by Frank Schnittger
Thu Jun 20th, 2019 at 11:51:27 PM EST
Letter published in the Irish Times...
Northern Ireland and staying in UK
A chara, - You cite Lord Paul Bew, who teaches Irish history and politics at Queen's University Belfast (QUB), as saying, "Theresa May's successor must make the case for the union consistently". He also highlights what he describes as the "intellectual weakness" of the case for a united Ireland".
He has published his paper through Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre UK think tank which is frequently cited as influential on Tory Party policymaking, together with a foreword by Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, and who proposed the Brady amendment to pursue alternative solutions to the backstop.
Ironically, he describes the nationalist case for a united Ireland as based on falsifiable or insupportable suppositions, when it is the DUP and British government which have singularly failed to show any practical alternative solution to the backstop working anywhere in the world.
He argues that "a new, modern case for the union must be developed, based on the principle of consent", when that is precisely what is enshrined in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, then resisted by the DUP, and which Brexiteers and unionists are now so anxious to undermine.
Northern Ireland voted 56 per cent to 44 per cent to remain in the EU and it is the DUP, with 22 per cent support in the recent European Parliament elections, which is pursuing a Brexit agenda, in cahoots with a Conservative government, against the consent of the majority.
Perhaps the good professor needs to examine the "intellectual weaknesses" in his own position. - Yours, etc,
Paul Bew is not your average unionist. He was briefly a member of the tiny British and Irish Communist Organisation, which advocated the Two Nations Theory of Northern Ireland, and a member of the Workers' Party of Ireland, then known as Official Sinn Fein. He was later involved in the peace process leading up to Good Friday Agreement as an advisor to Unionist leader, David Trimble. In more recent years he has moved steadily to the right as a member of the neo-conservative Henry Jackson society and contributor to the right wing British Spectator magazine.
Still, I was a little shocked at the nakedly partisan unionist tone of his contribution to the Policy Exchange think tank, the full text of which is available here. There isn't a huge step from arguing that there are "intellectual weaknesses" in the case for Irish unity to arguing that Irish nationalists are intellectually inferior.
The truth is that Irish nationalists are well aware of the difficulties associated with Irish re-unification which is why almost no one is advocating it as an immediate solution to current problems, and even Sinn Fein calls for a referendum on Irish re-unification are more of a dog whistle to their supporters to paper over the many divisions in their ranks. Few doubt that a referendum now would still yield a narrow majority for N. Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, and most want to avoid such a divisive campaign which will only heighten unionist fears and insecurity bordering on paranoia.
Indeed, it has long been my view that calls for Irish unity in the absence of a comprehensive plan to safeguard the rights of unionists, manage what will undoubtedly be a difficult transition period, and describe in great detail what a united Ireland would look like are counter-productive and just trolling the unionist community into voting on sectarian lines. Indeed, fears of an enforced and unjust Irish re-unification process is the glue which keeps an otherwise disparate unionist community in a permanent state of fearful political paralysis and enforced unity.
More often than not any discussions about unity are hyped by the unionist side as a means of consolidating their vote behind hard-line unionist candidates and parties. Therefore I was somewhat surprised to see Paul Bew engaging in such tactics when the issue right now is not Irish re-unification, but maintaining the gains of the Good Friday agreement by keeping the Irish border open post Brexit. His proposal that the Irish backstop be time limited simply plays into the standard unionist tactic of procrastination to put off the evil day when demographic changes will put their majority at risk. You can be sure there will be no progress towards "alternative measures" to keep the border open as any time limit on the backstop is wound down.
But Paul Bew's call for the next UK Prime Minster to constantly make the case for the Union with Britain also reveals the weakness and insecurity of his own position. There is no "intellectual" case for that union beyond the the wish of the current majority in N. Ireland to remain in that union (as is their right, under the Good Friday Agreement) and the reality is that N. Ireland, as a political and economic entity has failed. Brexit has undermined what nationalist "consent" there was to that arrangement - a fact on which Paul Bew is curiously silent for all his talk about consent.
But worse, the ongoing economic mismanagement of N. Ireland has resulted in its GDP/capita declining from twice the GDP/Capita of the Republic of Ireland at partition in 1922, to being only about half the Republics GDP/capita now. And this is in spite of the c. £10 Billion per annum subsidy from the British exchequer to N. Ireland - roughly equivalent to the UK's net contribution to the EU - for which British taxpayers get no benefits.
I suspect Paul Bew's intervention now is related to the failure of the DUP to secure a guarantee from Boris Johnson that he would not change the Irish Backstop to being a N. Ireland backstop only, effectively keeping N. Ireland in the Customs Union and Single Market even if Great Britain left. This would have the effect of keeping the Irish border open, but creating a new EU/GB border down the Irish sea which is a lot more manageable than trying to control 300 official and unofficial road crossings along a 500km land border even the British army could not police effectively during the Troubles.
For Boris Johnson this would have the benefit of constituting a fundamental renegotiation of May's Withdrawal Agreement and giving Great Britain the freedom to control immigration and negotiate its own Free Trade agreements - and therefore constitutes a platform he could campaign on in a general election if the DUP pulled the plug and voted no confidence in his government. He could be encouraged in this direction by the Daily Telegraph poll that he could win a 140 seat overall majority in the Commons, and by YouGov polls showing that Conservative party members would rather see the UK being broken up than remain in the EU.
The DUP would be caught between a rock and a hard place - forcing a general election which could bring Corbyn to power, or acquiescing to an arrangement which is eminently practicable and which has majority support in N. Ireland. Many in the DUP would see it as the beginning of the end for the Union, but they see that everywhere they look in any case. N. Ireland remaining in the Customs Union and Single market, whilst remaining in the UK, is the sort of eminently sensible compromise which is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement which has brought 20 years of relative peace and stability in the North.
Paul Bew may get his society based on consent after all, but it will be a consent based on a wider demographic than the readership of Policy Exchange or the Tory party membership who constitute the electorate for the next UK Prime Minister.