Britain Gives Up

Post-Brexit Ireland

The end of Ireland’s Brexit crisis shouldn’t be noteworthy. As Fintan O’Toole noted in The Guardian, the Windsor Framework could have been agreed upon two years ago.

Had to admit defeat. Rishi Sunak, Windsor.

But, in the context of current UK politics, it’s remarkable.

That it has taken months of fraught negotiations and the fall of two British governments to negotiate reveals exactly how far from normal things are in London.

The Windsor Framework is a document so eminently uncontroversial that all but the most inveterate Tory Eurosceptics have expressed a willingness to sign on to it.

That, along with the desire of Labour to burnish its technocratic credentials (what else have they got left?), means that its passage through parliament is assured.

The only major source of turbulence is Protestant Ulster, that seemingly unbreachable bastion of unreason and tail-wagging.

While some sections of what might be called “moderate” Unionist opinion assented to the deal, there are still significant rumblings among Ulster Unionists, Democratic Unionists, and the far-right Traditional Unionist Voice.

In these doubts, they are alone on the island, as all the major forces on the other side of the aisle have come out in favour of the deal.

For the nationalist communities in Ulster, the framework constitutes a desirable path toward the kind of economic development that might alleviate a range of the economic and social woes that have been their lot since the formation of the northern Irish statelet.

For the parties in the Republic, the resolution of this conflict represents an opportunity to focus on something besides the situation in Ulster.

In contemporary Irish politics, that amounts to the increasingly fraught struggle between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and the rising power of the electoral left: Sinn Fein and a host of smaller parties vying to play off the balances.

Viewed apart from the various political contexts across which its influence will map, the Windsor Framework is a monument to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum: There Is No Alternative.

In a political environment distinguished by extremism and complexity, it’s as simple as that.

The complexity of the situation stems, in large part, from the intractable, often not easily discernable differences between what people in the various parties to the dispute want (or claim to want).

The simplicity of the situation, by contrast, revolves around three things that no one wants: economic stagnation, disrupted trade between the UK and the EU, and a return to the hard border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland.

Having adverted to the simplicity and obvious desirability of these three things, one might then profitably consider the dysfunctionality of modern Unionism.

The signing of the agreement has been a cue for Unionist communities, or at least their political leadership, to evince a readiness to dispense with all three.

This is a common stance within Unionism, one with roots going back to the first decades of the 20th century.

In the years between 1914 and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1921, Unionism became a political force that came to dominate, at least in certain respects, the Conservative Party, which started out as its patron.

The story is long and complex, as is the way with matters involving relations between Britain and Ireland.

But the narrow origins of the current difficulties can be seen in the indefatigable opposition of the Unionists under the leadership of James Craig to accept any Irish nationalist (the underlying factor is also Catholic) influence in the affairs of protestant communities in Northern Ireland.

In this, he was abetted by sympathetic elements of the British political establishment, centred on (but by no means limited to) the Tories.

The depths of this connection were clear for all to see in the so-called Curragh Incident (also referred to as a case of mutiny) in March 1914, when British forces in Ireland expressed a preference to resign their posts or simply refuse orders rather than act against Ulster “loyalists”.

In Fatal Path (2013), eminent historian Ronan Fanning showed why the incident was allowed to happen by Asquith’s government, in a late stage of decomposition and sleepwalking its way through the crisis that would lead to the formation of the Irish Free State (and partition) in 1921.

Fanning’s argument is that the series of events that he described showed the ways in which violence, either outright or threatened, overcame the powers of democratically organised politics.

Unionists, or loyalists as they have latterly come to style themselves, learned a lesson in those days which they have clung to in the long years since.

The willingness to use violence will allow a minority, even a small one, to exert its will in an environment otherwise characterised by democratic principles.

The outgrowths of this lesson were clearly to be seen in the era leading up to the Troubles beginning in the 1960s and stretching through until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The formation (or reemergence) of the Irish Republican Army and its even more psychotically violent progeny was, to a great degree, the result of political and economic pressure, often rising to the level of actual violence against nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.

These communities had long been excluded both from the primary circuits of capital accumulation as well as from political power through the maintenance of highly gerrymandered political institutions (especially in Catholic majority areas such as Londonderry/Derry City).

These served both to preserve power in the loyalist communities and to prevent the demographic expansion of the nationalist communities by encouraging emigration.

Once the patterns of violence began to establish themselves, the British took on their accustomed role of keepers of the peace, to the extent that peace in this context meant the preservation of the current political and economic order.

Beginning with the massacres in Ballymurphy in 1971 and the Bogside in 1972, British security forces became involved in a synergistic three-way relationship that lead to a spiral of violence.

This, in turn, drew the British government increasingly, and only occasionally unwillingly, back into its role as guarantor of the political power of the Ulster Unionist minority.

While the Good Friday Agreement mostly put paid to the more lethal aspects of this relationship, Ulster Unionism has by no means forgotten the lessons of the past, both in terms of the value of the threat of violence and the relevant corollaries about the capacity of rigid, unblinking refusal to engage in normal democratic politics to achieve their ends.

For months now, politics in Northern Ireland have been in limbo due to the refusal of the Unionist establishment to allow the formation of a government. Their unwillingness to do so was enmeshed with their opposition to any special status for Northern Ireland vis-a-vis trade with the EU.

Their larger impetus in doing so is the fear that the nationalist community, drawing ever nearer to demographic parity, will rise to political control.

Normalisation of the economic situation has the alarming capacity to contribute to this, given that the rising economic tide will lift nationalist boats as well as Unionist ones, and offers the prospect that a greater proportion of the youth in Catholic communities will remain in the province rather than pursuing better opportunities in Britain or the United States.

Locked in an atavism that would seem bizarre anywhere else in the advanced industrial and post-industrial world, Ulster Union seems, even at this late date, willing to countenance outcomes such as the return of the hard border with the Republic, one of the few events which offers the real prospect of a return to the era of inter-communal violence.

There are numerous ironies associated with this, but certainly the most profound is the underlying view of the Unionists that the combination of EU regulation, economic development, and functional government at Stormont materially increases the chances of the reunification of Ireland.

The fact that few people on either side of the border either very much want or would unequivocally benefit from such a measure seems little to affect the Unionist imagination, obsessed as it continues to be with the Apprentice Boys and the threat of papism.

The next few months will probably see a return to some measure of rationality in British politics, at least to the degree that it relates to trade with the EU.

Rishi Sunak’s government, while still leavened with a layer of Johnsonites and UKIP refugees, seems to have learned some of the lessons on offer from the spectacular crash of the Truss premiership.

Eventually, there will have to be a grasping of the nettle that is Ulster Unionism.

At that point, the degree to which the UK’s political echelon is willing to exit the past will be clear to see.

Photograph courtesy of Number 10. Published under a Creative Commons license.