Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Maybe it’s just me, but I think you can hear the lack of sincerity, and the barely-concealed irritation, in the declarations of commitment to the union with Northern Ireland coming out of the mouths of top Tory politicians in the wake of the latest Brexit breakdown.
Ministers who in the past never went near the province and, I would venture to guess, scoffed at the likes of Ian Paisley Jr. and Sammy Wilson now feel the need to pretend that nothing matters more to them than preserving the link with an anomalous outpost of the nation that has caused them more grief over the years than the Labour Party, the Falklands, Scotland … or the EU.
Do you honestly believe that Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg give a stuff about Northern Ireland? Were you surprised, or just amused, to discover that the current Secretary of State, Karen Bradley took office not knowing that Catholics voted for Sinn Féin and Protestants for the DUP? “It’s a very different world from the world I came from,” she explained.
Blood and soil doesn’t cover Tory attitudes for the simple reason that that is not how the people of the UK – by which I mean the English – see Northern Ireland. Most Brits regard the southern Irish as cousins. Yes, they were troublesome down the centuries. They never seemed to see the advantages of being John Bull’s other island and some of them would shoot you as soon as look at you. But they were terribly witty, and such brilliant writers. You’d have them round to dinner like, well, like a shot. Today, with the independence business sorted, they have become good neighbours, and Dublin seems to have done really rather well for itself in recent years.
Northern Ireland, by contrast, is widely viewed in British politics as a midden, full of angry nationalists with marbles in their mouths and bizarre “loyalists” who like to wear bowler hats and think they are more British than the British. I heard someone say a while back that Ulster Protestants, of whom I am one, were the least fashionable ethnic group in Europe, and I believe it. We only have to open our mouths for Englishmen to either start laughing or turn away in disgust.
But don’t just take it from me: recent polls have shown that a majority of Tory voters, faced with the choice of ditching Ulster or abandoning Brexit, would opt, without a second’s thought, for the former. The Protestants of Northern Ireland may consider themselves the Queen’s most loyal subjects, but as far as the English are concerned the most patriotic thing they can do is sod off.
Parts of the Labour Party, meanwhile, have been in bed with Sinn Féin and the IRA ever since Day One of the Troubles. Jeremy Corbyn had had more hob-nobs with Gerry Adams than he ever did with Tony Benn. Labour has no time for Unionists, or the Union. Just as they want Britain out of Europe, so they want Ulster out of the Union.
Which is where the DUP comes into the picture. The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, née Kelly, is on a mission. Keenly aware that Catholics and Nationalists are shortly to become a majority in her beloved province, she knows she has no time to waste. Never mind that Remain won the referendum in Ulster by 56 per cent to 44 per cent and that a majority of the under-25s on both sides of the religious divide regard leaving the EU as folly. What she has to do, and do quickly, before England’s patience finally expires, is copper-fasten the Union by the simple means of re-establishing a hard border with the Republic. She denies this. She says she wishes trade to continue uninterrupted with her “nearest neighbours,” whom she just as often describes as “a foreign power”. But for the DUP, the border is what defines Northern Ireland, and it must be safeguarded by all means – the more obvious, the better.
Again, she denies this. In a piece on Brexit for last Saturday’s Belfast Telegraph, she never once mentioned the border. What she did lay stress on was the absolute need not to have a frontier down the Irish Sea, cutting off the loyalist people from their kith and kin in the rest of the UK. The fact that half her population, and soon more than half the electorate, consider themselves Irish, not British, is a small concern. They know what they can do if they don’t like what’s coming.
Back in Westminster, where the British bulldog may soon start to resent being wagged by the Unionist tail, the DUP could find that they have outlived their usefulness. Some MPs are asking, will anything satisfy these strange, brittle creatures, who insist that they must be treated exactly like all other UK citizens, yet refuse to permit either abortion or same-sex marriage and regard the English, increasingly, as heathens?
I have given up predicting how Brexit will turn out. David Davis began his ill-fated campaign with the assurance that frictionless trade without membership of the single market and the customs union was virtually a done deal. Others on the Tory benches thought that Germany’s car manufacturers were the key factor. They weren’t. Labour, at the same time, simply ran away from the argument, bleating about workers’ rights but otherwise mumbling about the need to respect the democratic decision.
But who would have guessed that, with the clock ticking and the hour about to strike, it would be the DUP – the DUP, for God’s sake, whose MPs’ speeches used to clear the Commons chamber like an enema – that would decide how and at what cost the United Kingdom would leave the EU?
Throughout the referendum campaign, the issue of the Irish border was never raised. It didn’t occur to the Government, or the Opposition, that the Democratic Unionists were even relevant to the discussion. In the weeks that followed Leave’s victory at the polls, they were soon disabused of that naive assumption, not only by Dublin and Brussels, acting in concert, but, most pertinently, by the DUP itself.
Arlene Foster, who grew up amid the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone, has shown herself fully prepared to scupper the plans not only of the prime minister, but of any English faction that dares to question the centrality of Ulster’s Unionist people to the national debate. The question has since become, how does the English dog regain control over its wayward tail? Do they cut it off or do they tie it down? For now, no one seems to have the answer.