There were several interesting items in last Wednesday’s BBC documentary, My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me, featuring the Irish comedian Patrick Kielty and his examination of the negotiated end to the conflict which defined the United Kingdom’s legacy territory in the north-east of Ireland for some three decades. It was a very personal piece of film-making on the cessation of the so-called Troubles by the well-known celebrity, shaped in part by the death of his father at an early age, murdered by the pro-British gunmen of the Ulster Defence Association in 1988 (at the time, the UDA was in a unique position as Europe’s only legal terrorist organisation, the UK refusing to ban the grouping until 1992 during reciprocal backchannel talks with the Irish Republican Movement).
One noteworthy snippet from the programme was the claim by Arlene Foster, the leader of the separatist Democratic Unionist Party, that in the event of the disputed region voting for reunification with the rest of the island, she would likely leave the country. Presumably for a life of disgruntled exile in Britain. Of course, historical precedent for this response can also be found among the pro-union minority in the first half of the last century.
When the greater part of Ireland and the Irish people gained limited independence in the early 1920s, a significant section of the “southern unionist” community followed the United Kingdom’s colonial state as it retreated into the loyalist redoubt of north-east Ulster. Or emigrated to Britain and far flung corners of the empire (the classic example can be found in the record of the old UK gendarmerie, the Royal Irish Constabulary, some of whom transferred to its Six County successor, the infamous Royal Ulster Constabulary, or found places in colonial police forces across Africa, the Middle East and Asia). Similar migrations – or repatriations – took place in other territories of the “Commonwealth” as they experienced an end to British rule after World War II, the city of London and the neighbouring Home Counties filling up with the sorrowful flotsam and jetsam of imperial decline.
However, Foster’s turn of phrase in the television documentary, deliberate or not, might be of some significance:
“It’s a very hypothetical situation to be in but if it were to happen, I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here, I would feel so strongly about it. I would probably have to move.
It’s not going to happen so I don’t have to worry about it, I don’t think, anytime soon.”
While that “anytime soon” may have been just a throwaway line, one can’t help but wonder if even the most hardline and truculent of unionist leaders know in their heart of hearts that Irish reunification is an inevitability? If so, the reasons for the DUP’s evangelical belief in Brexit, and the militarised frontier it would inevitably bring to this island nation, become clearer. Ensuring the continued existence of the British colonial state in Ireland, however shrunken or emasculated behind its partition border, is the alpha and the omega of all unionist politics.