Brexit has reawakened the nationalists’ desire for a united Ireland – but Dublin is unmoved

The flatlining Sinn Fein vote has been jolted into life unexpectedly.

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Blessed with the raw ingredients of simmering tribal rancour and a puffed-up and preening political class, Northern Ireland is never too far from crisis. Unquestionably, however, Brexit has thrown more fuel on the flames. It may be wearisome but the latest round of flouncing and indignation deserves more serious attention because it is intimately connected to the health of the Union as a whole.

The elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were held following the so-called cash for ash scandal that engulfed the First Minister, Arlene Foster, before Christmas. A saga of world-class parochial misgovernment began with the seemingly innocuous Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme, set up in 2012 when Foster was in charge of the relevant department. At the end of 2016, a whistleblower revealed that large numbers of farms and businesses ended up being so oversubsidised for changing from fossil to biomass fuel that, for every £1 they spend on their new eco-friendly systems, they got £1.60 back. Tens of millions in taxpayers’ money have literally gone up in smoke.

At first, Foster went on the offensive, accusing her critics of bad faith and misogyny. It now looks as if the wiser option would have been to stand aside, even temporarily, while an inquiry was conducted. Instead, the Democratic Unionist Party’s predictably caterwauling response to any criticism provided the pretext for the deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, to bring down the devolved government, triggering an election.

McGuinness, suffering from a rare genetic disease, is gravely ill. Since the 1990s, he has made a remarkable journey from senior IRA commander to a mostly responsible administrator of devolved government. Yet republican strategists had never forsworn another push towards a united Ireland, should the opportunity arise. They have been presented with a pre-wrapped gift by the cack-handed DUP.

The numbers themselves were not dramatic: the DUP dropped only 1.1 per cent in its share of the vote, and Sinn Fein increased its own share by 3.9 per cent. But it is the breakdown of seats in the assembly that matters, with Sinn Fein now just one behind the DUP as the largest party, having closed the gap from ten.

The day before last year’s EU referendum results were known, I reflected in these pages about the irony that the English were “rousing themselves in the spirit of protest – the long-predicted ‘English Revolt’ – just at the moment when the nationalism of the Celtic fringes might have reached a plateau”.

One reason Sinn Fein has been pursuing such a glacial strategy towards Irish unity was that it recognised the lack of appetite for it. While the Catholic population of Northern Ireland still grows, the nationalist vote has fallen in recent years. Pre-Brexit polling figures suggested support for a united Ireland was at an all-time low. After a decade of relative peace and prosperity – punctuated by periodic squabbles over so-called legacy issues from the conflict – the national question was receding in importance.

The flatlining Sinn Fein vote has now been jolted into life by an unexpected spike in identity politics. The DUP’s bungling of “cash for ash” meant that the snap poll was held at the high point of concerns about the likely impact of Brexit (the next election was not due for another four years).

Overall, Northern Ireland voted 55.8 per cent for Remain. Although a significant minority of the Protestant community also opposed Brexit, voting was divided largely along sectarian lines – with the Catholic community uncomfortable with the implications of the flexing of British nationalist muscle. The soft de facto unionism that was growing in that community, one that recognises that the British state secures a high standard of living and economic security, has been disturbed.

The practical challenges posed by Brexit, such as the re-emergence of a hard border, are most likely surmountable. Yet they reawaken a feeling of uneasiness about the character of what has been, at least since 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement, a benevolent and unobtrusive British state. Even then the wounds of Brexit run nowhere near as deep as the ones left by 30 years of violence.

The DUP and Sinn Fein now have three weeks to form an executive or risk a return to direct rule from London. As unionism’s Humpty Dumptys survey the damage, the republicans are torn between two approaches. The first is a short-term one, in which they demand Foster’s scalp as the price of reforming the executive, while cashing in their chips with tribal victories within the assembly. The second is to roll the dice and wager on a bigger win, whereby they refuse to co-operate on devolution and begin to agitate towards a border poll (a de facto referendum on a united Ireland).

The latter is high risk because the deep-lying, immovable truths that have kept Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom have not changed. First, unionists still hold a safe majority, even if many of them cannot bring themselves to vote for local unionist parties. Second, no one is in any doubt about the economic catastrophe that would follow, should the UK Treasury be withdrawn from the equation.

Most important is the attitude of the Dublin government, with the Irish economy facing a convergence of threats: from Brexit (as an EU state that depends on trade with the UK); from Brussels (which is asking questions about Ireland’s sweetheart deals for multinational corporations); and Donald Trump (who has promised to repatriate US companies attracted by Ireland’s low corporation tax). The last thing it wants is a rusty old ghost ship from the north sailing into view, with Grizzly Adams on board licking his chops.

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article appears in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda