Despite the claims made by her sympathisers in the Irish and British press, it’s become clear that last weekend’s seemingly conciliatory speech by Arlene Foster, the leader of the hard-right Democratic Unionist Party, was more of a change of tone than a change of content from her previous statements. While the confrontational language of recent years was laid to one side the message remained the same. Behind the flowery sentiment, the DUP is still committed to an uncompromising withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, regardless of the destabilising impact it will have on Ireland. While a few of its MPs, MLAs and councillors might baulk at the likely socio-economic and political consequences of a “hard Brexit”, many more are hoping that it will lead to a new imposition of the “frontier” around the UK’s legacy colony in the north-east of the island. Indeed, some dream of a Partition 2.0 to parallel the Empire 2.0 philosophy in vogue among the more eccentric inhabitants of Westminster and Whitehall.
This not-so-hidden agenda can be seen in the reaction of Sammy Wilson, an outspoken Democratic Unionist member of the House of Commons, to Wednesday’s speech by Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach na hÉireann, to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. According to the news and current affairs website, Politico Europe, the ultra-nationalist MP claimed that the premier was:
…naive, inexperienced and arrogant for siding with European Union negotiators in Brexit talks.
Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman for the Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 MPs in Westminster, branded the prime minister a “nutcase” and claimed there had been a change of tone from Dublin since Varadkar took office last June.
Wilson said the U.K. government needed to find a way of either “cajoling or enticing” the Irish government into taking the “natural position” to “cut [the U.K.] some slack,” warning that siding with “hard-line EU negotiators” could destroy the Irish economy.
His comments came after Varadkar said in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday that the U.K. could not “backslide” on commitments on the Irish border made in the first phase of Brexit negotiations.
While Sammy Wilson has subsequently attempted to soften his remarks, the party’s more extreme base will undoubtedly agree with him. The Democratic Unionists see Brexit as a separatist Trojan Horse, one they can use to deepen the now shallow division between their colonial holdout in the Six Counties and the rest of the country. This ambition, a return to the pro-union hegemony of old, is linked to sustained lobbying by the main unionist leaders in the north-east as they seek to gerrymander the region’s electoral constituencies. If recent reporting by the Press Association is accurate, this dramatic option may be under consideration by the DUP’s parliamentary partners in Britain, the ruling Conservative Party. With the failing British prime minister, Theresa May, reliant on Arlene Foster’s expeditionary force of ten MPs to stay in power, an agreement on the gerrymandering of local Westminster districts to protect a shrinking number of pro-union MPs (and MLAs) in the Six Counties, could well be on the cards. Making it unlikely that we will witness the full participation of Sinn Féin in any revived communal power-sharing executive or cross-community assembly at Stormont.
There is some irony in the thought that the centenary of the partition of Ireland will be marked as it began – with a territorial gerrymander to assuage a militant, British separatist minority on the island.