Northern Ireland at the crossroads

News this morning is that the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, led by the province’s chief minister, Arlene Foster, is to support legal action challenging the provisions relating to Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement between Britain and the European Union.

Readers will probably remember that Northern Ireland occupied a central place in the back and forth over Brexit in the last three years or so. Ireland, as an EU member, wanted to preserve its open border with the north; Britain, naturally enough, wanted to preserve frictionless trade between the different parts of the United Kingdom. The impossibility of leaving the EU while satisfying both was a rock that threatened to wreck the Brexit project.

In October 2019 Boris Johnson secured the withdrawal agreement by giving up the second objective, effectively conceding that there would be customs controls on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Last year he tried to backtrack on that, but gave up the attempt in order to secure a trade agreement with the EU.

Then the EU shot itself in the foot, as it often does, by trying to go back on the Northern Ireland provisions itself as part of its efforts to control the export of coronavirus vaccines. It quickly backed down, at the cost of considerable damage to its moral high ground – the Irish government was particularly appalled. Britain and the EU went back to their apparently endless negotiations, with Johnson and the Brexiters seeking new ways in which they could have their cake while also eating it.

But it’s the reaction within Northern Ireland that matters most. That’s because the British government has already committed itself to abiding by the province’s own decisions as to its future. In a series of guarantees dating back to 1920 it promised that Northern Ireland would never be ceded to the republic without its own consent, and the Northern Ireland Act of 1998, which implemented the Good Friday agreement, not only repeated that promise but made it reciprocal: if Northern Ireland votes for reunification, the British government is pledged to seeking an agreement with Ireland to give effect to it.

For many decades, Irish unity has been a talisman rather than a serious political project. But Brexit has changed the situation, perhaps irreversibly. For the nationalists it has been a huge morale boost, giving them a simple selling point. For the unionists, however, it has been a disaster. A customs border in the Irish Sea means a Northern Ireland that no longer functions like an integral part of the UK; a customs border between north and south means a constant reminder of the costs of partition and the benefits of reunification.

Yet it has to be one or the other. As I put it last September:

The truth is, however, that as long as Ireland remains in the EU (and it shows not the slightest sign of wanting to leave), Brexit is a losing proposition for the Unionists either way. If Britain leaves the customs union and the single market, there are going to have to be customs checks somewhere; if they’re not in the Irish Sea, they’ll be on the land border in Ireland.

In the past it was usually the Catholic community in the north that was more divided: some were committed nationalists, but many told pollsters that if asked they would vote to stay in the UK. Now, it’s the Protestant community that is torn. Some are committed Brexiters, but others care more about the economic damage than about their historical or emotional ties to London.

Foster and the DUP are doubling down on the pro-Brexit strategy, trying to push Johnson into tearing up his own agreement with the EU. It’s easy to see how that could backfire on them very badly. The EU is not going to give up control of its own borders, and if the result is a trade war between it and Britain, Northern Ireland will be caught in the crossfire. Many of Foster’s constituents will start to think that reunification with the republic might be the lesser evil.

Nor, when the chips are down, will the DUP be likely to get the same backing from the Conservative Party that it could once rely on. A century ago, unionism was fundamental to its makeup; no doubt it still has some sentimental appeal. But if the troublesome Northern Irish seem to be threatening the success of their prized withdrawal project, most of the Brexiters will cut the province loose with barely a second thought.

Sinn Féin, on the other hand, has spent most of its existence tagged as unrealistic romantics, hopelessly out of touch with the spirit of the times. Now they’re the ones that finally seem to have a grip on political reality.

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