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The break-up of Britain

Last month Lord Ashcroft published the results of his latest poll regarding the Irish national question, finding that a slight majority of Northern Ireland voters are in favour of a united Ireland. This is the latest in a string of polls to have indicated a significant increase in support for Irish unity since the Brexit referendum of 2016, and follows a similar Ashcroft poll released in August which revealed that a majority would vote for Scottish independence in the event of #IndyRef2. Over forty years after Tom Nairn prophesised the break-up of Britain in his classic study of neo-nationalism and post-imperial decline, that eponymous break-up has fast become a credible prospect.

The single biggest factor explaining the growth in support for Irish unity is the resurgent anger and militancy of a nationalist middle class who had hitherto reconciled themselves to remaining as part of the UK for an indefinite period, but are now anxious about the impact of Brexit on the border, the economy, their material interests and their rights as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). These anxieties are closely linked with a deep frustration around the lack of substantive political progress on addressing the legacy of the Troubles and issues of identity and cultural expression. The DUP in particular has done much to antagonise this section of nationalism by reneging on the commitment to an Irish language act, adopting a hardline position on Brexit and engaging in corrupt practices while in government. In this context and in the absence of functioning devolved institutions, increasing numbers of nationalists in the North have begun to turn away from the GFA and towards ‘new constitutional horizons’ on the island. A gathering of 1,500 ‘civic’ and ‘political’ nationalists at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in January of this year, convened to discuss Ireland’s future ‘beyond Brexit’, was a powerful demonstration of the depth of sentiment among these constituencies. Since then they have continued to organise around their support for unity and the need for a strategy to achieve it, hosting and participating in a range of panel debates, discussions and seminars on the theme of a border poll and new Ireland.

Support for a united Ireland has also received a boost from those secular, liberal Unionists and new communities who are enthusiastically pro-Remain and alienated by the DUP’s denial of equal marriage and abortion rights for women. Among these the constituency of new and existing Alliance Party voters which, Henry Patterson argues, has ‘an objective interest in the continuation of the Union but … no desire to be bothered by rowdy debates about the national question’. Successive polls have indicated that these sections of society wish to remain within the UK and EU but may be inclined to vote for a united Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit. Indeed, in the recent Ashcroft poll, 57% of those who identified as having ‘no religion’ said that they would vote for Northern Ireland to join with the Republic of Ireland if a border poll were to be held tomorrow.

Credit: Brian M. Lucey

Existing support for unity among middle class nationalism is largely contingent upon the hardest of hard Brexits and absence of a positive transformation of the political situation in Northern Ireland. It is possible that the slight majority in favour of a united Ireland would become a minority if a soft Brexit is delivered. At the time of writing, Boris Johnson’s minority government is without a viable alternative to the backstop, having reportedly proposed a politically toxic plan to introduce ‘customs clearance zones’ on both sides of the border. But it is also clear that for all of his talk about a ‘do or die’ Brexit, Johnson wishes to escape with a deal that will scrape through Parliament. Such rhetoric and drastic gestures therefore have to be understood as part of a strategy to come back with a reheated version of May’s deal at the eleventh hour and cajole enough MPs Tory Brexiteers, Labour MPs and the DUP into backing it.

Regardless of the immediate outcome of this process, the current political and constitutional crisis affecting the British state is likely to continue unbated, with the effect of hastening the decay of an increasingly disunited kingdom. #IndyRef2 may be around the corner, with SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon offering Corbyn a general election deal in return for a second referendum. The granting of such a referendum would only strengthen the case for a border poll in Ireland; a vote for Scottish independence would almost surely guarantee the same outcome in a referendum on Irish unity.

Even in the most propitious circumstances, political Unionism faces an uphill struggle to safeguard Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK. The crisis of the North’s political process runs much deeper than Brexit: two decades of devolution have done little to breed confidence that the GFA, though it has curtailed the violence, is the mechanism through which the region’s social, economic and conflict-related challenges can be resolved. The DUP in particular have expended a lot of goodwill with everyone but a core constituency of voters who continue to see them as a bulwark against Sinn Féin and the prospect of nationalist gain. Demographic trends meanwhile are headed in the direction of a Catholic majority, which will ultimately tip the scales in favour of reunification.

Demographics aside, it’s possible that the historians will look back on the current moment as the point at which things changed irrevocably in favour of new constitutional and political arrangements. The two dominant forces in Irish politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have for decades adopted a partitionist approach to nationalism and baulked at the prospect of a united Ireland – but are now talking as if it is an inevitability. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, has gone on record several times to voice this opinion, whilst arguing that ‘increasingly you’ll see liberal protestants, liberal unionists starting to ask the question as to where they feel more at home.’ It is clear that bourgeois Irish nationalisms, north and south, have become more closely aligned as a result of Brexit, while the liberalisation of the southern state means that a united Ireland is no longer such a daunting prospect for the more agnostic sections of Unionism. Increasingly, it looks like it will be these forces, rather than Sinn Féin, who will usher in a ‘new’ Ireland.

The one positive outcome of the Brexit debacle is that it has opened up a debate and encouraged people to imagine new possibilities. The focus of these conversations has been on the economy, health and education, climate breakdown and the accommodation of competing identities and diverse cultural traditions within any new dispensation. There is now growing acknowledgement of the real and genuine concerns among the Unionist community, although it is less clear how these fears might be addressed or, crucially, how working-class Unionists could be engaged in the struggle over what might replace the divisive political system and inequitable social order that is currently in place. A real challenge lies ahead in creating the conditions where the sense of loss and having been left behind is no longer widespread in working-class Unionist areas, where zero-sum fears of nationalist gain are eroded and issues of identity and cultural expression are no longer a source of open conflict. The persistent contours of a ‘culture war’ around flags, parades and bonfires in these areas, coupled with the threat of loyalist paramilitary violence, indicates something of the scale of the challenge that will need to be addressed. In large part this will come down to political Unionism exhibiting better leadership, but advocates of Irish unity also have a huge responsibility to engage with Unionist concerns in a spirit of generosity and humility.

On the other hand, there remains the challenge of militant Irish republicanism. Against the toxic backdrop of social deprivation, political instability and unresolved policing-related problems, groups such the New IRA and Continuity IRA are continuing to organise among traditional republican families and the marginalised youth of working-class districts. The wrong-headed and self-defeating pursuit of armed struggle as a principle has been escalated in the context of Brexit, with instances of orchestrated violence in response to police searches and a series of attempted attacks on security targets. Saoradh, the organisation widely believed to be the political wing of the New IRA, has repeatedly welcomed Brexit as a ‘huge opportunity’ to recruit young people into armed resistance against the British state, and vowed to exploit a hard border to consolidate support for its strategy. Any physical manifestation of the border in the form of increased security or customs infrastructure would not only result in grassroots civil disobedience but provide targets for armed republican groups.

A return to the violence of old is unlikely. The main threat of loyalist violence comes from rogue factions who do not necessarily carry the imprimatur of their respective parent organisations, do not enjoy widespread community support or have the backing of the British security forces that sustained them in the past. On the republican side, On the republican side, the issue here is not only one of limited capacity but also the fact that there is no real appetite for a renewal of the ‘armed struggle’. If anything, the community’s response to the death of Lyra McKee demonstrates the strength of opposition to the activities of those claiming the mantle of the IRA. More broadly, despite the obvious challenges the lie ahead, the nationalist/republican community is brimming with confidence, understanding that the peaceful path to a united Ireland is clearer than ever.

That is not to be complacent, however. In different ways, the experience of Brexit and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum drive home the necessity of having a plan to discuss, debate and vote on. They also emphasise the need for the ‘winners’ to continue reaching out to the ‘losers’ long after the result has been secured. Even Gerry Adams now concedes that: ‘A referendum without a plan is stupid. So a referendum on unity must be set in a thoughtful inclusive process which sets out a programme of sustainable options. Including phases of transition.’ It may be some time before a border poll is held, but avoiding a chaotic and violent transition to a new Ireland will require lateral thinking in all quarters and earnest engagement with those at the margins of society. 


Seán Byers works for Trademark Belfast, a trade union based organisation focused on anti-sectarianism, political education and post-conflict transformation.