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The Unionist Dilemma In Ireland, Self-Interest Versus Nationality In A Post-Brexit Europe

Jonathan Powell, the former chief of staff to prime minister Tony Blair and the lead negotiator for the United Kingdom during talks with Sinn Féin in the late 1990s and early 2000s, makes this wry observation in the New European on the cognitive dissonance which characterises unionist politics in the UK-administered north-east of Ireland

I still remember Ian Paisley coming into No 10 in 2001 at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis which was preventing Northern Irish farmers moving their cattle – even though there was not a hint of the disease in the province – banging the table and proudly shouting ‘our people may be British but our cows are Irish!’

While examining the destabilising impact of the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum on the Irish-British peace process the ex-diplomat notes a possible change in attitudes among the otherwise obdurate pro-union population in the disputed region, albeit within a less than representative circle of opinion:

…consider this: what if the economic and political costs of Brexit become increasingly clear to the people of Northern Ireland in the next two years?

Even now, you hear middle class Unionists in the rugby clubs and the golf clubs saying ‘I never thought I would hear myself saying it, but perhaps we would be better off in a united Ireland if that means staying in the EU’. This is still a minority view, but when they see Scotland proceeding to an independence referendum and quite possibly voting to leave the UK, more may join them.

A similar insight comes from Adam Ramsy, co-editor of the Open Democracy politics’ website in Britain:

Lots of young people on both sides of the traditional divide are softening to the idea of a united Ireland. The sorts of people who would previously have dismissed such a notion as the absurd dreams of their fathers or as the dangerous desires of some folk they didn’t go to school with are now actively considering it as a practical option. In a way, this is a similar demographic as that which moved towards Scottish independence in the months before the 2014 vote, and took a big chunk of the country with it.

In Belfast, I went for a drink with my old colleague Robin Wilson. And much of the nuance of what people told me in the street can be summed up by something he said: there are now roughly three groups of people in Northern Ireland: nationalists, unionists and cosmopolitans. With Brexit, the cosmopolitans are beginning to side with the nationalists.

However the following is a sober reminder that notions of national identity among individuals can trump all other considerations, even where they are manifestly self-harming.

…I can never forget a long conversation at a house party in East Belfast in 2015 with a young man – a passionate DUP voter despite the fact that the party was opposing his right to marry his male partner. “I know we need to move on from this, but would rather die than be run from Dublin.” He made clear that he would be willing to kill, too.



10 comments on “The Unionist Dilemma In Ireland, Self-Interest Versus Nationality In A Post-Brexit Europe

  1. The lack of national spirit in the South (plus the truly massive rate of migration, unparallelled anywhere in Europe, if not the world – and completely undebated) is a major obstacle to reunification. It may not be PC to say it, but in my experience northern Protestants and Catholics are far from enthused (to put it very politely) by modern multiculti southern Ireland – where on O’ Connell Street foreigners outnumber natives by a truly staggering margin, If the north united with the south it would be uniting with a very different country to that of 30 years ago. If northern Protestants didn’t like the old white Catholic south, it’s not immediately clear why they should rush to embrace something much more foreign again.


  2. Nice example of the not having cake and not eating it schtick. The south is damned for being one thing and when it changes it’s still damned because it doesn’t conform to someone else’s idea of what it ought to be. Tiresome drivel frankly. As for whinges from the north about lack of national spirit, I think a bit more respect toward your hoped for benefactor would be appropriate. More than a few have strong links with the neighbours and aren’t going to get pulled into an unwanted nationalist conflict. If that’s your bed and you want to lie it do so, but leave the rest of us out of it. The old adage that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar applies, so put your vinegar away and sweeten up a little.


    • You really should read what you write before you post it – and perhaps more importantly read what the person you rant at writes. As I would have thought was fairly obvious from my first name, I’m not a northern Protestant – not a northerner at all in fact. I have relatives and friends who live in the north, and I work with several northerners myself – as of course do many Dubliners. These folk are all unanimous in saying that most northerners do not wish the immigration explosion (not too strong a term by any stretch) that has been visited on the south to ever be replicated in the north. You may disapprove of such sentiments but that doesn’t make them any less real.

      And it’s really not so very surprising – apart from any cultural,nationalisti or ethnic considerations, clearly such massive migration puts a huge strange on every conceivable public service from education to health to housing. The Kafakesque atmosphere of the modern Republic – where the quality and cost of such services are constantly theatrically debated in the media, but always without any reference to the immigration issue, would be enough in itself to turn otherwise ardent nationalists off the idea of a united Ireland. For the record I do believe in a united (and decentralised) Ireland but I regret to sayt that in recent times it’s slipped down my list of priorities – as I suspect it has for many nationalists – in the north and the south.


  3. I made no assumptions about your being a northern protestant whatever. Au contraire, I assumed you were some kind of puritanical nationalist with the whinge on about immigration, a little Irelander in effect. I was right. The south owes no apologies for what it is, though only a fool would disagree that partition brought out the worst in communities on both sides of the border. Partition wasn’t a decision made exclusively in the south.

    Public services in Ireland are perpetually in the news as being stretched but this is not because of immigration any more than in the UK. If you believe this you’ve been reading too much brexit propaganda and not paying enough attention to how the public sector negotiates. I’m old enough to remember what public services were like 30 years ago. There is no question that they are, overall, far better now. The waiting list for a phone when I first applied to have one in my home was 7 years. There were no motorways to speak of. Almost everybody with a degree left (me included). The 1980s weren’t THAT long ago. Ireland is immeasurably better off now and the single market, the EU, and freedom of movement are part and parcel of it. You can keep your all white, all Christian (supposedly), non-diverse Ireland as a warm memory in your cold parsimonious heart. I’ll take the real thing as it is, and gladly.

    Personally, I’m hoping we’ll have a Syrian restaurant in the neighbourhood soon as an alternative to the dumbed down, sweetened-up Bangladeshi fare that provides our sorry local ethnic diversity. And Turks and Thais and all the rest are welcome too in my book. Heaven knows there are enough newly prosperous Irish people buying 2nd homes in their countries. For one of the most globalised nations on earth, in terms of its diaspora, to have the whinge on about immigration is laughable–and it isn’t going to happen. There is no IREXIT movement, no “take our country back”, pull-up-the-drawbridge movement. The world is our oyster and the future matters more than the past.

    All that needs to be said about unity is that the principle of consent applies. If the horrified in north are repelled at the sight of black men playing rugby in green jerseys, restaurants offering cuisines from around world, or foreign languages spoken in O’Connell Street that’s their prerogative, and Nigel Farage and his ilk would be proud of them (no accident that Enoch Powell went to NI for a safe seat). I find no need to offer any sympathy to such backwardness much less join in any tooth-sucking disapproval of what faults we have. To be one’s own strongest critic is commendable up to the point it becomes some kind of succour to the bigots, haters and conspiracy theorists and others who wish to return to a better past that never was. A fuller glass together is a more attractive prospect than miserable comparisons of whose glass was more half-full. Meanwhile, you can always move north.


    • Ceannaire

      I’m a nordie and Colm’s view that “these folk are all unanimous in saying that most northerners do not wish the immigration explosion… that has been visited on the south to ever be replicated in the north.” may be true of his relatives and friends but it’s not true of the overwhelming majority of those I live among.

      Bear in mind also that the north voted to remain in the EU, so I don’t think Colm would be too comfortable living with us. Though, of course, he could move to a Loyalist area as many of them would have similar views to him. He would know what side his bread was buttered on then.


    • Tell me, in your reply, were you going for some kind of record, national or even international, for the number of oily, self-regarding, virtue-signalling cliches you could cram into one post? If so, I think you may well have succeeded. And you a person of sophisticated international palate as well!

      No argument, just Irish Times clap trap endlessly regurgitated, with a bit of forelock tugging about our own emigration thrown in. How many times does one hear this dreary self-flagellating “sure we went everywhere” nonsense trottted out by the Soros shills? (oops that dreaded “conspiracy theory” stuff again) (A) we didn’t go “everywhere” – and certainly not to the countries where most of the migrants are coming from (B) we are a much smaller country geographically, and a much smaller economy than most of the countries we emigrated to and (C) emigration severely damaged our country and is doing so now as well. Irish men and women who avail of our education, health service, roads, and other public services for twenty years of their lives, and then pack up to go abroad are deeply selfish. If the US, Oz and Canada barred all Irish immigrants, I for one would have no complaints, just as I have no complaints when Hungary and Poland – which are heavily represented among our new migrant class – refuse to take in non-European migrants. Funny how the pro-immigration Irish media neve broach that particular paradox – the immigration hating Eastern Europeans.

      And by the way, the virtue signallers seem to fondly imagine that getting to dig some authentic bangladeshi cuisine overrides any question as to the negative effects of mass emigration of most of the young able bodied citizens from Bangladesh, India, Nigeria and elsewhere on those countries. As ever with the PC brigade, even the supposed concern for the plight of non-whites is entirelly bogus, and simply an exercise in sanctimonious posturing.

      You say that immigration is not responsible for the overstretching of Ireland’s public services, but offer not one shred of argument to support this ludicrously counter-intuitive assertion – apparently believing that because you are parrotting Irish media orthodoxy, backing up your statements with facts is superfluous. Anyone who is not seriously arithmetically challenged – not to say living in a cave on Tory island – must know that the influx of migrants has stretched all Irish public services to their very limit. I know teachers in previously high achieving secondary Dublin schools who tell me that the exam system has become a complete sham – with special needs assistants basically doing the exams for many of the new arrivals.

      And by the way, if anyone is the brainwashed victim of the Brexit right-wing British media it’s you, not I. The British versions of the Daily Mail and the Sun are rabidly anti-immigration, even though proportionally the UK has a far lower rate of migrants than Ireland. Their Irish versions, on the other hand, are as PC as the ther rest of the Irish media on the issue. So the message from the British yellow press is clear, no immigration or PC orthodoxy for us thanks – we’re British – but the colonial Paddies will just have to suck it up. So you see, you’re on the same side as the Daily Mail reallly! Maybe they’ll give you a job in their Dublin office if you ask nicely.


  4. Brian Patterson

    First of all let me say I do not like the word “Nordie” any more than I approve of the words “Polak” “Spic” “Dago”. They all, if not absolutely racist, have overtones of superiority. Some morons up here refer to people from south and east of the border as “Mexicans”, which has doubly racist connotations. Secondly I wonder what northern circles Com J frequents. I have come across very little immigration paranoia in the north. The fact that voters in the six counties voted 56-44against Brexit demonstrates that UKIP cuts little ice here. It is bizarre that some Irish people – possibly the most “immigration- prone” nation on Earth should resent people coming here to better themselves. Literally millions of Irish have emigrated to every corner of the Earth. At one time nearly half the Irish population lived abroad. Even today Ireland has the highest pro rata expatriate population of any country in the OECD. (16 Per cent) while the resident non-Irish population is about 13 per cent. Irish Language and culture are under no threat from Poles, Romanians, Nigerians or Syrians. More from Anglo-American influences. Immigrants are net contributors to the Irish economy and exchequer. And because they have a higher birthrate than natives, you could end up depending on them to make up the deficit for your pension.


    • “I come across very little immigration paranoia in the north.”

      Well, how very magnanimous and tolerant of our northern brothers and sisters.

      Altough those of quibbling disposition might be tempted to suggest that if this is the case (and as I say it’s certainly not my experience) that might be because there are so few migrants in the north, and might even query why if northerners are so relaxed about migration to the six counties, this relative paucity of foreigners remains a feature of the six counties.


  5. Brian Patterson

    “..I don’t approve of the word “Nordie” (predictive text!)


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