Peace, Brexit and Irish unity

After two years of direct rule, Paul Dixon looks at the prospects for a resumption of power sharing in Northern Ireland

The European Elections 2019 returned three female MEPs for Northern Ireland. The success of Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, was the most eye-catching result.

The Alliance Party represents the centre ground of Northern Irish politics. The party was formed out of a breakaway from the old, hegemonic Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and other moderates.

This is the party of David Trimble, which went into decline after he supported the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. The UUP was taken over by Ian Paisley’s more hardline – and then anti-peace process – Democratic Unionist party.

In 2007 the DUP signed up for power sharing with Sinn Fein and these two parties have dominated Northern Irish politics ever since.

Peter Hain, Labour’s former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (2005-07), claimed that the triumph of the hardline parties made power sharing more stable. Others criticised the carve up of Northern Irish politics for further reinforcing sectarianism and storing up trouble for the future.

There has been stable but ineffective government in Northern Ireland from 2007 until Martin McGuinness brought down power sharing in January 2017 over a scandal surrounding the ‘Renewable Heating Initiative’. The constitution means that neither side can impose its rule on the other, but this often leads to policy deadlock.

The devolution of justice to Northern Ireland in 2010 was highly sensitive and contentious. The DUP and Sinn Fein, therefore, agreed to the appointment of David Ford, then leader of the Alliance party, as Justice Minister. He was the first local minister to take responsibility for justice since the end of Stormont in 1972.

There are, of course, other issues that divide the DUP and Sinn Fein. These include the Irish language, gay marriage and dealing with the past.

The unexpected vote to leave the European Union in 2016 has further destabilised Northern Irish politics. Northern Ireland voted to Remain (56% to 44%) but the vote went largely but not entirely along sectarian lines as the moderate UUP favoured remain. Nationalists favoured Remain and unionists Brexit.

Some hardline Brexiteers have now claimed that the peace process has run its course and suggested that there should be a return to direct rule from London.

The DUP, however, does not want to end power sharing. But its strong support for Brexit has alienated moderate ‘Catholics’ who, with the Good Friday Agreement compromise, became more reconciled to the Union.

This is a dangerous development for unionism because there may come a point, given demographic changes, where they rely on the support of moderate ‘Catholics’ to achieve a majority to stay in the Union.

Nationalists and Republicans have used the Brexit vote to put Irish unity back on the table by demanding a ‘Border Poll’. They claim that Irish unity is ‘inevitable’ because there will be a Catholic majority.

There have been arguments since partition that economic links meant that Irish unity was inevitable. Churchill believed that this would bring the South back into the Union, while nationalists believed that unionists would see that their interests lay in unity.

The liberalisation of the South is another reason why unionists are less likely to oppose Irish unity in the future. The grip of the Catholic church on the Republic has been damaged by scandal. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is openly gay and has an Indian father.

The outstanding performance of the Irish woman’s hockey team in getting to the World Cup Final in 2018 is also claimed to be evidence of impending unity. Rugby and hockey have always been organised on an all-Ireland basis.

There is, however, little evidence that unionists are becoming more sympathetic to Irish unity. The apparent success of the Celtic Tiger (1993-2001) coincided with unionists voting increasingly for the hardline parties.

The success of the Alliance Party should not be mistaken for a weakening of unionist opposition to Irish unity. This assumption has undermined the moderate parties in the past.

A minority of unionists who voted for Remain and are liberal on social issues voted for the Alliance Party, which has had some success in recent years under the formidable leadership of Naomi Long.

The Good Friday Agreement was an honourable compromise between nationalism and unionism that has probably saved hundreds of lives. But since 2016, Brexit and the collapse of power sharing have once again encouraged those who prefer victory over compromise, moral purity over political accommodation.

Paul Dixon

Paul Dixon is Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London and the author of Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process (Palgrave 2019).

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