LADIES and gentlemen, we are now landing at Belfast City airport. May I remind you to turn your watches back . . . to 1689.
It’s an old joke, but it summed up the exasperation the ‘mainland’ once felt towards Ulster, riven by sectarian strife the rest of the country had long left behind. Even before ‘the Troubles’, Northern Ireland was regarded as politically a strange and backward place: although its majority Protestant culture was internally highly democratic, centuries of sectarian strife and, perhaps, the Calvinist belief in being of God’s elected meant that Protestants were less than willing to extend the same rights to Catholics. A notorious boundary-rigging known as the ‘derrymander’ continuously returned a Unionist majority in very Catholic Londonderry, and an archaic local government voting system discriminated against the poor in general and Catholics indirectly. Northern Ireland was not, as republicans claim, akin to South Africa, but it was very definitely a cold house for Catholics, governed by a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’.
Irish nationalism could be little better: the Republic still laid claim to Northern Ireland, and many nationalists refused to accept that unionists had a legitimate right to their identity, insisting that they were exclusively Irish: it was all a matter of British colonialism, and unionists were merely suffering a ‘false consciousness’ that would soon disappear once the Brits were kicked out. In short, Ireland continued to suffer from two very different and incompatible concepts of what the legitimate demos, or people, were.
How times change. Whereas once Westminster MPs made sporadic attempts to pressure Ulster Unionists to adopt ‘British standards’ of democracy, now it is the fire-breathing DUP that has done most during these past three long, tortuous years to uphold those same principles. Meanwhile Westminster engages in anti-democratic outrages – attempts to cancel democracy entirely – that would make even the most bone-headed No Surrender Unionist blanch. Although thankfully the situation has not spiralled down into widespread violence, sectarian division is rife throughout the land: once it was bigoted Ulster that frowned on inter-faith relationships, now Remainers and to a lesser extent Leavers profess the same disdain.
Neither side seems to understand the other, or really want to. Like most Leavers, I have been aghast at the absolute ferocity and ruthlessness that ultra-Remainers have exhibited in their attempts to cancel Brexit, which plumbed new depths last week, while protesting that they are defending democracy. Their actions seem to be based on the most monstrous hypocrisy, arrogance and moral corruption, spurred on by base and venal motivations as well as wounded pride.
But what if it goes much deeper? For years elite liberals were accused of having a condescending attitude to those they regard as their inferiors, but it was always assumed that we shared the same national space. Are they now instead part of a completely new demos, even perhaps part of a wholly new concept of what a nation is? In a hyper-connected world, where we all lead ‘amphibious’ lives often more virtual than real, perhaps to the new elites their network, their connections and the international institutions they control have become their nation: Liberalism is its faith, and they are the new elect. The views of heretical leavers simply do not count, for they belong to a different, backward, threatening and alien world.
Leavers like me, are, I fear, every bit as delusional. Our attitude is quite similar to those of previous generations of Irish nationalists: this strange, stubborn Remainer fanaticism is surely nothing more than ‘false consciousness’, and they’ll soon come to their senses once the sundering of their precious union is achieved. They will soon feel British once again.
Perhaps, but perhaps not. It may well have been possible once, if a quick and relatively orderly exit from the EU had been achieved after the referendum. Now, attitudes have crystallised to an adamantine hardness. The horrible truth maybe is that what we are facing in the UK is the long-term Ulsterisation of our politics: the appearance of two tribes, with quite distinct and incompatible concepts of what the legitimate demos constitutes. My fellow TCW blogger Paul T Horgan is right: long after Brexit, ‘Remain’ will remain.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now landing at London Heathrow airport. May I remind you to turn your watches back . . . to 2016.