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Unionist Intransigence in Northern Ireland

ionism in Northern Ireland    Gerry OShe Not-an-Inch Un a

 Intransigence  is the guiding principle and predictable tactic of Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland. Their many victories over the years have convinced the leadership in that community that their "not an inch" political philosophy can transfer successfully to the current major Brexit crisis.

More than a hundred years ago when a Home Rule Bill was finally passed in Westminster, Loyalists in Belfast rejected the decision of parliament, armed a hundred thousand in their community and successfully defied the British government.

Next, seeing as they wouldn't accept a parliament in Dublin, they decided to partition the country and set up a government of their own in Belfast. They wanted control over the province of Ulster but they feared that nationalist majorities in counties Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan would make their plan impractical, so they settled for a six-county statelet.

They set up a governing system in the North that favored the Loyalist community in every seat of power in the new entity. Their people got preferential treatment in housing and jobs. Members of the other tribe, nationalists, Catholics, were left to pick up the crumbs from the floor.

In 1973, the Sunningdale Agreement, negotiated between the two sovereign governments in London and Dublin, was brought down by the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) strike. The agreement had set up a power-sharing government - a major positive change involving for the first time formal co-operation between the elected representatives of both communities, nationalist and unionist.

The Loyalist leaders claimed this arrangement constituted an unjustified concession to nationalists, so they summoned their people to the streets for massive protests and effectively vetoed the decision of the two governments.

"Ulster says no" prevailed and finished the one major political effort to end the killings and mayhem until the Good Friday Agreement which, 25 years later, reinstated an arrangement that was still anchored on cross-community power sharing.

Today the Brexit crisis is again focused on the Unionist veto. In 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May signed off on a commitment that whatever withdrawal arrangements were worked out between her government and the European Union(EU) had to have a backstop that would preclude the re-introduction of any border controls which were eliminated as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Viewed from the standpoint of realpolitik, the Unionists have every reason to celebrate. Their hard-nosed approach of not giving an inch has worked well for them so far. They dug in against Prime Minister May's outline proposal because they viewed her backstop suggestion as anathema, arguing that it would weaken the union with Britain, the one concession that for them is beyond the pale.

They are standing four square with Boris Johnson as long as he holds the strict Brexit line that insists on achieving  the divorce with Europe without conceding an inch on any border backstop. That may not work after the recent talks between the taoiseach and prime minister.

This is their third major confrontation with the Establishment in the last 100 years. They bullied their way to successfully partitioning the island of Ireland in 1920, and in 1973 they brought down the Sunningdale  Agreement. In both cases they were dealing with wobbly British administrations who were unwilling to take them on. This time they are depending on a weak Tory government to defy the EU, with a population of 470 million people - a tall order for a party without even one supporting voice among the 27 members meeting in Brussels.

Ironically, they are blaming Dublin for their plight, accusing the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, of "crude majoritarianism", the very tactic that they used to partition the country and to accumulate disproportionate power at the expense of nationalists.

 The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is not the sole voice of the loyalist community. They are, by far, the largest Unionist party with ten MP'S in Westminster, but in the June European Parliament elections they got a mere 22% of the vote in Northern Ireland and won just one of the three seats for the Strasbourg parliament. The other two were went to Sinn Fein and the moderate cross-community Alliance Party.

A clear majority of the population in the North voted against leaving Europe in the 2016 United Kingdom referendum. Of the five largest parties - the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), Alliance and the Official Unionist Party(OUP) - only the DUP favors breaking with Europe. All of the others argue strongly that Northern Ireland should remain part of the EU.

There are two strong arguments for staying in Europe. The first is economic because leaving will cut farmers off from the generous EU subsidies and also many companies depend on a welcoming, open European market to continue in business. This economic argument is also being made forcefully in other parts of the United Kingdom but it resonates particularly strongly with Irish farmers who comprise a big part of the economy in the North.

Secondly, the old divisions around religious allegiance are much less relevant in today's Europe, especially among young people. Millennials from Catholic and Protestant families, many of whom have attended college together, pay little or no attention to denominational allegiance.

The European way-of-life of the 21st century has largely moved past the grudges and tribal grievances of an earlier time. This major cultural change in Ireland is increasingly reflected in scientific studies that are carried out regularly to gauge the mood of the people.

A recent poll conducted by the Tory peer, Lord Ashcroft, found for the first time in polling in the North, a majority indicating that they favored a united Ireland - 51% to 49%. A similar poll earlier had the tight numbers reversed in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom. Significantly, 60% of respondents, randomly selected from both communities, between the ages of 18 and 24, favored unification with the South - as did 55% of 25 to 44 year-olds. The only group voting for the status quo registered as 65 or older.

 Another very interesting 2018 poll asked the question: Do you think of yourself as a Unionist or a Nationalist? 26% identified as a unionist and 21% as a nationalist, with a whopping 50% answering that they didn't see themselves as either. In 2000, at the turn of the century, the respective numbers for these three categories were 43%, (down 17% in the recent poll) 21%(no change) and 36%(down 14% since 2000)

These major changes are very telling about the extent of movement in the loyalist community, but the low number identifying as nationalist seems equally significant.

The growing economy and progressive legislation in Dublin combined with the demise of the influence of the Catholic church are seen as positive harbingers for life in the South in the future. The political parties in the north squabble interminably and even refuse to sit down together to legislate for their community. This creates a new situation where increasing numbers of young Protestants are looking favorably to Dublin for a new beginning.

It is clear from these and other polls that, irrespective of what happens with Brexit, the days of not-an-inch are over. The main relevant question now is: What are the best forums where people in Northern Ireland can deliberate on how best to make political progress that will benefit all the people in the community?


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