Friday, January 17, 2020
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Is this the death knell for Northern Ireland?

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BECAUSE what’s always at stake is nothing less than one’s citizenship, political life in Northern Ireland is stressfully consumed by symbolism and statistics. This week’s election results were replete with both, and they will cause sleepless nights for unionists. The loss of two Democratic Unionist Party seats, to Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, means that for the first time more Irish nationalists than Northern Irish unionists have been returned to the Westminster parliament. This packs a symbolic as well as statistical wallop.

The jeopardy is doubled when those two seats are in the capital Belfast, which in my boyhood was a city of unruffled unionism save for a resentfully slumbering nationalist enclave in the west. The city has become increasingly nationalist of late (and coincidentally or not, a lot livelier) and the biggest party in City Council is Sinn Féin. Nationalist councillors are in the majority overall, while the third biggest party, Alliance, is increasingly perceived as inclining away from unionism. With Nigel Dodds losing North Belfast to the Shinners, three electoral quadrants of Belfast are now green, with only East Belfast, historic site of our industrial might, Titanic and working-class loyalism, still flying the Union Jack.

From across the narrow water, in Scotland, ironically the home of those who came to work in east Belfast over a hundred years, come comfortless noises from Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. The fear is that the results will create a cluster effect for separatists. ‘How the UK election results bring Scottish independence and Irish unity to the fore’, one op-ed piece is headed.  https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/election-results-bring-scottish-independence-and-irish-unity-to-the-fore-38781518.html

Then there is the case of North Down, adjoining Belfast and a generation ago called the ‘Gold Coast’ because of its affluence. A century ago, it was the titled, business leaders and professionals in places such as North Down that faced down Home Rule, founded Northern Ireland and governed it until the late unlamented Troubles. 

In Lady Hermon’s absence, the non-sectarian Alliance Party won the North Down seat. In one sense, this is a victory for decency and civility. In another, it is a symptom of a unionist malaise in Northern Ireland. The gentry left the political stage and the pro-Union professional and academic classes fell silent. Elsewhere the slack was taken up by DUP politicians whom those classes affect to despise, but in North Down silence voted for Lady Hermon and now Alliance.  

I wonder if peer pressure and a species of political correctness is at work. If so, will it also be a factor in any future Scottish independence referendum campaign?  Why should the Union be at best a naff cause and at worst a reactionary cause? In any case, if the silence of the educated and wealthy on the pro-Union side signals the apparent virtues of fastidiousness and embarrassment, it could also be the death of Northern Ireland.

Heaven knows, many of us in Northern Ireland yearn to live normal political lives, and vote for those who claim to represent both sides of the Constitutional Divide and who wish to deal with bread and butter issues. But with two DUP MPs down, Sinn Féin will pursue a border poll and a unified Ireland with even greater determination. Soon enough, there could be a fork in the road and the Gold Coasters, like the rest of us, would be at check.

Is there any blue sky for unionists after this week’s storm? Well, while we might be unwise to proclaim that ‘Westward, look, the land is bright’, if there is a trade deal between the US and UK (likely now given Johnson’s clear victory) and the UK prospers outside the EU, that would certainly blunt the force of the Irish unification argument. Along with any loss or expense of UK trade suffered by the Republic in any kind of Brexit, Boris’s American Connection, their own being so symbolically important, would create economic envy and anxiety among southerners. The claim by the former Irish ambassador to Canada, Ray Bassett, that the UK relationship is more valuable to Ireland than EU membership, might be literally confirmed by economic events.

What goes for economics might even go for politics itself. The electoral pact between the SDLP and Sinn Féin that spelled defeat for Nigel Dodds contracted the gap between nationalism (which can co-habit with unionism) and republicanism (which nullifies unionism). But after his party won two seats (one in the symbolic constituency of Foyle), the leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, reminded Sinn Féin of the crucial difference between the parties. The latter, if I may adapt James Joyce, sees absence from Westminster as the highest form of presence. Eastwood mocked that strategy and reminded his opponents that indeed they are at Westminster, taking the generous expenses on offer, but just not representing their constituents, outside looking in through the Westminster windows. A resurgent SDLP, dedicated to peace and constitutional methods, free from dogma, might well be good news for the Union.  

Meanwhile, a genuine one-nation Toryism that Johnson rhetorically brandishes would help. It would be invidious were he to pursue that with generosity towards Scotland while the dangers to the Union of any trade deal with the EU that cut Northern Ireland from the British herd became apparent. A successful deflection of the Scots push for independence could safeguard the whole Union.  

And what goes for economics and politics also goes for culture: the inextricable cultural entanglement of Ireland and Great Britain, with the latter the senior partner. Unionists should make the argument, politely but firmly, and with lavish illustrations and analyses readily at hand, that a campaign to wrest Northern Ireland from the UK, given the dependence of the Republic on the latter, is arrant nonsense. My own hope is that out of all this uncertainty will come a greater sense of the creative intimacy of our two islands.

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John Wilson Foster
Professor John Wilson Foster was born in Belfast and is a literary critic and cultural historian.

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