Among the prosperous adult democracies of the West, the unstable statelet of Northern Ireland was until recently an all-too-vivid outlier: a stroppy adolescent dependant that caused no end of trouble. Custody over the delinquent was notionally contested by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, but this tug of love was far from heartfelt. British politicians and officials regarded sovereign authority over Northern Ireland as a dutiful chore, not a prize; and their Dublin counterparts – notwithstanding the all-Ireland claims of Articles 2 and 3 of the pre-1999 Irish Constitution – were in practice happily partitionist. Neither state, in truth, desired full Treasury-draining responsibility for the six troubled counties. Some social scientists went so far as to categorise the province as a “paranocracy”, a democracy of sorts in which paranoid fears – particularly Protestant anxieties about what Ulster’s Roman Catholic minority might be plotting – produced perverse distortions in political debate. Politics was reduced to a zero-sum game, heedless of economic rationality – something that seemed to play virtually no part in Northern Irish politics.
Things look different today, not so much because Northern Ireland has mellowed, though it has to some degree, but because some of the West’s foremost democracies have themselves become arenas for paranoid ranting, populist volatility and irrational identity politics.
When peace came to Northern Ireland in 1998 under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement, there were reasonable expectations that Northern Ireland would gradually normalise, becoming more like other western democracies. Convergence has indeed occurred in recent years, but in good part because in mainland Britain and the United States populists have brought shouty xenophobia, the rhetoric of betrayal and a disregard for the realities of economic interdependence to the centre of the democratic arena. Paranocracy, alas, provides a disturbingly accurate description of democratic politics in the era of Brexit and Trump. The immediate post-1998 era in which Ulster has normalised has been succeeded since the Brexit referendum by one in which Britain has become partially Ulsterised, its politics disfigured by visceral tribal divisions.
No longer, in such a context, do the identity politics of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin seem quite so outlandish. But this does not mean that it is safe to treat Northern Ireland and the peace process with complacency. Northern Ireland is not, and never has been, as British as Finchley. For a start, the province’s politicians remain in thrall to sectarian determinations of winners and losers. Brexit, moreover, has seriously exacerbated divisions between the unionist and nationalist communities. In the Brexit referendum of 2016 the people of Northern Ireland voted Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. But the vote did not split evenly across the Catholic and Protestant communities: 89 per cent of nationalists voted Remain, but only 35 per cent of unionists. The unrealistic yearnings and fantasy Britishness that Brexit has kindled among English Conservatives had never been entirely doused among Ulster’s bowler-hatted unionists. Meanwhile the efforts of the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to find a solution to the border question have reignited unionist paranoia.
Ulster unionism – the caricature notwithstanding – is far from monolithic. It ranges from the integrationist unionism, once championed by James Molyneaux and Enoch Powell of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), to the Paisleyite brand of Democratic Unionism which expresses the Protestant distinctiveness of Northern Ireland’s majority, and is as such instinctively devolutionist. When Arlene Foster (significantly, a defector from the UUP to the DUP) shudders with revulsion at an economic border in the Irish Sea, she articulates integrationist sentiments that sit oddly with the DUP’s pride that Ulster is spared the abominations of legalised abortion and gay marriage. By contrast, the DUP’s founder, the seemingly uncompromising Ian Paisley, saw possibilities for tactical divergence across the Irish Sea. During the British foot and mouth crisis of 2001 he tried to take advantage of the fact that the outbreak had not spread to Northern Ireland, telling Tony Blair: “Our people may be British, but our cows are Irish.”
Does unionism understand its own real interests? The most perceptive of unionist commentators, Professor Arthur Aughey, recently issued the stark warning in the Belfast Telegraph that what unionism needs most is constitutional stability. For the DUP to flirt with the hardest of Brexiteers is, he warns, to align itself with the most disruptive force in British politics.
Yet there are worrying signs that the prejudices of the DUP and some hard right-wing Brexiteers are indeed closely aligned, and that the UK’s position as a neutral arbiter of the fate of Northern Ireland has been blemished. As the Northern Irish backstop loomed ever larger as the principal obstacle to a smooth Brexit, Tory Know-Nothings have made outrageously insensitive and provocative statements about Ireland. Priti Patel – a former cabinet minister seemingly oblivious of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s – suggested that the UK use the threat of food shortages in Ireland as leverage against the Republic in the battle of the backstop. Little wonder that the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has called for the compulsory teaching of Irish history, not only in Irish schools, but in British schools too. A bit of needle – all the sharper for being post-colonial – has entered once again into political relations between Britain and Ireland.
In December we convened a witness seminar in Oxford, at which key participants from the Northern Ireland Office and Dublin’s Foreign Affairs Ministry provided the backstory to the complex, multi-stranded process that led to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 – whose 25th anniversary we were commemorating – and eventually to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The event was held under Chatham House Rules, but one clear general finding did emerge: that, however tense negotiations were at times between London and Dublin, a personal chemistry existed between the prime minister, John Major, and the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, which also informed British-Irish contacts at other levels, among ministers and officials. Bonding of this sort, evidenced by John Major’s recent trip to County Longford to give the first Albert Reynolds Memorial Lecture, sustained diplomacy when national interests diverged sharply. Personal warmth enabled harsh words to be said without compromising the process as a whole.
The current bristling on both sides of the British-Irish relationship falls in the middle of Ireland’s decade of centenaries, which runs from 2012 to 2022 and takes in the Ulster crisis (1912-14), the Easter Rising (1916) and the establishment of both Northern Ireland (1921) and the Irish Free State (1922). Today there are strange and uncanny echoes of the past. The Ulster crisis came about because Irish Nationalist MPs, with 81 seats (compared to the meagre ten held by the DUP), held the balance of power in the House of Commons. Their price for propping up a Liberal government was “home rule” for Ireland; and Liberal leaders such as Asquith and Lloyd George reluctantly accepted that it was no longer possible to withhold from the Irish what they had demanded for 30 years. On the other hand, there was also widespread acceptance across all parties that the Protestants of the north could not be coerced into a parliament dominated by Catholics, and that some special arrangement for all, or part, of Ulster would have to be found.
Contrary to what Arlene Foster now insists about Ulster’s status in the UK, the assumption back in the 1910s was that partition would be a temporary measure, limited to a five- or ten-year implementation period, which would allow unionists time to reconcile themselves to home rule. More ironic still is the fact that early 20th-century British politicians of all stripes identified with unionist fears: even Liberal leaders associated Catholicism with lethargy and corruption, and doubted whether the Irish might acquire any of the Anglo-Saxon aptitude for self-government. Today, in the wake of the Brexit fiasco, the very notion of an Anglo-Saxon genius for government seems like a sick joke; throughout, the supposed parish-pump politicians of the Republic have shown themselves considerably savvier in Euro-diplomacy than their big-league British counterparts.
From the ashes: the remains of the Coliseum Theatre, Dublin, after the Easter Rising in 1916. Credit: Independent News & Media/Getty
From its outset the peace process has been deeply intertwined with European integration. The Good Friday Agreement is premised on British and Irish membership of the European Union, and was foreshadowed by Article 3 of the Downing Street Declaration: the Taoiseach and the prime minister “consider that the development of Europe will, of itself, require new approaches to serve interests common to both parts of the island of Ireland, and to Ireland, and the United Kingdom as partners in the European Union”. The experience of German reunification in 1990 had demonstrated that longstanding partitions could be overcome by concurrent agreement between both parts. In general, moreover, the sense that the UK and Ireland were partners in Europe helped to dispel any lingering impression that there was something colonial in relations between Dublin and London.
However, the Good Friday Agreement adopted one route to peace at the risk of foreclosing others, which is why Northern Ireland’s stability cannot be casually taken for granted. In particular, the agreement was not predicated on any serious attempt to integrate the communities of Northern Ireland into a liberal society of individuals. Quite the reverse: it recognised the brute reality of communal division and effected a peace on the basis of recognising and enshrining collective rights. Peace did nothing to subvert the belligerent identities that had driven the conflict, or to dismantle the various lines of demarcation – physical or psychological – that separated Ulster’s Protestants and Catholics.
The two communities are no longer at war with one another, but Belfast is still a city divided into Protestant, Catholic and neutral territories by urban motorways, by ingrained mental maps and by peace walls. The visitor to Belfast’s Bombay Street – on the Catholic side of a grim peace wall which divides it from Cupar Way on the Protestant side – could be forgiven for thinking that here was the physical embodiment of an armistice, imposed from above on recalcitrant tribes.
Ironically, the only line of demarcation which the Good Friday Agreement has in time rendered invisible is the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Irish border is almost a hundred years old. Its erratic course – bisecting farms and houses – does not follow natural features; nor does it reflect the wishes of the local communities on either side of it. For the first 75 years of its existence the Irish state insisted that the partition of Ireland was illegitimate, and Irish diplomats were instructed never to utter the words “Northern Ireland”. Ulster Catholics attempted to dismantle the border by democratic or by violent means – although the distinction between democracy and violence was not always easy to explain to half a million Catholics trapped in a statelet designed to guarantee a permanent Protestant majority. Resented by Dublin and unloved by London, the border has nevertheless lasted longer than the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Its violent history contains important lessons for contemporary British politics. Not the least of these stems from the fact that the partition of Ireland was itself originally a “backstop” measure, a temporary expedient to be implemented while the demands of unionists and nationalists were reconciled.
The bargain struck in 1998 involved Irish nationalists, north and south, granting formal recognition to the border for the first time since its creation seven decades earlier, in return for guarantees that the border itself would slowly wither away. The paradox was that the border was now more firmly established than ever, despite its new meaninglessness as a military frontier and as an economic, cultural or psychological boundary.
The transformation of Northern Ireland that followed the Good Friday Agreement was partly a result of the cross-border bodies – whose role in promoting business and tourism and administering EU funds was welcomed by unionists as well as nationalists. But it was also a result of the constructive ambiguity at the core of the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement: the recognition of the right of the people of Ireland to self-determination (a traditional republican shibboleth) qualified by the confirmation that a united Ireland could not be established without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland (the core principle of Ulster unionism). As John Larkin, the attorney general of Northern Ireland, has spelled out – with greater attention to legal accuracy than is found in Arlene Foster’s desperate assertions of a sacrosanct unity that must remain unblemished – Northern Ireland “is the only region of the United Kingdom equipped with a constitutional departure lounge”, albeit one “with an electoral lock on the entrance”.
The practical outcome of the agreement was that Northern Ireland’s position in the UK was secured; the Irish right of self-determination, on the other hand, was a purely platonic matter, belonging only to the plane of theory and ideas. But the platonic realm matters enormously in Ireland, a land of clashing symbols and contradictory historical narratives. The peace process began with London’s announcement in 1991 that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. This statement was intended to counter the IRA’s presentation of British rule as a legacy of imperialism. But it also encapsulated the severing of the emotional ties that had once bound sections of British opinion to the cause of the Ulster statelet.
The distancing of London from Northern Ireland would increase after 1998. It would extend even to the bitter “memory wars” now fought over the meaning of the Troubles. The inquiries into Bloody Sunday and other state killings; the debates about whether the “victims” of the Troubles ought to include members of paramilitary organisations injured or killed “in action”; and the plans to develop the Maze prison as a heritage site – together these eroded the official view that the Troubles had been a black-and-white conflict between democracy and terrorism. The self-esteem of Unionists is closely bound up with the sacrifices they feel they have made for the British state. Defending the record of the security forces becomes for Unionists an existential issue, while the British state has prioritised its position as a neutral arbiter between the two camps – at least until the Conservative deal with the DUP. Nor should we underestimate the significance to the DUP of Brexit itself – an unapologetic act of British sovereignty, suggestive of a symbolic reversal of recent tendencies.
Ultimately, what underlies the Northern Irish problem are the province’s shifting demographics. It seems likely that Protestants and Catholics will reach numerical parity in the next census of 2021 – the centenary of partition. But the crude aggregates obscure some salient differences. Catholics form a majority of the working-age population, while Protestants constitute a clear majority among pensioners, among whom Unionist anxieties blur with the kindred disorientation that underpins Brexit.
Over the past 50 years support for a united Ireland has ranged between a third and two-thirds of Catholics, with the remainder preferring the stability – and welfare-state generosity – of the status quo. But there are already signs that Brexit has toughened the Catholic attitude to Britain. On the other hand, younger Protestants are not only turned off by the narrowness of the DUP but are accepting of today’s South as a relatively open and secular society. The arithmetic is not simply a matter of how many Protestants and Catholics there are in Northern Ireland at the next census, but the intensity of feeling on either side, including – what is rarely reported – levels of ambivalence about traditional aspirations.
Colin Kidd is professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews; Ian McBride is professor of Irish history at the University of Oxford