The problems facing Unionists in Northern Ireland
Featured image courtesy of Khara Woods via Unsplash.

According to Tom McTague, who writes for The Atlantic, a senior advisor to Theresa May (who was otherwise an admirer of Angela Merkel) was dismayed by the German Chancellor’s attitude to Northern Ireland during the Brexit negotiations. He claimed she could only see “North-South, not East-West”. In other words, she was more preoccupied with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland than she was with the sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The advisor claimed Merkel saw the situation through the prism of her experience of a divided Germany, therefore, viewing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic as just as unnatural as the border between East and West Germany. This may or may not be an accurate reflection of Merkel’s position. But unionists were deeply offended, nonetheless.

But unionists are not just struggling to make their voice heard in Germany. Irish republicanism and Irish nationalism have always had strong allies in the US. The powerful Ways and Means Committee is chaired by Richard Neal, an Irish-American. I expect Joe Biden to remain neutral on the subject of a united Ireland, but it is clear that he is extremely proud of his Irish Catholic ancestry. Even though there are millions of Americans with English and Scotch-Irish (descended from Ulster-Scots) ancestry, unionism has never had the same clout as Irish nationalism on the other side of the Atlantic. 

With Brexit causing mayhem in Northern Ireland, and the polls slowly but surely narrowing, a united Ireland is looking increasingly likely. Either way, both unionists and the British government must start asking themselves why it has been so difficult to make a compelling case for Northern Ireland as part of the UK.  

I would argue that the key problems are historical and cultural. The Irish have historically been the victims of British colonialism and given that much of the world was colonised by Britain, it is unsurprising that there would be more sympathy internationally for republicanism than for unionism. Many Americans (as well as Brits) have ancestors who fled the Great Famine of 1845-1852. In more recent history, Catholics in Northern Ireland suffered institutionalised discrimination in terms of housing, education, employment and a gerrymandered voting system, which was rigged against Catholic voters. 

Furthermore, the Irish struggle has been the subject of world-famous poets such as Seamus Heaney, and other Irish literary giants. Therefore, Irish nationalism is romantic to many people in a way that unionism simply is not. 

Another problem for unionists is the lack of interest in the rest of Britain, and particularly England, for their cause. There is no more egregious example of this than Boris Johnson selling out the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over the Northern Irish protocol. The result was effectively a customs border in the Irish Sea, which has led to empty shelves in the province. Furthermore, the Irish government paid for journalists from around the world to go on holiday in Ireland to increase the country’s’ soft power. Neither Johnson nor May did anything similar. 

However, it is not just Boris Johnson who seems to be extremely cavalier about the future of the United Kingdom. A now infamous poll of Conservative Party members suggested that most of them thought that losing Northern Ireland (and Scotland) would be a price worth paying for Brexit. Furthermore, a recent poll in the Sunday Times revealed that only thirty per cent of English voters would be upset by Irish reunification. Twenty per cent said they would be pleased, and thirty-seven per cent said they were indifferent. This is a huge headache for the DUP and other unionists.  

Moreover, the concept of ‘Britishness’ is increasingly under strain. More than twenty polls in a row suggest that most Scots now favour independence, support for Welsh independence is rising, (especially among the young), and there is growing debate about what England might look like after the dissolution of the Union. It is, therefore, far from clear whether the country that unionists claim to be so attached to will even exist in a few years’ time.

Another obstacle that faces the unionist cause is, I am afraid, the unionists (and in particular the DUP) themselves. The DUP, the most prominent voice of unionism, seem unable to think strategically, which was perhaps best exemplified in their support for Brexit. Whatever you think the pros and cons of leaving the EU are, it is undeniable that from the point of view of either a nationalist or a unionist, it risked jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement. And the consequences of customs checks in the Irish Sea are now clear. The DUP’s support for Brexit also means they have few friends in Europe. Contrastingly, membership of the European Union and the European family is central to modern Irish identity.  

Furthermore, the DUP has socially conservative views on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. These views may be representative of some in Northern Ireland (and it is therefore right that they have a voice), but certainly not all. They also sit uneasily with the views of many in the rest of the UK and Western Europe. In contrast Scottish unionism found a more modern and progressive voice in the form of Ruth Davidson; Irish unionism has no equivalent. They have made themselves look regressive and inward-looking, especially to young people. 

If unionism is to make a more compelling case at home and abroad, both the British government and the DUP must invest as much in diplomacy as the Irish government has. But the DUP and other unionists should also look at themselves and consider whether they should start building a movement that makes them more appealing to young people in Northern Ireland, as well as to the rest of the world.