As a “small u” unionist, from a Protestant background, I was more than content with the situation in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. We had peace, we were full-blown citizens of the European Union, and we were able to choose how British or Irish (or neither of those things) we wanted to be. What was there not to like about that?
Set against those positives, even the fact that our two major parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, proved incapable of sustaining a devolved administration was a niggling irritation rather than a running sore. Did we honestly expect any better of them?
Brexit, however, whether with or without a deal, and the DUP’s determined support for it, has shattered my sense of contentment. It has led me to realise that I will have to choose which union I prefer: the one with Britain, as part of the United Kingdom; or the one with Europe, as part of the EU. But even more disconcerting has been the realisation that the DUP are working to make such a choice impossible. And, as I explain below, they may well succeed. I claim to speak for no one but myself. But I would be amazed if I am the only unionist thinking this way.
So much for self-determination
It was no surprise that the DUP campaigned in support of Leave in the run-up to the UK’s 2016 EU referendum. Even aside from a generous campaign donation of £425,000 the party received (the origins of which are still unclear) they were always going to be attracted to the extreme British nationalism espoused by the likes of Farage, Rees-Mogg, Johnston and Gove.
Despite their efforts, though, a clear majority in Northern Ireland voted to Remain. But far from the party then adjusting its position to reflect the wishes of the NI electorate, it has continued to pursue Brexit with added zeal. It’s not as if this is some meaningless grandstanding exercise on the part of the DUP. They are crucial to the delivery of Brexit. Such is the political arithmetic at Westminster, there can be no Brexit without their support. Since the referendum the DUP has, in effect, been engaged in bringing about a fundamental change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland contrary to the democratically expressed wishes of a majority of its people. So much for self-determination for the people of Northern Ireland. So much for the principle of consent.
Ludicrous to claim that NI is the same as other UK regions
Presumably the DUP would argue that Northern Ireland is no different to any other constituent part of the United Kingdom, and they must therefore abide by the overall result of the referendum. This does nothing to explain the zealotry with which the party is pursuing Brexit. Still, that’s almost beside the point when set alongside the ludicrous notion that Northern Ireland is the same as the other UK regions. Where else in the UK do citizens enjoy dual-nationality – Irish and British – as a matter of birthright? What other devolved administration in the UK is legally compelled to operate on a power-sharing basis? And, critically, what other part of the UK has a right to secede and join with another sovereign nation – Ireland – if or when a majority so desires?
Why has no-one ever raised the constitutional implications of its Brexit position with the DUP? Why have Arlene Foster and her cohorts never been asked to outline what they believe to be the benefits to Northern Ireland from leaving the EU? Every reliable indicator (not to mention plain common-sense) tells us that leaving the EU will wreak havoc on Northern Ireland’s economy and the lives of its people. What post-EU benefits for Northern Ireland can the Democratic Unionists possibly have identified that every neutral expert (economic, social, and political) has been blind to?
The backstop as smokescreen
We have all been so consumed by the backstop that no-one has thought to ask the DUP the most fundamental question of all: Why on earth are they prepared to destroy Northern Ireland’s economy, and severely restrict the future opportunities of our children and grandchildren, in order to leave the European Union? Right-wing leanings and a £425,000 handshake can hardly be the sole motivators – and nor are they.
The DUP must be delighted that all eyes remain so unwaveringly fixed on the backstop. For they have indeed identified what, for them, is a major benefit to leaving the EU, but one they dare not name. The truth is, the DUP see in Brexit a golden opportunity to finally destroy the Good Friday Agreement. Or, more specifically, to destroy the gateway it provides to a united Ireland.
Cast your mind back to 1998, when Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson (both then members of the Ulster Unionist Party) walked out of the negotiations at Stormont, in a rage, just hours before the GFA was announced. Their anger was largely centred on unionists agreeing that a simple majority would be enough to take Northern Ireland out of the UK and into a united Ireland. For Foster and Donaldson, this was a bridge too far. They found a home in the DUP, which was and remains implacably opposed to the GFA for the exact same reason. Yes, pragmatism (i.e. self-interest) led the party to eventually take its place in the Northern Ireland Assembly under the fig-leaf of the St. Andrews Agreement but, be under no illusion, its opposition to the 1998 accords remains undiminished.
The DUP realises that the religious and political make up of Northern Ireland has changed to such an extent there could very soon be a majority in favour of a united Ireland. From their perspective, the timing of Brexit, coincident with the party holding a position of previously unimaginable power and influence at Westminster, is perfect.
The post-Brexit orthodoxy
There will be no grand declarations from the DUP on the demise of the GFA. Rather, most of the main elements of our agreement will be left to wither on the vine.
Under the terms of the GFA, it is for a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to allow for a border poll when he or she thinks there may be a majority of people in favour of leaving the United Kingdom and joining with the rest of Ireland. Given the probable extreme nature of post-Brexit UK governments, and the debt they will owe to the DUP (without whom the Brexiteers dream could not have been realised) it is highly unlikely that a British minister would call such a poll, regardless of demographic indicators. Indeed, look no further than the current UK government, and recall that both Boris Johnston and Michael Gove have in the past described the peace process as a defeat for the British government.
Post-Brexit, the DUP may well even press for changes in legislation at Westminster to remove the possibility of a border poll ever being called. The Irish government and the EU would protest, of course, but what could they do to stop a sovereign nation that has “taken back control” from exercising its powers to make new laws and alter or dispense with existing laws? In the orthodoxy of extreme nationalism – as Putin, Trump and various of their ilk have shown – inconvenient laws, agreements, and conventions are there to be ignored or dispensed with at will.
Do the leaders of the DUP not realise that their dumping of the GFA will almost certainly lead to a return to violence in Northern Ireland? Of course they do. But for them, the calculation is simple: either do nothing, and face the prospect of a united Ireland in the very near future; or do everything in their power to destroy the only legitimate vehicle to Irish unity, the GFA. It appears that violence, like the economic hardships Brexit will bring, are for the DUP a price worth paying (mostly by everyone else, of course).
What mandate has the DUP for its actions?
As a unionist, I stand full-square behind the commitments we gave to our nationalist neighbours in the Good Friday Agreement. I am also a committed europhile, appalled by the extreme right-wing contagion, encouraged and assisted by the DUP, that has taken hold of British politics. And I am not alone in my views. The GFA, in all its aspects, was endorsed at referendum by 71.1 per cent of the Northern Ireland electorate. In the 2016 EU Referendum, 55.8 per cent of Northern Ireland voted Remain. The message could not be clearer: on those two issues at least, the Democratic Unionists do not speak or act in the name of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Yet they are on course to drag Northern Ireland out of an expansive, multi-cultural, liberal-democratic European Union, and lock us forever into an inward-looking, narrow-minded, Trumpian-style United Kingdom. And who is to stop them?
Last year, Arlene Foster declared that in the event of a united Ireland she would “feel so strongly” she would probably leave the country. She’s well on her way to ensuring that such a move won’t be necessary, after all.
A Guest Article by Elizabeth Cady Stanton