by Jonathan Todd
“Before there was a United Nations, before there was a United States, before there was a united anything, there was a United Kingdom.”
Bob Geldof delivered these rousing words to a rally in Trafalgar Square in 2014, organised to encourage Scotland to stay in the UK.
Will #indyref2 also see similar English outpourings of fraternal expression toward Scotland?
There must be more risk this time around that England shrugs its shoulders. Certainly, in the event of a referendum in Northern Ireland on its status within the UK, it is hard to imagine Unionist rallies springing up on mainland Britain.
“Where Scotland is seen to be an opportunity worth holding on to,” writes Kevin Meagher in A United Ireland, why unification is inevitable and how it will come about, “Northern Ireland is quietly regarded as a problem eventually worth jettisoning.”
Britain, as Meagher titles a chapter, is just not that into Northern Ireland. Whatever affinity the English retain for Scotland, it dwarfs Northern Ireland kinship – a place that feels faraway, with alien customs and obsessions.
Opinion in Northern Ireland itself, not on the mainland, will determine its future. Meagher assembles the economic evidence that it would be richer within the Republic of Ireland. And the stark divergence in social attitudes between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. In spite of these economic and social drivers, there remains, of course, a majority community in Northern Ireland defined by loyalty to the UK.
While it is the opinion of these people that will determine Northern Ireland’s future, there may come a time when there is no UK for these people to be loyal to. “The UK is disintegrating,” Meagher claims, “and no one seems equal to the task of stopping it.”
There are some long-term factors in play in this disintegration. The film Brooklyn, released in 2015, depicts 1950s Ireland as closeminded and insular, in contrast to the liberating possibilities of America. I suspect we’ll see fewer films released with these themes during the Trump era. That Ireland, however, speaks to a traditional Unionist fear: absorption into an economically struggling and culturally backward state. As surely as Trump’s America no longer exudes vibrant freedom, Ireland is no more such a backwater. It recently took Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach, to remind Trump of America’s best traditions.
The extent of orange in Kenny’s country is something that I learnt from Meagher. “In a united Ireland, the (Orange) Order would continue to exist and, in all probability, thrive. Already there are parades in the Irish Republic without any problems, like the annual Orange march in Rossnowlagh, County Donegal – the highlight of the Order’s 12 July commemorations in the Republic – which includes representatives from up to fifty lodges from across southern Ireland.” Such examples help sustain the ostensibly oxymoronic potential of Protestant Unionist culture being accommodated within a reunified Irish state.
This reconciliation may be the work of generations but recent events have put turbo busters under UK fragmentation. As Ella Fitzgerald shattered glasses by hitting their resonant frequency, Brexit seems to strike the same chord in the UK.
As much as Theresa May says that politics isn’t a game, you need to be playing some kind of game to tell the UK that Brexit would be bad for it and then seek to implement it. Nicola Sturgeon, arguably, has been more consistent. Only ‘material change’ would justify #indyre2, she said, and it is hard to see Scotland’s exit from the EU as immaterial, while the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland was predicated upon both the UK and Ireland being in the EU. Brexit, therefore, sharpens questions about Northern Ireland’s status – particularly when it is hard to see how the UK can be outside the EU customs union and a border not be re-imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Such is the resonant frequency of Brexit that even a Welsh referendum on their UK status can be floated without immediately appearing wholly implausible.
Being a Unionist and a Brexiteer seems a combustible and ever more contradictory position. Such politicians tell the UK that we can make it harder to trade with our largest trading partner and prosper; and that the UK, in spite of the mounting evidence to the contrary, can hold together after Brexit.
Within two years of triggered Article 50, the UK should leave the EU, which is a large enough window for core Brexiteer views about the UK’s economy and viability as a unified state to be tested. It is not implausible that these tests will be flunked, causing the 48 per cent who opposed Brexit last June to be joined by Leave voters concerned about how Brexit is playing out.
In these circumstances, perhaps some means would be found to revoke Article 50 – which would leave Sturgeon looking for another ‘material change’ and Meagher’s thesis dependent upon only the longer-term drives towards Irish reunification. In other words, if Brexit is avoided, the UK may eventually breakup at some distant point in the future – but the forces pulling the UK apart in the more immediate term would be greatly weakened.
Meagher, in any case, is right that Northern Ireland deserves more considered debate and focus within British politics. He has provided a powerful and highly readable prompt in this direction.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut and is chairing an RSA event on the UK’s future, featuring Kevin Meagher, on Thursday evening at 1000 Trades in Birmingham. Use this link to register for this event.