The Irish elephant in the room

An episode of the Morecambe & Wise Show from 1968, thought to be lost, was discovered recently in Sierra Leone and screened on Boxing Day. It included a lengthy sketch in which the IRA was treated as something close to a pantomime joke. It is safe to say that this sketch could not have been written or broadcast even two years later, which is a useful reminder of how quickly things can change. As they are changing now.  

When Britain voted to leave the EU, there was a lively debate as to whether this could mean the break-up of the UK. What the debaters had in mind was a fresh vote on Scottish independence, with a different outcome. I don’t remember anyone asking whether the break-up of the UK might instead be brought about through a united Ireland, following a referendum there. Despite the fact that Northern Ireland has been at or near the top of the political agenda for well over a year, still no one appears to be asking the question. Why not?

Politics, is the answer. The Conservative government is desperate to avoid the issue as it depends (albeit tenuously) on the DUP for its majority, and has established itself over many decades as the party of the Union. Labour is equally desperate to avoid the issue because it would like us to forget Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong support for Sinn Fein, and fears that raising the issue of a united Ireland would revive those memories and lose it votes.

Among people that I talk to – whom I would not claim are representative of Britain as a whole, but who are not entirely monolithic in terms of age and politics – there is a near unanimity in favour of a united Ireland, not only in principle (a feeling which has perhaps existed for some while) but now in practice too. I know many people who have been staunch Conservatives all their lives, but who believe that the time has come for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and become part of the Republic.

This may seem like a seismic change, but arguably it is at least in part a reversion to what many people on the mainland were starting to feel before the IRA’s terror campaign provoked a backlash in favour of the Union.

Northern Ireland is an extraordinary case, politically. In almost every other part of the world (including the Republic of Ireland), former colonies fought to achieve independence from the imperial power. In Northern Ireland, though, the majority fought, or threatened to fight, to resist independence, and indeed to become part of the imperial power. When the Republic of Ireland was established in 1922, it was not Britain that tried to exempt the north from independence. For the entire period of Britain’s colonisation of Ireland, all the way through the abortive Home Rule reforms of the 1880s, all the way through to 1922, Westminster treated Ireland as one country. It was the Unionists in the north who demanded it be treated as two. Their threat of violence and civil war forced Britain (and the Republic) to acquiesce in a divided Ireland.

Anyone’s view on partition can only be personal and subjective. My own feeling is that the timing of Irish independence made partition inevitable, in a way it might not have been in the 1880s. Northern Irish troops fought with conspicuous bravery and loss of life in World War I. How, in its aftermath, would it have been emotionally possible for a British government to have expelled the province from the UK against its wishes? Also, it is easy to sympathise with the extreme anxiety of Protestants at the prospect of becoming a minority in a Catholic Ireland which, at the time, had most of the characteristics of a medieval theocracy.

But that was then and this is now. World War I is a century distant: courage is eternal, but the emotions are less immediate. The Republic has decisively repudiated its theocratic past. The Unionists forfeited their claim to sympathy by, for many decades, treating the Catholic minority in the North in exactly the way they feared that the South would treat them. While they did so, the British Government looked away and did nothing. One form of bigotry and intolerance replaced the prospect of another.

For a time, these feelings were in abeyance while the IRA waged its war of terror. Now, they are back in force, exacerbated by the conduct of the DUP in the past two years. Most people in Northern Ireland may still want the province to be part of the UK, but does the UK want Northern Ireland to be part of it? Almost certainly not, I would say. In which case, a Brexit that treats the province as being constitutionally different is a step in the right direction.

The Good Friday agreement states that, for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join the Republic, a simple majority of its citizens needs to vote for it in a referendum. A valid poll “shall” be ordered by the British government “if at any time it appears likely … that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

Right now, this condition is probably not fulfilled. But Brexit has made the position a great deal more fluid. In October 2017, a poll in Northern Ireland found that 62% were in favour of having a referendum on a united Ireland within the next ten years. The same poll found that 55% would vote to remain within the UK, while 34% would vote to leave, with 10% undecided. (Amongst 18-44 year-olds, 56% would vote to leave.) This already represents a substantial shift from the situation before the EU referendum. Who knows what the position might be now, just a year or so later, with all that has happened in recent months and with the DUP blackballing a Brexit deal that most people across the spectrum in Northern Ireland appear to support?

Little if any of this is being debated in the mainstream British media. Neither is there any mention these days of the fact that the power-sharing executive collapsed nearly two years ago and that nothing appears to be happening either to revive it or to replace it. Yet again, Britain is displaying a staggering indifference to what happens in Northern Ireland, except insofar as it affects its own direct interests.

Maybe some acceptable form of Brexit will be achieved. Maybe these issues will then simmer down. Maybe Sinn Fein and the DUP will then find a way to resume the power-sharing executive. But it would be unwise to bet on any of these things. However much Britain would like to turn its back on the province again, a united Ireland is now on the agenda in a way it has not been for a century.

Then, the rallying cry in the North was “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right.” It remains to be seen, next time, whether Ulster will fight or not. If it does, it won’t be right, and most people in Britain will almost certainly not support it.