4 November 2020

No wonder Northern Irish unionists are suspicious of the ‘Shared Island’ group

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One of the criticisms often levelled at unionists in Northern Ireland is that they are held back by a ‘siege mentality’. They are so convinced that their place in the United Kingdom is under threat, it is said, that rather than concentrating on strengthening the Union or playing a more central role in national life, they become needlessly paranoid and defensive.

Historically, there is some truth to this allegation. Ulster unionists’ wariness of being betrayed can become self-defeating and self-fulfilling, alienating potential allies and encouraging their opponents. Some commentators, including a few who are sympathetic to unionism, dusted down this cliché as the Republic’s prime minister, Micheál Martin, launched a government body charged with working “toward a consensus on a shared island” in Ireland.

The Taoiseach is sceptical about the need for an early ‘border poll’ to determine the province’s constitutional future, so, according to his supporters, unionists should be ready to discuss deeper cooperation and harmonisation between the two jurisdictions. Otherwise, they suggest, the campaign by harder line republicans, like Sinn Fein, to have Northern Ireland absorbed by the Republic, will be strengthened.

You can see the appeal of these arguments, particularly to people who dislike the more traditional form of Irish nationalism, but still see the border issue through an ‘all island’ lens. At the same time, they tend to ignore the political backdrop against which Martin’s initiative was conceived and misunderstand unionists’ motivations.

The body, which was part of an agreement to form a coalition government in the Republic, finally reached in June this year, is a ‘Shared Island Unit’ rather than a ‘United Ireland Unit’, as had been mooted originally. That is a significant distinction, which unionists appreciate, but Mr Martin has also talked about “beefing up” the group to prepare for the possibility that “England (sic) gets turned off Northern Ireland”.

Like many people in the Irish republic, he views Brexit as an outbreak of English nationalism that undermines the UK’s right to speak for its devolved regions. He launched the Shared Island Unit four years after the Dublin government started a relentless campaign to keep Northern Ireland’s economy within the EU’s orbit, to the detriment of its place in the British internal market.

Extraordinarily, after first Theresa May and then Boris Johson dismissed this notion as ‘unacceptable’, both prime ministers came to accept the concept of a ‘special status’ for Ulster. May’s backstop was designed to keep the whole UK tied closely to the EU’s single market and customs union, on the basis that a close relationship was necessary to protect the ‘peace process’; while Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement deliberately avoided restricting his government’s freedom to divert from Brussels’ rules in Great Britain.

Of course, the Prime Minister denies that his deal affects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK or creates an ‘Irish sea border’ that separates the province from the rest of the country. His government still thought it necessary to introduce the Internal Market Bill, though, supposedly to soften some of the more flagrant encroachments on British sovereignty that the Withdrawal Agreement entails.

Despite that legislation drawing a furious reaction from many critics, even if it is enacted, every food product imported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will need to be accompanied by an Export Food Certificate from the start of 2021. This paperwork must be filled in by trained vets, making each container of goods thousands of pounds more expensive. The BBC reports that it will cost £50 extra for a delicatessen to bring a single block of artisan cheese into Belfast from the mainland. In addition, all commercial goods arriving in the province from the rest of the UK will have to be accompanied by a customs declaration. Northern Ireland companies are being issued with EU VAT identification  numbers.

For decades, Irish nationalists claimed that an all-island economy was developing that would make an all-Ireland state inevitable. This vision was largely a fiction, but now Northern Ireland’s incoming trade from the rest of the UK will involve extra costs and bureaucracy, while goods can move across the border from the Republic seamlessly. Worse, the province’s pivotal economic rules will be set by the EU, and without representation there, Ulster businesses’ conduit to Brussels will be through Dublin.

Rarely have unionists had such convincing evidence to support their suspicions that the constitutional balance in Northern Ireland is being upended without their consent. And this has come about, chiefly because a prime minister, who claims he is their ally, capitulated to a noisy coalition of Irish nationalists and pro-Brussels liberals led by the Dublin government. On their insistence, Northern Ireland’s links with the Republic and the EU were prioritised over its status as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

At the same time, the chief preoccupation of nationalists during the coronavirus crisis has been championing an ‘all-Ireland strategy’ and this mantra has been taken up by the Taoiseach. Sinn Fein has been most explicit in its assertion that a worldwide pandemic illustrates the case for a ‘united Ireland’. It’s easy to accuse Ulster unionists of adopting a ‘siege mentality’, but they practise their politics in an environment where their opponents contort every issue, from public health, to education, to trade, into an existential debate about the border.

Against this backdrop, the new Irish prime minister has created a body charged with promoting a ‘shared island’, rather than emphasising the ‘shared islands’ of Great Britain and Ireland that unionists want to see to the fore. He is offering cooperation certainly, but also money for infrastructure, seemingly attempting to undermine the argument that Northern Ireland’s financial wellbeing is dependent upon its connection to the rest of the UK. Is it any wonder unionists have serious misgivings?

It’s true that Micheál Martin probably has little interest in bringing about constitutional change any time soon. He’s also a virulent critic of Sinn Fein and his new Shared Island body is partly a tactic to counter their recent success in the Republic’s politics. But unionists don’t just oppose the formation of an all-Ireland state. They cherish their place in the United Kingdom, and want to play a full role in the political, economic and social life of the British nation.

Meanwhile, Martin may not want a border poll, but his plans threaten to further blur the lines between the two jurisdictions in Ireland and involve the Republic ever more in Northern Ireland’s affairs. It should go without saying, but unionists see the province in a UK context, and they are deeply wary of attempts to shift that frame of reference.

So what do Ulster unionists want and need instead? From Dublin, they’d like to see clearer respect for the responsibilities outlined in the strands of the Belfast Agreement, including a more sensitive approach to embroiling itself in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs. From Westminster, they want more evidence that they are viewed as an integral part of the UK’s future, rather than empty words that they cannot trust.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.