Two major uncertainties for Northern Ireland unionists going to polls this Thursday.

Nearly one hundred years since its establishment, Unionism faces two significant threats to its place in the United Kingdom: Boris’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, which will draw a border down the Irish Sea; and an Irish Language Act in exchange for the restoration of the NI Assembly.

Debate in the media currently, has focused on Boris Johnston’s Withdrawal Agreement; or ‘Betrayal Act’, as it has been dubbed. The EU expectation is that the deal will make a sizeable step towards frictionless cross-border trade, while hampering trade within the United Kingdom on which Northern Ireland is most reliant.

Under Article VI of the 1801 Act of Union a customs union was to be founded, resulting in zero tariffs and frictionless trade. Unlike the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which was repealed as a result of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Act of Union, albeit not including the now Republic of Ireland, remains on the Statute Book. It isn’t clear how the Prime Minister will square this with the proposed Withdrawal Agreement.

The idea of Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK in a post-Brexit world has caused outrage amongst grassroots Loyalists, resulting in meetings being held across the Province. These meetings, or rallies, on the face of it, appear to mirror many meetings at times in history when the Union appeared to be under threat, including the Ulster Crisis, 1912-14, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985, and opposition to the Belfast Agreement by Unionists in 1998 as part of the ‘No’ campaign.

While there is outrage is expressed by some, it is the most public expression of a wider if quieter disquiet and unease across all shades of Unionism.

While Boris’s deal presents a serious threat to the economy of the United Kingdom, there is another play which seriously threatens the cultural fabric of Ulster unionism which lurks in the background as talks continue over the restoration of the NI Assembly. This relates to an Irish Language Act, seen as a key demand made by Sinn Fein for the restoration of the NI Executive, power-sharing, in Northern Ireland. The very real danger has been well argued by John Wilson Foster in the Belfast Telegraph, 2017.

Sinn Fein’s ambition (unchallenged by any shade of nationalism) is that an Irish Language Act would see Irish promoted in parallel with English in public spaces and services. At present residents of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council are forced to see street signs erected in English and Irish, with Irish given prominence over the main language spoken across the ‘community divide’. This example offers a glimpse as to how Sinn Fein would imagine Northern Ireland as a whole, if an Irish Language Act is introduced.

The persistence of Sinn Fein in pushing an Irish Language Act is part of its long-standing stragegy of waging a cultural war against all aspects of the visible manifestation of Britishness: one which seems reality accepted by the NIO and London as opposed to violent conflict – rather than actually dealing with paramilitarism and the “threat” of violence from within the republican community.

Of course this Republican strategy is platformed on the word ‘equality’ and utilised (to break Unionism) as a means of the continual process of Nationalists seeking equal rights since 1968 (as opposed to grievances over housing and employment rights, which were the focus at the time of the ‘Civil Rights Movement’).

Thursday 12th December will represent a significant day the history of Northern Ireland if the Conservative Party is returned with a handsome majority. A win for Boris Johnston will mean that the Withdrawal Bill would pass as a Act and become law, taking the United Kingdom out of the EU by the end of January 2020, though at this point leaving Northern Ireland with an uncertain economic future until the out-workings of the ‘Boris deal’ are clear; what the Prime Minister claims the Agreement to mean and what the Agreement actually says seem to diverge substantially.

It is already been made abundantly clear that with a substantial Conservative majority pressure will be brought to bear on the DUP to once again roll over and provide concessions to Sinn Fein in order to restore a Northern Ireland Assembly, the price being an Irish Language Act.  The ability of the Conservative Government to actively facilitate legislation in Westminster on ‘devolved’ social issues while refusing to intervene on ‘devolved’ health issues that are impacting on patient life expectancy shows the priorities in place and direction of travel.

Unionists in Northern Ireland need to go to the election box with a clear understanding that without strong voices at Westminster significant aspects of our Union will be scarred, perhaps irrevocably.


Dr Andrew Charles: political historian.