Who would have thought, when the United Kingdom went to the polls to vote on Brexit three years ago, that the result would be the ghosts of Disraeli and Gladstone and their intractable “Irish Problem,” returned to haunt the debate over the future of the border between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland?
Yet here we are, and no one knows where we’re headed. Perversely, by being so keen on Brexit, British Unionists may be building the strongest case yet for a United Ireland — and on the basis of economic arguments, no less. After almost 100 years of armed revolt by largely Catholic Republicans against the majority-Protestant territory of Northern Ireland, the irony is not lost on anyone.
Inevitably, the issue of Brexit has been manipulated for political purposes within Northern Ireland: As the Brexit debate continues so, too, does a renewed debate about Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. But this didn’t have to be so. The question of the Irish border, at this point at least, does not appear to be political but economic, more an issue of customs than of constitutions.
Twenty years on from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, in regards to Brexit, there is no one in London, Dublin, or Belfast who wants a “hard border,” which is to say a border with passports and customs checks and the military apparatus to enforce both. One would have thought, therefore, that a solution to the current impasse could be arrived at with relative ease. But instead, like almost every issue does in Northern Ireland, Brexit has broken down along Republican and Unionist lines. Where in the days of Gladstone, Unionists cried that “Home Rule” meant “Rome Rule,” now they call for “Home Rule” as opposed to “Treaty of Rome Rule.”
In 2016, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, 55.78 percent to 44.22 percent. Subsequent to the vote the age-old sectarian divide began to once more rear its ugly head. Nationalists and Republicans became diehard supporters of the European Union, as Sinn Fein conveniently forgot its decades-long ambivalence to Brussels and its 1973 campaign against Ireland’s membership in the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU. Unionists, or, more precisely, the Democratic Unionist Party — for many outside Northern Ireland the DUP’s is now perceived, incorrectly, as the only brand of Unionism there — became the Ulster branch of the rapidly declining United Kingdom Independence Party, whose raison d’être is ending British membership in the EU.
Predictably, therefore, Brexit has become just another form of war by other means for Republicans, now lumped in with a whole bevy of issues for which they never campaigned previously, such as the legal status of the Irish language, same-sex marriage, and abortion. These matters are now seemingly fundamental to modern Republicanism. Sinn Fein as a political movement has long-since rejected the Irish Catholicism that shaped it. With Brexit, these socially conservative issues have become merely another platform for the self-styled progressives of Sinn Fein to attack the DUP, and by extension the Union. The DUP plays into the hands of this form of Republican propaganda at every turn, by failing to come up with any constructive response to it. And when its representatives do speak, such as on the issue of the Irish language, they sound merely bigoted. Sadly, there is a total failure on the part of the DUP to build alliances with the most socially conservative group in all Ireland: Ulster’s Catholics.
The truth is that neither political tribe — Republican or Unionist — has much of any worth to add to the Brexit debate. Although following the 2017 U.K. general election the DUP agreed to support the minority Conservative government, it is not in a formal coalition with the Tories. In some ways, the party had no alternative but to support Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, as the alternative was the Republican-supporting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a wholly untenable option for Unionists. But backing May didn’t give Unionists much say over their side of the Brexit divide in the negotiations that followed, which have been primarily directed in London by May and others. Republicans, meanwhile, have found themselves on the outside looking in at Brussels and the enthusiastic and opportunistic pro-EU government in Dublin, which has used the desire for continued peace in the North as a cover for its own political and economic interests in frustrating Brexit.
This all reveals once more how little real political power resides within Northern Ireland. It also reveals that those tasked with using what small residue of power is there possess a mindset smaller still. As ever, Ulster’s politicians seem incapable of looking beyond a despairing past, blind to any future hope that could be on offer. Their performance is a reminder to the outside word, if it had forgotten, of just how bitter the ingrained intransigence of the Ulster man and woman — whether Unionist or Republican, Catholic or Protestant — remains.
The ongoing political stalemate in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the resulting instability it engenders serve no one. In the 20+ years since the Good Friday Agreement brought an ostensible end to the Troubles, Ulster politicians have forgotten too easily the inherent volatility of the disputed territory, the century of violent Republican insurrection that came before. Regardless of what we are led to believe, this “armed struggle” continues today, and has continued in the two decades since Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that both he and “the hand of history” had brought peace to a land that had not known such a thing for hundreds of years. Like most of the New Labour project, Blair’s declaration of peace in Northern Ireland was more an act of stagecraft than a statement of truth. The well-worn, and in this case apt, saying that peace is more than an absence of war could have been coined for today’s Northern Ireland.
True peace within a political state requires a buy-in for the state’s citizens. In Great Britain , until recently at least, those on the political left or right may have vehemently disagreed about how the country should be run, but they both agreed that the country needed to be run. By contrast, Ulster’s political landscape possesses a political faction dedicated to the proposition that Northern Ireland is “a failed state” and, as such, should not be “run” but ended. The other faction — the Unionist faction — at times appears to want to “run” Northern Ireland in a way that will benefit only Protestants.
Sadly, neither Unionists nor Republicans have ever wanted an accommodation with the other; instead a triumph is craved. Both sides demand not only to win but also to preside over the other side’s defeat. The fact is that the North’s endless flirtations with drums and flags, uniforms and marches, slogans and murals glorifying violence, are not just about political tribalism but about unfinished business between ancient enemies. The political rhetoric of today may have moderated slightly, but its essence has changed very little from the old invective. The rallying cry is still “No Surrender” from one side and “Tiocfaidh ár lá” (“Our day will come”) from the other. And in Brexit, both sides have found a new battleground on which to fight — and lose — once more.