THE Union is in the wars, again. Once a subject of marginal interest outside the Celtic fringe, it is front and centre stage of politics these days. The effects of the disastrous Northern Irish Protocol continue to ripple outwards, causing huge problems for internal UK trade; in Scotland the SNP run rampant, on course easily to win the forthcoming elections to Holyrood which they seek to use as a springboard for another referendum on independence. Meanwhile in the Union camp all seems to be in disarray: David Frost replacing the more emollient Michael Gove as the so-called ‘Minister for Brexit’ to try to smooth the rougher edges of the Northern Irish Protocol, and an adviser on Union strategy quitting in high dudgeon after only two weeks in the job. In the short term, there seems no coherent strategy to avoid the break-up of the UK.
Longer term, though, there are considerable reasons to be cheerful, albeit cautiously so. Assuming we can overcome our current travails (a big assumption, you might say), the signs are that the Union may have an exciting future. It will be changed, certainly, probably radically so, but it will prevail.
In this first of two blogs on the future of Unionism, we will be discussing the prospects for Northern Ireland. As we all know, Boris Johnson could only tweak Theresa May’s catastrophic deal, with the province remaining within the single market and subject to many EU customs rules, but still in a customs union with the UK. It is certainly not what any Orange-blooded Unionist wanted, and the economic problems it is causing are well documented. However, whether by accident or design (probably accident) it has had the side-effect of making Ulster a magnet for investment: as the sainted Ruth Dudley Edwards writes, Belfast is rediscovering its proud engineering tradition and is a start-up tech hotspot. On top of that is the exciting proposal for a Larne-Stranraer rail tunnel. Predictably the scheme has been labelled ‘unicorn thinking’, not least by the usual Brexit-hating suspects. Perhaps it will prove to be so, but to be fair, whatever Boris Johnson’s failings as a leader this is precisely the kind of can-do, big picture scheme that he loves and could indeed pull off. It would have considerable benefits, strengthening the Union and perhaps leading to a revival of a variant of the ‘Central Railway’ project, allowing Belfast to compete as a port for transatlantic trade. Plainly such big infrastructure projects take decades to build and won’t alleviate the current difficulties, but they would be important in providing a sense of vision and progress in a province that has tragically lacked both for a very considerable time.
Anyone who has visited Ulster can attest that it has much to commend it. The scenery, say along the Antrim coast road or the loughs of Fermanagh, is as beautiful as any in the kingdom, housing is astonishingly cheap and Belfast is a fine city. It goes without saying that Ulster is a more socially conservative society with very low crime rates and higher rates of church attendance. However, that doesn’t mean it would necessarily be alienating for young urban hipsters: some areas such as that bastion of Orangeism, East Belfast, are rapidly gentrifying. Now that the horrors of ‘The Troubles’ are fading into memory and in an age where distance matters less than it did, given economic opportunity it is not hard to see how it could prove a magnet, particularly for the young wanting a slice of the start-up action or for families priced out of the rest of the country and looking for a better quality of life. At least for a time, such immigration from the rest of the UK would probably provide a demographic ballast for unionism without the sectarian baggage of the past.
It is greatly to be hoped that Ulster will seize this surely final chance to forge a new and outward-looking identity. With the Republic still shackled to the moribund EU, if Ulster seizes the day a United Ireland will look less and less attractive to the centrist voters who will prove vital in any border poll. Only the naïve would suggest that its cold sectarian hatreds will ever disappear, but the future may nonetheless be a bright one, if neither entirely Orange nor entirely Green. That is probably the best outcome any unionist could realistically hope for as the wafer-thin Protestant majority passes into history, and one that would ultimately be better for its people, both unionist and nationalist, overall.
Will Ulster Unionism seize the opportunity? Admittedly the historical portents are not exactly encouraging: time and again throughout its history it has rejected sensible progress in favour of the politics of ‘Not an Inch’ and ‘No Surrender’. Ulster Protestants reply to this criticism, with some justice: ‘We wouldn’t have a siege mentality if they’d lift the bloody siege.’ Well, despite the problems with the Northern Irish Protocol, Ulster Unionism has one final, glorious chance to break the siege itself. It must take it.