Neuralgia clashes with exceptionalism in Northern Ireland
The writer is an FT contributing editor
Anxieties can cascade through the generations. In Northern Ireland the insecurities of unionists have grown ever more acute with the passing of the decades.
This month marks the centenary of Irish statehood. The inauguration on December 6 1922 of the Irish Free State saw the unionist parliament in Belfast pledge enduring allegiance to the British crown of Ireland’s six most northern counties. Partition between the Catholic, mainly nationalist south and Protestant, mainly unionist north was sealed.
The Stormont parliament was more than a bulwark against nationalist demands for a united Ireland. Unionist leaders wanted an insurance policy against British perfidy. Even as they proclaimed their “Britishness”, they were unpersuaded they would be cherished in the UK.
A century later, the UK’s post-Brexit dispute with Brussels about Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements with the EU has stirred the same neuralgia. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, wants to settle an argument that has badly soured relations with Brussels, damaged Britain’s standing in Washington and paralysed power-sharing between unionists and nationalists in Belfast. The Democratic Unionist party claims that any compromise will be a “sellout”.
Negotiations between London and Brussels about the Northern Ireland protocol have so far focused on practical obstacles to trade. The Brexit accord concluded by Boris Johnson’s government in 2020 created, in effect, a border in the Irish Sea. The alternatives were for the UK to stay in the single market — rejected by Johnson — or to turn its back on the Good Friday peace agreement by creating a hard border between north and south in Ireland.
The European Commission is ready to scale back its monitoring of trade across the Irish Sea. The talk is of a system of unintrusive checks. The EU, however, will not upend the agreement’s essential premise — that the single market must be protected from illicit traffic across Northern Ireland’s open border with the Republic. To end the dispute, Sunak’s government will have to abandon a threat to withdraw unilaterally from the accord.
The stance of the province’s largest unionist party precludes any such compromise. It will not be satisfied even with an all-but-invisible border because its objections are constitutional rather than practical. By providing for the continued operation of EU rules in Northern Ireland, the protocol explicitly sets it apart from the rest of the UK. For the DUP this is a slippery slope to a united Ireland. Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader, says the Irish Sea border must be removed and Northern Ireland treated like England, Scotland and Wales.
Here unionism is fighting a battle it has already lost. As much as Donaldson would prefer otherwise, Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is unique. That staunch unionist Margaret Thatcher proclaimed as much when the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement set out a formal role for the Republic in the north’s affairs. Dublin’s role was ratified in the Downing Street declaration signed by her successor John Major and by the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. On each occasion the government in London overruled DUP opposition.
Today’s insecurities are readily explicable. In 1922, Northern Ireland’s status was underpinned by a comfortable Protestant majority. With shifting demography, Catholics now marginally outnumber Protestants. The economically and socially backward Free State of 1922 was scarcely a draw. Today’s Republic is a thriving liberal democracy. And yes, scratch beneath the surface and there is no great love of Northern Ireland among many MPs at Westminster.
The DUP, however, cannot escape political realities. For all its initial objections it eventually signed up to the power-sharing enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Its present veto on the creation of a new Belfast executive invites Sunak’s government to suspend devolution and share more authority with the Republic. Northern Ireland, inescapably, is exceptional. In no other part of the UK does a sizeable proportion of citizens declare allegiance to another state. England, Scotland or Wales do not share a land border with a third country.
In 1922 Stormont was the property of one community. Now the future of Northern Ireland lies in the hands of all its citizens — Protestant, Catholic and secular alike. Unionists have a case to make for remaining in the UK. Opinion polls suggest nationalism is well short of a majority for Irish unity. But the DUP will not win the argument by pretending nothing has changed.