no harm. I’m thinking in particular of the DUP and the Conservative government, with which it is now working in partnership.

Democratic Unionists will certainly be tempted to use their position to secure short-term benefits for Northern Ireland and demonstrate an influence on social issues to potential voters back home. The party has a grave responsibility to balance its electoral interests with a broader commitment to preserve the Union and protect the UK.

It might seem obvious to say so, but unionists have an advantage over nationalists, because the constitutional arrangements they wish to maintain are already in place.

Unionism values the benefits that flow from maintaining the United Kingdom – stability, prosperity and democratic liberties – more highly than the theoretical assets of change. This truth has been used skilfully by Ruth Davidson to regain ground from the SNP in Scotland.

In his new book about the subject, Roger Scruton says that conservatism is “what its name says it is: the attempt to conserve the community that we have”. Though he adds “not in every particular, since, as Edmund Burke put it, ‘we must reform in order to conserve’”. And that is an important point for the DUP, whose conservatism can be all too easily presented as an instinctive, visceral aversion to the modern world.

Know what you want and when you’re winning

If unionism in Northern Ireland were to articulate its priorities, what would they be?

While different types of unionist emphasise different goals and tactics, most would at least profess to wish to:

  1. protect the Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it;
  2. improve the social and material wellbeing of people in the province; and
  3. amplify Northern Ireland’s voice in the political affairs of the United Kingdom.

Sometimes the debate between parties on the pro-Union side obscures the fact that they share these broad aims, rhetorically at least, even if they disagree on how success should be measured.  Remember how the DUP attacked their Ulster Unionist rivals repeatedly when the UUP formed an electoral pact (UCUNF) with the Conservatives.

Now that the Democratic Unionists are closely linked to the Tories (by Parliamentary agreement), some figures within the party might admit that they were worried by UCUNF precisely because they recognised its potential to resonate with voters. That potential was a consequence of the pact’s promise to deliver a voice for Northern Ireland in national politics.

Again, there are parallels with Scotland, where Ruth Davidson was quick to assert that her Scottish Conservatives would have a full and integral role in the Government at Westminster, albeit with a Scottish hue, after her party’s twelve seat gain in June’s Westminster election.

The DUP is much less susceptible than the UUP to attacks on its association with the Conservatives by critics from the unionist side, but it has an influence at Westminster that did not materialise for the Ulster Unionists. It also has the capacity to provoke enormous anger and resentment toward Northern Ireland if it is portrayed as oblivious to the welfare of people in England, Scotland and Wales, or is seen to excessively oppose, or be out of step, with changing attitudes that have generally been accepted across British society.

Or it could put Northern Ireland at the centre of national debates that will define the future of the UK state.

Across the UK, devolution created tensions between regional governments and Westminster that pro-Union parties have been slow to work out in the teeth of populist separatism. However, the Scottish Tories show that it’s not impossible to start to resolve local and national allegiances successfully.

While you can agree or disagree with the themes of its arguments, the DUP undeniably took part in the EU referendum at a level that was not purely parochial.

Now that the Irish border is a major aspect of negotiations between the government and the European Commission, its most urgent priority should be to kill dead the idea that new trade barriers with the rest of Britain are less potentially damaging than customs posts at Newry or Londonderry.

Rather than viewing its relationship with the Conservatives mainly as a means to bring extra money to Northern Ireland’s public sector, the DUP should be looking at its potential to rebalance our economy and make it viable. Otherwise the Tory deal could actually damage the Union (and Northern Ireland) in the longer term.

There are significant reasons for unionists to feel positive and secure at the current time. If Brexit has added an element of uncertainty, it is nothing to the potential social and economic chaos that would follow any substantive move toward a united Ireland, or a breakaway Scotland.

If unionism’s current political representatives are sincere about wishing to have a constructive role in the political life of the nation then there’s rarely been a better time.

Opportunity knocks.


by Owen Polley: Owen is a public policy consultant and writer. He blogs @3000Versts