The New Partition: Britain’s Brexit Border In Ireland

In a recent discussion stemming from an article examining the mysterious – and unprecedented – pro-Brexit campaign donations gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party last year, I made this point on the politics driving the DUP’s eagerness for the United Kingdom to abandon its membership of the European Union:

If one looks at the DUP’s history up to the early 2000s, a party of militant unionist protest, the enthusiasm for Brexit is very much of a type with attacks on the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, etc. It is burning the village to save the village. While the DUP was clearly happy with Stormont power-sharing, under its own terms, anything with the potential of reinforcing partition was too good an opportunity to miss. The DUP was not just driven by anti-EU sentiment, Euroscepticism to the nth degree. The party knew full well, at least the thinkers did, that that a likely outcome of Brexit was a real frontier between the north-east and the rest of the island. It was a way of hoisting the Union Jack that little bit higher on the northern pole. Arguably the “fleg” protests and the perceived culture war played into this.

If an EU-UK “customs border” is located in the Irish Sea or a special status is granted the north I would lay money on the DUP fighting either.

For many DUP backwoodsmen the last 19 years has seen a form of soft reunification in the border counties not a softening of the border. There is a difference, even if only in the eye of the beholder.

Which ties in nicely to this observation by Vincent Boland for the Financial Times:

Fifty-six per cent of voters in Northern Ireland backed the Remain side in the EU referendum, but most border unionists voted for Brexit… Some did so out of dislike for “Europe”: the Democratic Unionist party, the main voice of Ulster unionism in 2017, suffers from an acute case of what the historian Henry Patterson calls “Little Ulsterism”. For at least some of them, the referendum was an opportunity for a reaffirmation of the Irish border, for it to become once more a dividing line between two nations.

For border unionists, the border reassures them not just that they are British, but that they are not Irish.

Undoubtedly, this is the main motivating force for many unionist voters in the UK-administered Six Counties when it comes to Brexit. What we have witnessed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the all-party and intergovernmental peace settlement, is not so much the establishment of a “soft border” as a gradual movement towards “soft reunification”. The partition line between the north-east and the rest of the country has been rendered a historical anomaly over the last two decades. A toxic legacy of colonialism that was slowly erasing itself. For some rural pro-union communities, and the core DUP vote, that made the outworking of the peace process, in the words of the late unionist leader James Molyneaux, “…the worst thing that has ever happened to us.”

The old pre-2000s’ sentiment, that determination to find more comfort in war than in peace, still influences some aspects of political unionism. From Derry Today:

Calls were made today by two Unionist councillors for British Army troops to be deployed on the streets of Derry following the terror attack in Manchester earlier this week.

Independent Unionist Councillor Maurice Devenney said that troops should be deployed because of the increased terror threat in the wake of the Manchester attack.

His call was seconded by the UUP’s Derek Hussey…

The differences between deploying British soldiers on British streets and British soldiers on Irish streets should be obvious to most.

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7 comments

  1. This time they will meet much sterner opposition from Nationalists if they , as I suspect they will, try to push their little British agenda. The reality is that Nationalists have more support now and are prepared for the DUP onslaught.

  2. I hate to always bring everything back to the Neocons, but one shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which modern northern Unionism has become a creature of a wider Neoconservative agenda. Most of the leading lights of British Neoconservatism (Charles Moore, Michael Gove, Melanie Philips,,and so on) are avid Unionists – often to the point of being positively Hibernophobic. And the Neocons almost all supported Brexit.

    Nor should one forget the relationship of the Sunday Indo ex -WP revisionists (Eoghan Harris being the most notorious example) with Unionist and Neocon movements. When Eamon Dunphy used to present “The Last Word” on Today FM, I once heard Charles Moore (a dyed in the wool Thatcher groupie let’s not forget) waxing lyrically on that show about how the likes of Workers Party hacks like Eamonn Smullen and Eoghan Harris had “reformed” Irish republicanism. Birds of a feather….

    1. I certainly never forget about the Neocons or the Unionist revisionists Colm. It´s an uphill battle with all the anti-Irish bile they come out with, but a battle that has to be fought with determination , cunning and perseverance. There are some Nationalists who underestimate the above too much for my liking though.

      1. I agree with you Bullykiller – nationalists shouldn’t underestimate Unionists’ clout. I often hear Irish people say, “the Unionists aren’t very good at selling their cause.” For me this is a gross misperception – for folk who are supposedly so inept at spin, Unionists have an awful lot of powerful voices championing them – nowhere more so than in the Dublin media – which avidly promotes the “Primacy of Unionist/British Suffering” narrative. For instance the Dublin media dwelt on the Enniskillen and Warrington attacks for months, if not years, but almost completely ignored British/loyalist atrocities such as Greysteel, Loughinisland, the Ormeau Road bookie shop shootings, the Ballymurphy British Army massacre etc. In fact anyone who brought up these inconvenient events was/is accused of “whataboutery”. – “whataboutery” being Unionist/Dublin 4 code for daring to draw attention to the many crimes of those on the British side of the Irish conflict.

  3. Colm J definitely hit the nail on the head with regard yo the pro-union Free State establishment with the “Irish” ‘Independent’ leading the charge followed closely neck to neck by the Irish Times and Irish examiner.
    I cannot agree with the suggestion that up to Brexit Irish unity was slowly advancing. In many ways Ireland is more deeply divided than it was 60 years ago when I was a child
    When I was a child there was an all-Ireland system ig car registrations. This was not abolished by unionists in Coleraine DVA, but by the southern authorities who wanted as far as possible to distance themselves from the north
    The registration and licencing authority in the north was last year was moved to Swansea Cymru who are now proposing a totally “British Mainland” system of vehicle registration in the north.
    Income tax, which used to be dealt with locally, has now been moved to Newcasle, England.

    The outgoing Minister for the Environment, Danny Kennedy, erected “Welcome to Northern Ireland” signs on the border. His successor SF Minister Chris Hazzard did not order them removed.
    The term “Island of Ireland” is now common currency even among SF MLA’s. John O’Dowd speaks of “Baxin’ Day” (St. Stephen’s Day) Gone are the days when we talked of the “the 32 counties of Ireland”, the “Six Counties” and the “26 Counties”. Where will it end?

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