Growing up in South Derry in the Sixties & Seventies I remember a business owned by a strongly loyalist family. They were and still are based in a Protestant village. I say ‘Protestant’ because there wasn’t a Catholic about the place.
Many years later I was driving along side one of this firm’s large trucks. They obviously had come a long way since the Sixties. I realised just how far when I saw on the side of their truck that this business wasn’t just based in the staunchly Protestant village any longer. They had expanded. They had offices in Dublin.
At first I was amazed, having known the owner of the business in the 70s. Back then such a development would have been unthinkable. The business would have been burnt to the ground if they had done business with the popish south. Then Dublin was the capital city of an enemy nation. No self-respecting Loyalist went there. The border wasn’t just ‘hard’, it represented the limit of the civilised world. Middle-class Protestants went there on holiday or to rugby matches for the craic, but not to do business or, if they did, they kept it quiet. They certainly didn’t advertise it on the side of trucks.
It brought home to me just how much things had changed. It wasn’t a superficial change confined to liberal West Brits in North Down, it went right into the heartland of Protestant Ulster. Business was global now and to turn a coin even good Protestants had to move with the times. The old ways were gone. It was the EU now and there was money to be made. Better that ‘us’uns’ made it, than ‘them’uns’.
Recently I lived in another Protestant village in North Antim. I discovered that several families had sons and daughters living and working across the border. Nobody got at them when they came home. It was accepted that they had to go where the work was.
So when the DUP didn’t insist on a hard border after the Brexit vote I remembered that Protestant business with offices in Dublin and understood what was at work in 2017.
SNATCHING DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY
Tactically the DUP could have seized the opportunity of the Brexit vote to insist on a hard border; especially as they came to hold the balance of power in Westminster. That would have meant that the UK could have exited the EU cleanly. It would also have devastated the Irish economy, dependent as it is on trade with the UK and wrecked the Good Friday Agreement: so a win/win for hardline unionists, like the DUP.
I imagined that when unionists celebrated the Brexit vote in June 2016 that this is what they had in mind. They claimed that Brexit finished any aspirations of a united Ireland. The only way this could be so was if the border would once again be a hard border.
But the DUP chose not to insist on a hard border. They joined with nationalist Ireland in pushing for a ‘frictionless border’ to enable trade and communication.
The reason the DUP did this was because so many of their voters now depended on close relations with the south, like the business I knew in South Derry. The ‘material well being’ of Ulster that the Ulster Covenant of 1912 talked about was still motivating unionists.
But where does that concession leave unionism now?
THE ALL-ISLAND ECONOMY
According to the agreement reached between the UK and the EU (including Ireland) on December 8 and supported by the DUP:
‘The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border………………In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.’ (JOINT REPORT FROM THE NEGOTIATORS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION AND THE UNITED KINGDOM GOVERNMENT) [my emphasis].
Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar during his press conference after the negotiations said:
“We have achieved all that we set out to achieve. Parameters have been set and they are good.”
“There will be no hard border – no physical infrastructure, related checks or controls”
“Northern Ireland, and perhaps all of the UK, will maintain full alignment with the rules of the internal market and Customs Union which are relevant to the avoidance of a border, north-south cooperation and the all-island economy.” [my emphasis].
PARTITION DOESN’T MEAN PARTITION
By making a conscious choice not to demand the same hard border their grandparents demanded one hundred years ago – the champions of Protestant Ulster, the inheritors of Ian Paisley’s legacy, who vanquished Big House unionism because of their ‘lundyism’ – the DUP have formally accepted that partition doesn’t mean partition. The DUP have accepted that there is a now only a virtual border and an ‘all-island economy’ because many unionists – their supporters – are now part of that economy and to oppose this development would be jeopardise unionist livelihoods.
There was a time when any unionist making such a compromise would have been excoriated by the DUP. There would be mass protests and the wearing of smart red berets on hillsides. But there wasn’t a whisper of protest from any unionist quarter because the DUP have vanquished all other unionist voices. They now control the future of unionism. The cruel irony and even crueller deceit of their supporters is, that after long years of bitter protest, the DUP are moving Northern Ireland into a closer harmony with Ireland while still peddling traditional unionist rhetoric.
It could be argued that all the DUP are doing is recognising what had already been put in place in the Good Friday Agreement in terms of all-island structures and north-south cooperation – even though they made their name in opposing such arrangements.
But the real game changer in this latest agreement that the DUP has been instrumental in introducing, not just into Irish affairs, but into British affairs as well, is ‘full alignment’ and with it the radical rearrangement of the UK’s Brexit strategy. Through the DUP, the UK will not now be able to exit the EU cleanly as its government (prominently supported by the DUP) once hoped.
At the DUP’s insistence, in order to avoid divergence for Northern Ireland from the UK’s economy after Brexit, ‘the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.’ (JOINT REPORT FROM THE NEGOTIATORS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION AND THE UNITED KINGDOM GOVERNMENT)
Leaving aside the further irony that arch-Brexiteers such as the DUP, have managed to undermine the UK’s Brexit strategy, this ‘sensible Brexit’ (as the DUP describe it) will require the UK to implement the very EU legislation it sought to escape, only this time the UK will have no input to the formulation of these laws. In effect the UK will not have the control over its economy it sought with Brexit and its economy will be harmonised with Ireland’s in areas ‘relevant to the avoidance of a border’.
This agreement was forced on the UK government by the DUP to save its face in Northern Ireland where it had pledged that there would be no ‘special status’ for the province. Through its influential position with the Tory government, the DUP have seen to it that ‘special status’ has been imposed on the entire UK so that it can claim that there is no divergence of Northern Ireland from Britain.
This is an unprecedented development. Through the centuries of dominating the Irish, the British have always been very careful to keep its affairs very separate from Ireland’s, both north and south. Now the two are entwined like never before thanks to the DUP.
IS THE UNION WORTH IT?
It should be obvious that this enforced Irish harmonisation of Britain presents an unprecedented risk to the union. The DUP has inextricably linked the union with Brexit.
There is a great danger that those in Britain who believed that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ will be brought to see that if they want a real Brexit they must sever the connection with the entire island of Ireland.
In addition, a broader constituency of those who were lukewarm on Brexit, but who have a clear understanding of democratic principles, will see that the worst of all worlds has been achieved. They will see that because of the link with the north of Ireland, Britain’s freedom of action as a sovereign state has been compromised in ways that cannot be accurately predicted. Outside the EU Britain will now be forced to adapt many of its laws without any control over the nature of EU directives; all to placate ten MPs who are not even elected in Britain.
At its most fundamental the DUP are unintentionally posing a question to the British people:
How important is the union to you?
What will the DUP do if Britain responds to their question that this union brings the UK only trouble and no benefit?
I remember back in the late seventies when Paisley was directing his trademark vitriol against the English Direct Rule ministers of the time (people forget how opposed unionists of all types were to direct rule), Gerry Adams commented wryly, ‘Wolfe Tone is alive and well in the DUP.’
It has taken a while, but Adams was right. It seems that the DUP have finally been ensnared by the karma of their ancestors.
Will the DUP become United Islandmen?