Northern Irish foes eye common Brexit stance

by Bruce Clark | 05.07.2017

When peace comes to a benighted land after many years of conflict, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the parties have suddenly developed an empathy for one another’s concerns, or an understanding that the disputed land will never flourish unless all parties’ interests are minimally addressed.

Peace of sorts can also come after a stalemate if each party sees more short-term interest in parleying and even working with the other side than in pursuing its own ultimate goals. That roughly describes the sort of peace that has come to Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement of 1998. 

The trouble with that kind of tactical settlement is that the calculus can change. At a certain moment, each party can decide that it has more interest in seeking to achieve its own goals unilaterally than in keeping the peace show on the road. Something like that has happened since the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration and the failure of recent efforts to stitch together a new one.

That does not mean that the region’s rival communities have an interest (except at the margins) in furthering their aims by force. But in the political arena, both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein (respectively the biggest pro-British and Irish-nationalist parties) seem to have decided that there is more to be gained from confrontation than from collaboration.

Consider Sinn Fein first. This party is uniquely adept at switching between the politics of power and patronage and those of grievance and victimhood. If, as a result of the collapse of power sharing, a long period of direct rule over Northern Ireland by London follows, that is by no means a disaster for the Irish-republican movement. At the grassroots of the nationalist community, a sense of anger at being under the heel of an alien Tory government will grow, and Sinn Fein’s electoral fortunes, already quite buoyant, will advance further.

What about the Democratic Unionists? To critics, it will seem that the political deal between the DUP and the Conservatives, lubricated by £1 billion of cash for Northern Ireland, has made the DUP immune to pressure to act constructively. That may not be entirely fair. The deal was long on badly needed money (as even the local Irish nationalists had to acknowledge) and short on concessions to the tribal interests of the Protestant community. In a nice new bit of jargon, it was based on “cash not (orange) sash”.

Another welcome feature of the DUP-Tory deal is that it contained an explicit promise not to undermine the 1998 Good Friday accord. But the hard political fact remains: there is only so much pressure that a large, governing party can put on a smaller party on which it is desperately dependent for survival. No wonder, then, that the two main protagonists in Northern Ireland’s perpetual standoff see little advantage now in compromising, even over relatively manageable issues like the status of the Irish language.

As with many endless squabbles, each reinforces the other with its intransigence. Sinn Fein burnishes its revolutionary credentials not only by battling for the Irish language, but by comparing itself to the DUP’s stubborn philistinism on the language question. And for the DUP, the sight of Sinn Fein on the (metaphorical) war path offers a perfect way of keeping its own troops loyal.

There is one fractionally encouraging development in this gloomy picture: that is the DUP’s evolution from ideological Euroscepticism towards a more pragmatic approach. Back in January, when Theresa May announced her intention of leaving the customs union and single market, Northern Ireland’s Irish-nationalist politicians expressed horror but the immediate DUP reaction was very positive.

The idea of a hardish Brexit chimed with the party’s rose-tinted vision of a United Kingdom standing tall and unshackled in the world. But look at the DUP’s manifesto for the June general election and you will see many signs of the party moving a bit closer to reality. it acknowledges the “challenges” posed by Brexit and suggests many ways to mitigate them. Northern Ireland should seek continued access to certain EU funds; it should demand recognition of the region’s special circumstances (ie, proximity to the Irish republic); it should seek a “frictionless” border and a continuation of the “common travel area” between Ireland and the UK.

It sounds as though the Protestant cattle farmers of Fermanagh have understood more clearly the colossal act of self-harm they were committing when, at the behest of their Unionist political masters, they voted for Brexit. And their political leaders have received that message.

What does this mildly heartening news imply? Well, in the halcyon pre-Brexit days, unionist and nationalist politicians used to work together to secure European largesse for their region. In future, they may work together to limit the damage from Brexit, which they all now acknowledge. Not an ideal political glue, but better than nothing.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley