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Northern Ireland – anatomy of a double cross


WE IN Northern Ireland chew the bitter cud of what Boris Johnson, rejecting Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, told the Democratic Unionist Party in the formal circumstances of that party’s conference in 2018.

He first thanked conference for allowing him to deliver ‘an absolutely crucial political promise’, then declared: ‘We would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks down the Irish Sea and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland . . . Now, I have to tell you no British Conservative government could or should sign up to anything of the kind.’

With no apparent compunction, he went on to sign up for something very much of the kind and so blithely rent the fabric of the Union. We in Northern Ireland rubbed our eyes before the flagrancy of the double cross sank in.

Goods bound for the Republic of Ireland from GB will be liable for tariffs, perhaps up to 60 per cent of all goods, one expert suggests. Professor Alan Winters adds that ‘the deal is likely to lead to Northern Irish firms re-orientating supply chains away from Great Britain in favour of the Republic of Ireland’. 

The economist Graham Gudgin, while trying to soften the blow for unionists, has admitted that when Northern Ireland businesses need to lobby for changes in regulation, ‘they will need to work with MEPs elected in the Republic of Ireland. The focus of business will thus rotate away from London and towards Dublin’. 

Yes, there will be a confirmatory vote on the arrangement every four years in the Northern Ireland devolved Assembly, if it ever reassembles. Every four years, in other words, unionists and republicans will be at loggerheads in those capacities, though under the flimsiest guise of economic well-being.

What Prime Minister Johnson has done is open a fresh front for Irish republicans, who will now sleeplessly seek the economic unity of Ireland as separate as possible from the UK economy.

Johnson has wounded Northern Ireland as one of the four home nations. In classic western-movie style, the Tories are leaving us a canteen of water, a wad of chewing tobacco and a rusty rifle, while the rest of the UK heads for yonder ridge and safety. And we all know what happens when they disappear beyond the ridge: war-whoops from the direction from which the fleeing came.

Those whoops have grown clamorous of late. Republicans are emboldened as never before, and have managed to contract the distance between nationalism and republicanism, between a politics that can cohabit with unionism, and a separatist ideology that nullifies unionism. Letters of appeal are regularly sent from northern nationalists to Leo Varadkar pleading the cause of a united Ireland – 100 signatories, 200 signatories, 1,000 signatories.

That tongue-tripping phrase, a united Ireland, it is worth remembering, is by definition the amputation of Northern Ireland from the UK. The demand for a border poll grows ever more insistent, so that the constitutional front in this war of attrition is currently deepening.

By contrast with their unionist counterparts, nationalist professors and lecturers are positively baying, lending a juridical veneer to the republican campaign by linking the cause of Northern Ireland sundered from the UK to deprivation of human rights. I asked a leading academic light of this spurious human rights campaign to identify which rights were withheld and from whom, and he failed to adduce a single one connected to a united Ireland.

And as a prong of the same judicial front, there is the battle over the legacy of the Years of Disgrace, known euphemistically as the Troubles. Here, too, republicans have the momentum, determined as they are to seek revenge on the security forces, reconfigure IRA terrorists as victims, and rewrite history, thus making a united Ireland a mere matter of redress for oppression.

And recently the most worrying front since the IRA terror campaign has opened: the demand for an independent Irish Language Act. As a Canadian citizen, I know what lies behind that and what lies before it.

The status of Irish in Northern Ireland, indeed in Ireland, bears no relationship to the status of Welsh or Gaelic in GB. Think Quebec instead, with its ongoing de-Anglicisation, and you will divine where language in the hands of determined nationalists takes us.

I am not suggesting that official bilingualism would give way to unilingualism as it did in Quebec (French-only), but it would be naive to think that Irish would not be used to try to rewrite the present and hibernicise Northern Irish culture to make a united Ireland severed from the UK seem a logical conclusion.

In Northern Ireland anyone anywhere may learn Irish and speak and write it, save in certain legal circumstances. It is a negligible proportion of Irish, north and south, who can understand, let alone speak or write Irish. But it is a formidable weapon in the republican armoury.

I will give Johnson the benefit of the doubt in thinking him ignorant of the synergistic nature of Irish republicanism, though why should he be as a unionist PM?  But it is that synergy that gives his betrayal its apocalyptic note. I doubt if his knowledge would make much difference. For what makes unionists despair is the preference the English show for Irish republicans (whose terrorists warred against them for thirty years) over mere loyal citizens with no charm to their loyalty, only bravery and sacrifice in two world wars.

The Brexit negotiators could have stopped Varadkar in his arrogant tracks by threatening to revoke the Common Travel Area. Is there a name for the practice of blackmailing oneself? If there is, it identifies the English refusal even to appear anti-Irish, let alone take some action that might offend the Irish. It is by this English hang-up that we in Northern Ireland are undone, and Johnson has confirmed it once again.

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John Wilson Foster
John Wilson Foster
Among John Wilson Foster's books are Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (Notting Hill Editions, 2014, New York Review Books, 2017) and The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (co-ed, 2021).

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