In the wake of the United Kingdom’s stuttering final exit from the European Union it seems that the veteran newspaper columnist Alex Kane is having very similar thoughts to my own on where the political and economic priorities of the United Kingdom lie in relation to its colonial legacy on the island of Ireland. Writing in the News Letter the former spin-doctor for the Ulster Unionist Party notes that:
What Johnson did wasn’t unique. Like so many prime ministers before him – most of whom claimed to be supporters of the geographical/constitutional integrity of the UK – he prioritised other interests over the interests of NI unionism. So, bearing in mind that he is merely the latest in a long line to follow the same course, what conclusion should unionists here reach? The immediate one, obviously, is that prime ministers and their parties don’t give a stuff about NI: because they have no emotional attachment to it.
…why would successive UK governments, particularly during the years when the IRA was armed and active (1969-1997), seem so determined to find a way of placating SF rather than crushing armed republicanism?
Why did successive UK governments invest more time and energy in building a working relationship with successive Irish governments? Why did successive UK governments – after the 1998 referendum – conclude so many below-the-radar, nod-and-wink side deals and arrangements which would have required IRA Army Council approval (and we know that the council still acts in an overarching capacity)? Why did the May/Johnson governments – both propped up by the DUP – seem to think it of greater necessity to reassure the Irish government than the DUP or broader unionism?
Why is the DUP now reduced to the absurdity of pretending – and it really is a pretence – Johnson’s betrayal doesn’t actually amount to a hill of beans? Why does it continue with the pretence it can find ways to mitigate the impact of an arrangement which has the imprimatur of the EU, Johnson’s government and a whopping parliamentary majority?
The answer may be obvious to you and me but like many other leading figures in the country’s pro-union minority Kane is unable – or unwilling – to see it, comforting himself instead with the notion that he is,
…not overwhelmingly convinced successive UK governments have been actively determined to disengage from Northern Ireland. That said, nor am I convinced they would shed any tears if a majority voted to leave in a border poll.
The task for unionism, in NI’s centenary year, is to bear that in mind and find a strategy and narrative which understands and accommodates the UK’s long term priorities for here.
A task which modern unionism has repeatedly and arguably quite deliberately failed at. And there is no reason to believe that this is going to change. On the contrary, the self-destructive Brexit strategy of the Democratic Unionist Party, its counter-productive backdoor coalition with the Conservative Party government in London, disdained even by Tory supporters, proves that there is no rapprochement possible between the long term priorities of the pro-UK minority in the north-east of Ireland and the UK itself. Which leaves that community with only one realistic option in the years ahead. The one that Alex Kane can never quite bring himself to recognise no matter how many times his own logic and reason brings him close to doing so. Which of course is its own metaphor for the current plight of political unionism.