This is the end of Northern Ireland as we know it and a crisis for unionism and the UK

The Northern Ireland elections created worldwide news – sending shockwaves and denial through the British political class, and causing much simplistic media commentary about the province.

Sinn Féin only marginally increased their vote on the last Assembly elections. But they significantly moved into first place in the popular vote for the first time winning their highest ever Assembly vote; and at the same time an opinion poll in the Irish Republic showed them widening their lead over the two main traditional parties: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. All of which occurred on the weekend anniversary of the funeral of Bobby Sands, H-Block protestor, who died in jail on hunger strike, and while incarcerated was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, that began the electoral journey of Sinn Féin to the present.

This is not what the British state intended Northern Ireland for. It was created as an entity to provide a ‘Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State’ as Unionist James Craig, the first ever Prime Minister of the province from 1921-40 said in 1934. Now the BBC’s Lewis Goodall commented when summarising the election results: ‘Northern Ireland was literally designed, its borders were designed, so that wouldn’t happen’ – meaning the triumph of Sinn Féin and eclipsing of the Unionist parties.

The creation of Northern Ireland and the imposition of a border on the island of Ireland were not enough historically to maintain Protestant and Unionist dominance. What was also needed was the suppression and manipulation of democracy to create in the UK a real one-party state that denied civil rights and liberties to a huge part of the population.

Stormont one partyism and the belated coming of democracy to Northern Ireland

One little known aspect of Northern Ireland’s era of Stormont one-partyism from 1922-72 (when it was first suspended and then abolished) is that the province did not have one person one vote until 1968. That year saw the abolition of the university seats and voting and plural voting for businessmen (always men) alongside widespread voter suppression and gerrymandering to minimise Catholic and nationalist representation.

All of the above was undertaken with the collusion of the UK Government which let the Northern Irish majority do as they liked until the late 1960s. It was only the ending of Protestant privilege and preferential treatment which brought the entire UK into the modern age – making the UK a political democracy in voting. But this isn’t something which should fill the rest of the UK with pride for such feudal privileges were only abolished in the rest of the UK in 1948 by the Attlee Government.

We are now in uncharted waters. Six decades after the Stormont state began to be dismantled the Unionists have lost not just their majority of the vote and seats, but their historic place as the leading party of the province. Numerous consequences will flow from this in coming years.

Denialism has a very long tradition with regard to the province. Step forward as one example the UK Government, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab claiming at the weekend that the union was safe as ‘58% of voters had supported pro-union parties’. In the next breath he was talking about the supposed problem with the Northern Ireland protocol negotiated by Boris Johnson and David Frost with the EU, ignoring that for all the DUP’s protestations a clear majority (55%) voted in the same election for pro-protocol parties. 

Talking of denialism the attitude of the DUP has contributed to their decline and defeat. A party which made its raison d’etre under the Rev. Ian Paisley of declaiming ‘No Surrender’ became under his leadership in his latter years renowned for its pragmatism and co-leadership in government with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.

Despite this oppositionalism remained core to the party, and as Unionist ascendancy has slipped away, they have grown more angry and defiant. They were for Brexit and then seemingly oblivious to Northern Ireland voting (like Scotland) to remain in the EU. When Theresa May destroyed her parliamentary majority in 2017 and left the DUP as powerbrokers they continually over-played their hand. And since 2019, with the UK leaving the EU and the protocol coming into effect, they have dug themselves into a corner – in so doing exasperating a large part of the electorate who are the party’s constituency including elements of the middle class and business community.

Brexit has fuelled DUP intransigence and decline. The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole noted in the aftermath of last week’s elections: ‘Apart from UKIP, the DUP was the only substantial party in the UK to be wholly and enthusiastically in favour of the hardest possible Brexit. It funnelled money into the Leave campaign in England’ and now in Northern Ireland as elsewhere ‘the Brexit revolution is devouring its own children.’

Northern Ireland is continually seen through the prism of Protestant v. Catholic and Unionist v. Nationalist, but this was never the whole picture and gets less accurate by the day. The province like everywhere in the UK has experienced secularisation, the decline of religion and retreat of churches. And a bare majority of voters see themselves as either Unionist and Nationalist (53%) with nearly half the province thinking of themselves in other terms.

This shift has informed the rise of the Alliance Party who bravely take no position on the constitutional position of the province under the inspiring leadership of Naomi Long (and who have also been aided by the continued shadow of Brexit). They stand for the constituency which yearns to live in a normal place with normal politics, and concerns itself with issues which really matter such as the cost of living crisis. The Alliance not surprisingly just polled their highest ever Assembly vote and are a coming force. The main problem they face as they continue to grow is that Northern Ireland has never been and can never be completely ‘normal’.

Northern Ireland’s future 

A border poll looks inevitable at some point but not in the next few years. Such is the lack of confidence in the UK Government in the case for the union in the province that they dare not do what could make strategic sense – call such a poll while the polls show there is still a pro-union majority.

It indicates that underneath the headline figures there is deep unease about the state of the union case and its representatives, and that their argument could begin to unravel even more in a referendum. Imagine for example a border poll in the next couple of years which resulted in (to pluck figures out of the air) 55:45 for the union. This would not strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, but rather galvinise the pro-reunification forces, all of which must be in the calculations of the UK authorities.

All of this underlines that Ulster Unionism as we have known it and its present-day credo is a busted flush; a now minority tribe in retreat, confused, disorientated and looking for others to blame for their predicament: the UK Government, Irish authorities, Brussels, the US. As they lash out and blame everyone but themselves they seem to have no positive agenda – either for Unionism or the province – and hence shouldn’t find it surprising that voters increasingly reject them. There is related to this the ongoing fragmentation in the Unionist parties: the decline of the once dominant Ulster Unionist Party and the emergence of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice challenging the DUP.

The future of Northern Ireland will hopefully be decided by democratic decisions and not by shadowy men in the margins who yearn for a return to violence and indiscriminate killing and maiming. Once upon a time the UK Government, for all its many imperfections and disastrous decisions in relation to Ireland, had an element of insight in its statecraft towards the province.

We saw from the 1970s onwards endless initiatives in power-sharing between the two communities, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, all leading up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The UK has over this course nurtured a consociational democracy (meaning institutionalised power sharing in government) to win legitimacy for devolution in both communities – which eventually has its limitations as the foothold of those groups weaken. And it also imbued a shared sovereignty between the UK and Irish Government which much to the chagrin of many Unionists built North-South and West-East relations in relation to the province.

The problem with the current UK Government and British State

Where is that level of insight, intelligence and innovation in statecraft today in the UK Government? Sadly it is near to nowhere to be found. Part is the low-grade calibre and careless nature of the Boris Johnson administration – with its wanton vandalism, amorality and playing to its Brexit base on the protocol. But it is also about something longer-term: namely the decline of Tory unionism and its morphing into a populist, chameleon like chancer Conservatism which may well long outlive the dire personal qualities of Johnson.

This is a problem for the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK because this issue is crying out for imagination and boldness. There is no foreseeable future which works in which Northern Ireland narrowly votes to reunify with the Republic; or indeed narrowly votes to remain with the UK. 

Rather there has to be a discussion about the relationships between the various constituent parts of the UK and the Republic. This could involve ultimately not the chimera of federalism often cited by Gordon Brown but like the Loch Ness monster never actually seen. But instead arrangements which were confederal – between self-governing nations – giving a special dispensation to Northern Ireland and rights and guarantees to the Unionist community in the province in all-Irish arrangements alongside ones between the UK and Republic. Under these sort of arrangements a version of Scottish independence would be possible with no connection to ‘separatism’, to allow for pan-UK and pan-Isles co-operation and institutions.

The above could be a very British kind of compromise including different traditions and communities in an over-arching architecture of shared sovereignty. It would draw from the UK understanding of the legacy of Empire and colonial retreat which is what we are dealing with in Ireland, while being modern, pluralist and adaptive.

Sadly to get to this place one political tradition is going to have to be defeated. That is the Tory (and to a lesser extent Labour) fixation on parliamentary sovereignty, undiluted, undivided central power and the Dicey fiction of ‘the Crown in Parliament’ which have come even more centrestage as a result of Brexit and the multiple crises and fissures of the UK. 

Northern Ireland is stuck in a limbo by obstacles and conservative shibboleths which are homemade and by some of the same factors which distort, harm and prevent the UK itself from being a modern, fully democratic country. If it did not have enough problems of its own, Northern Ireland, like the rest of the UK, is held back by the myopia, delusions and degeneration of British politics and the continued influence of an Empire State mindset at the heart of UK political elites. 

Comments (11)

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  1. Dougie Strang says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece – a useful exploration of the complexity. Meanwhile, all we get is brinkmanship from UK gov.

    Minor edit: Raab is deputy PM, while it’s Liz Truss who currently demeans the role of Foreign Secretary, and who threatens to pull the plug on the NI Protocol.

  2. Ottomanboi says:

    If only it were a crisis Mr Hassan, if only but it simply requires a coterie of politicians, and the type is capable ditching any «deeply held» principle, to get their heads together and the inevitable becomes a maybe, or as in Scotland’s case, a seemingly sometime or never in anybody’s lifetime.
    We are dealing with hardened residue of the British empire here which only a pickax might crack.
    Should i be so cynical?

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    But do the UK want NI? I recall reading one minister said, long ago, it holds no political, economic or strategic value for the UK. Of course there may be a perceived internal political cost if NI leaves. But maybe there are some saying “at last! Let them go for it.”

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Well, the UK does want the North of Ireland, for the same reason that it wants Trident – it sustains the myth of Empire and Rule Britannia – it is a fallacy/phallusy of deluded willy-waving. If the north of Ireland reunites with the Irish Republic then the territorial waters around the North of Ireland – small though these are – will be repartitioned and the ‘sea lanes’ for Trident, will be substantially reduced. There is also the question of what to do with the ‘hard men’ of unionism. Do they really want them permanently on the island of Great Britain?

      1. William Davison says:

        The policy of both main parties in the UK has been, for many years, to put no barriers in the way of movement towards a United Ireland. The Labour Party has long favoured this outcome, the Conservatives, while posing as Unionists, essentially follow the same policy, 25 years ago John Major said that Britain had no selfish interest in staying in NI. The biggest barrier to a United Ireland is currently the fact that nowhere near a majority of people in NI seem to want it. The latest poll held on 5/4/22 under the joint auspices of the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool and the Irish News (the main Nationalist paper in NI) revealed that 31.9% would currently vote for a UI, this falls to below 25% if people were asked to pay more tax to achieve a UI and even further if it meant having to pay for NHS style healthcare services. People are only too aware that you have to pay both to see a GP and to attend A&E in the Irish Republic.
        We get a big annual bung from the Westminister treasury, more per head than any other part of the UK, over £10 billion and due to rise substantially if the last Autumn statement is to be believed. We have a big public service and an enormous quangocracy for a population of 1.8 million. Many people from a Catholic and erstwhile Nationalist background are employed in these agreeable jobs and might look askance at the inevitable rationalization which would occur post a vote for a UI.. The vote last Thursday revealed that there are still the same number of Nationalists in NI as there were in 1998, the difference being that most have now decided to vote for one party (Sinn Fein), having deserted the other party (the SDLP), who have now fallen below the threshold needed to hold ministerial office.
        I always think the devotion of people in NI to the EU is somewhat exaggerated, I often hear claims that we voted “overwhelmingly” for Remain. In fact of the total electorate, 34% voted Remain, 28% voted Leave and the other 38% didn’t bother to vote

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          The Irish Republic is changing, too, socially, culturally, politically and economically. The traditional parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, which trace their lineage back to the different sides in the civil war are, like the Ulster Unionists declining in support and Sinn Fein in particular is gaining strength based on a distributive socialist policy and the conservative and Conservative influence of the Church is hugely weakened. Many in the Republic probably aspire to the kind of Health Service available in the North. Should the North of Ireland decide to leave the UK, it is entitled, as part of the UK to a share of the UK assets and debts. When The Free State and then the Republic was established the debts were not transferred, partly because it would have further weakened an already feeble economy, which, had it collapsed could have placed a huge economic and social burden on the UK since there was a free travel agreement. Now, perfidious Albion has an infamous record in its treatment of former colonies, but the ruling class has always had a pragmatic aspect (which has enabled it to survive) which means it will choose a least worst option. In addition, The Irish lobby in the US is powerful and wealthy and the EU would certainly not want to create another Greece, especially with the UK leaving and ‘rogue’ elements in Government in states like Hungary and Poland. So, I think your “Project Fear” scenario is not the only one.

        2. Muiris says:

          As the old saying goes ‘there is loyalty to the crown, & loyalty to the half-crown’ (A half-crown was a coin common in my youth worth 12.5p).

          G.P fees in the Republic get a lot of airing, but about 50% of the population have a medical card entitling them to free GP care and (almost) free prescriptions, & free A&E access. Eligibility to a medical card is based on income, or medical need. Access to A&E is free to all, with a G.P. letter (which has been known to be provided retrospectively (This is Ireland, after all)).

          A more important problem has recently arisen, which has bedevilled the NHS for years, is that of G.P access, whether you have a medical card or not, , Eligibility is moot, without availability.

  4. Mark Bevis says:

    The definite good news is that ALL empires come to an end, that is an historical certainty. So the rump British Empire based on colonisation, patriarchy and wealth extraction will cease to be at some point. It is an ex-empire just waiting for those in charge to to stop nailing the corpse of empire to the perch of power (with apologies to Python) And so the Union will end, and it will be considered a good thing for all but those in charge, who will fight the loss of priviledge until the end.

    The trick would be, for those wanting independence and/or break up of the Union, to persuade those in charge and their lackeys in the MSM that they’ll save money by granting independence, and xenophobiaEngland will vote for your independence whether you want it or not. A media campaign a la Brexit that persuades outraged Daily Mail/Express readers that the Union is costing them money, and they’ll be better off money wise without it, is the quickest way to independence for the three nations. The media campaign, like the Brexit campaign, doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be in the “£350-million-a-week-on-the-side-of-a-bus” type of true. I’m sure some cherrypicked statistics could up with some very true figures.

    The only other question now is will the breakup of empire happen before the breakup of civilisation due to Overshoot? Or will the two merge into one great indistinguishable morass?

    For those psychologically prepared for independence, adapting to societal collapse may be easier, and for those psychologically prepared for collapse, independence will occur by default.

  5. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thanks for this potted history and analysis, Mr Hassan.

    A couple of points – “One little known aspect of Northern Ireland’s era of Stormont one-partyism from 1922-72 (when it was first suspended and then abolished) is that the province did not have one person one vote until 1968. That year saw the abolition of the university seats and voting and plural voting for businessmen (always men) alongside widespread voter suppression and gerrymandering to minimise Catholic and nationalist representation.” When I started at Glasgow University in 1966, there were a number of students from the North of Ireland in my Physics and Maths classes. They fitted in well – Glasgow has always had a large number of people from that side of the water. In 1967, we had the Civil Rights Movement and the punitive attacks on marchers by the thuggish B Specials, and this brought the issue of Ireland to the fore in student debates. This was the first time many of us were really aware of the voting system in the north, especially the multiple votes. I remember us being gobsmacked when our fellow students from the North of Ireland defended the system. These young men (and they were all men) were intelligent, articulate, humane, generally good company and here they were defending this system with deep feeling and clear sincerity in their beliefs. Things have changed since these days, but for many people in the rest of the UK recognising that many otherwise respectable people who are unionists hold such views and that these views are deeply held. This is very well and movingly described in the book “Protestant Boy” by Geoffrey Beattie, who is an academic at Leeds University.

    Secondly, in 2016, the North of Ireland voted 55/45 to Remain in the EU. In the recent elections what is usually described by the UK media as the ‘nationalist republican’ parties attained a vote of a little more than 40%. It is reasonable to assume that these voters were substantially pro-Remain, so, even allowing for support by Alliance and other party voters, a fair number of Unionists must have voted Remain. The Northern Ireland Protocol, in effect, keeps the North of Ireland within the EU, with ‘free movement between the North and the Republic. So, the voters of the North of Ireland, unlike us in Scotland who voted 62/38 to Remain, have got what they wanted. But, the unionist parties want the Protocol abrogated unilaterally and thus against the wishes of a majority of the electorate, including some of their historic voting constituency. “All is changed, changed utterly. The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy rules. A terrible beauty is born.”

  6. Gerry Hassan says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments above.

    As we all know there is a widespread denialism in UK elites abt the nature of Northern Ireland, the Irish border and the current state and crises of Northern Ireland and Ulster Unionism.

    Al of this is away to amplify and accelerate in the next week with the much trailed UK Govt action on the N Ireland protocol – which it negotiated and signed with the EU. The UK Govt’s stance seems of a piece of its hard Brexit dogmatism but also its craven nature and appeasement to the worst elements of the DUP. And in this the decline of Ulster Unionism feeds into the debasement and collapse of Tory Unionism – all of which aids the vicious cycle we are witnessing. One thing is for sure it is is going to be a bumpy few years in Northern Ireland – and indeed the UK.

    1. florian albert says:

      ‘The UK Govment’s stance seems of a piece of its hard Brexit dogmatism but also its craven nature and appeasement to the worst elements of the DUP.’

      The DUP’s present anger is because the Johnson government did not appease them. Instead it signed up for a Brexit deal which the DUP, correctly, sees as betraying them. Whether or not the DUP deserved this is a separate matter.

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