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Semi-detached… April 14, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Alex Kane has a good column in the News Letter this week, another one actually. In it he makes the case that:

This time it’s different. While all the previous crises (and maybe one of the faults of unionism is our fondness for viewing everything as a crisis) have resulted in ‘the sky’s falling in’ concerns, the sky never actually fell in. A very strong argument could still be advanced that NI remained, to all intents and purposes, an integral part of the UK.

But how do you advance that argument when a very specific, very obvious constitutional demarcation line now exists between NI and GB; and when NI remains part of the EU single market and customs union, while GB doesn’t?

And;

How does a unionist advance the case for the Union now that the ‘place apart’ has been converted into a granny flat? How is unionist identity protected when, to quote the title of one of my favourite comedy programmes, unionism is in real danger of being reduced to ‘resident alien’ status?

That’s an excellent point, isn’t it? What is unionism when the union is no longer the union, at least as it has been. 

That said, with my historical research hat on, I wonder does he protest slightly too much. Because he follows that almost immediately with the following:

 
 

The ‘alienation’ which most of unionism acknowledges as a problem is – and always has been – a two-way process. We allowed the distance between ourselves and GB to grow between 1921-72. And we haven’t been very good at improving it since then.

First up I agree – he’s right, that this was a two-way process, but in a sense he doesn’t quite admit to how distinct the difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK during that period was. Consider Wales or Scotland during that period. Neither had a local parliament, or local security force or anything like the degree of autonomy that Northern Ireland had. In truth NI was sui generis in the context of the UK, an out-working in part of the dispensation around the establishment of the Free State. To some degree the North had the localised Home Rule that the South moved away from so rapidly in the late 1910s.

And that meant that although the Irish Sea border is a new development, the sense of Northern Ireland as distinct from Britain is actually much more deep rooted than political (and perhaps cultural) unionism appears willing to countenance. What is fascinating, to me, is the fact that political parties which do no exist in any other part of the UK, which have worked local institution in NI for a quarter of a century (more or less) and before that (some) were central to the administration of NI between 1921 and 1972 should find the reality of that distinctiveness so difficult to face up to at this point.

On a slightly trivial note, I was talking to someone born and raised in England, who would have no Irish connections whatsoever in their family, who was musing wonderingly at Arlene Foster’s contention that a United Ireland would be utterly alien to her to the extent she would move to Britain. The conclusion was that Foster might be in for something of a surprise if she thought in Britain she might be regarded as British in quite the way she thought she would be. I’m sure she could indeed happily settle there, should the mood take her, though I think that would be Ireland’s loss, but that does point up another angle on distinctiveness and the perceptions and realities of same.

In some ways I wonder if Kane’s point is soluble, in the sense that geographic distance, and distinctiveness, will always leave unionism separate and apart from Britain. And the union has itself managed to weather huge changes across the time it has existed, which does make one wonder why a fairly permeable customs border on the Irish Sea would be of greater consequence than the de facto sharing of sovereignty with the Republic allowed for in the GFA/BA – most obviously through cross-border bodies (a sharing of sovereignty that is actually open to greater sharing of sovereignty with the local administration in the North if sought for).

Indeed this brings us to another aspect of this which is truly strange, that being the manner in which political unionism has been unable to even begin to craft a narrative in respect of how Northern Ireland could benefit from membership of the EU customs union while being part of the United Kingdom. The reactive nature of political unionism, constantly on the defensive, given this remarkable opportunity, is quite something.

Kane asks a good question, why is it that time after time, in 1972 with the prorogument of Stormont, during Sunningdale, with the Anglo-Irish Agreement and so on, the fact is that unionism ‘didn’t actually have any friends where it mattered’. At every point political unionism has not been supported. One part is – as he notes, is ‘That seemingly serial inability to win friends and influence people has long puzzled me’.

One part of the answer is the effective intransigence of unionism, dragged unwillingly to every point where a decision had to be made, where a new route taken.

But that is only one part, and one presume Kane is aware of the other part of the answer which is that unionism destroyed its credibility as a democratic political authority in that period from 1921 to 1972 and ever after while it has had representative authority, speaking for unionists, it has had no government political authority that others – namely the UK, would trust to allow to govern singly and alone in the northern polity.

Is that fair? Is it reasonable that the injustices of one period of history should be visited upon those who had no hand or part in them? The answer to that is, not entirely… but. The caveat is that there’s never been a political reckoning or acknowledgement in any serious fashion by political unionism (with the caveat that Loyalism has been considerably more open as to certain realities) as to the reality of that period from 1921 to 1972. Trimble mentioned a ‘cold house’ but that hardly did justice to the repressive nature of Northern Ireland during that five decades. And again, the most objective criteria evident to underscore that is that lack of appetite on the part of London to return complete political power to unionism again and the absolute anathema that any such return is regarded by many others within Northern Ireland and not just Republicans.

Indeed one could argue that the current dispensation, this latest one regarding the Protocol, is merely the continuation of these dynamics pointed to into the present era. Granted that somewhat ignores the rupture that is Brexit, which came out of left field. Perhaps tellingly Kane argues the following:

How the protocol dilemma can be resolved is not, as yet, clear: but it must be resolved. That requires a four-way dialogue between London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast.

He knows, you know, I know that the Protocol is unlikely to be amended in any substantive way – though amended in such a way as to take the heat out of the situation, well yes, that’s likely. But note that even if resolved optically the underlying relationships which he so ably maps are not going to change fundamentally. London will still regard political unionism as a resource to be used when necessary and largely ignored otherwise. Dublin and the EU will still see Northern Ireland within the customs union to all intents and purposes. Unionism will still be in a room in the extension wondering what is going to happen next. Perhaps that’s the best that can be achieved, that emotions cool and a sort of rough status quo emerges where that semi-detached status persists as it has, as it will.

Comments»

1. benmadigan - April 14, 2021

“unionism ‘didn’t actually have any friends where it mattered’ –

Friends are hard to find when Unionism cannot put forward any real positive case for the Union. This applies to Scotland as well as NI.
At the same time the triple alliance of Unionism/Loyalism and the Loyal Orders advocate a supremacist anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sectarianism, reactionary policies on same sex marriage and abortion, a policy of threatening violence and carrying it out at any proposal for change it doesn’t like (Ulster workers strike, drumcree, Flegs to the latest skirmishes).
All of these alienate diverse groups of people worldwide.

paragraph “Is that fair” –
Apart from Unionism’s dismal track record up til 1972, consider Loyalist collusion in sectarian murders throughout the Troubles, Unionism’s resistance to fully implementing the BA/GFA since 1998 (e.g. no irish language Act) and finally its involvement in scandals like Red Sky and the Cash for Ash imbroglio.
Its record hardly adds up to a trustworthy partner in Govt, let alone being trusted to govern alone.

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Zorin001 - April 14, 2021

We are also coming up to the 20th anniversary of the Holy Cross dispute which has to be the gold standard for destroying a communities reputation.

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benmadigan - April 14, 2021

Indeed Zorin. Intimidating and murdering Catholic children is one of the hallmarks of Unionism/Loyalism and has been for centuries

The Leopard Doesn’t Change its Spots – Hallmarks of Orange Loyalism (1795-2013)

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2. Roger Cole - April 14, 2021

Ireland was partitioned by the massive amount of military equipment given to unionists by the British Imperial State. While the British Imperial State still sees itself as an Imperial State, it annual war expenditure is now greater than Russia and it intends to build a massive increase in its nuclear arsenal, while giving its nurses a 1% increase in their wages, it is in reality a shadow of its former power that in had at the start of the 20th century. It’s occupation of Ireland will come to an end. The Unionists will and should be offered equal rights in an Independent Irish Republic.

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benmadigan - April 14, 2021

“The Unionists will and should be offered equal rights in an Independent Irish Republic”.

Totally agree Roger.

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3. roddy - April 14, 2021

Alex is an affable character with an interesting life story in that he spent the first few years of his life in an orphanage before being adopted by a middle class couple who gave him a great life.He is not shouty or antagonistic in getting his views across but alas with Alex there is one large elephant in the room.He worked closely with Enoch Powell for several years and I think if anybody from my political tradition had worked with such an openly racist figure,it would never be let go.

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WorldbyStorm - April 14, 2021

In fairness that would have been decades back. I wouldn’t hold that against him at this point given he clearly doesn’t espouse those views (though you’re probably right that in a different context that would not be so quickly forgotten). And there’s another angle which is that if this is true of Kane then what of Jeffrey Donaldson who was his election agent or the UUP which allowed him in, etc, etc.

BTW just looking at his wiki page… Ian Paisley denounced Powell as “a foreigner and an Anglo-Catholic”. Hmmm…

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roddy - April 14, 2021

“A man of great courage and principle and a great speaker” was how Alex described Powell in 2014.And yes it was equally true of Jeffrey Donaldson which confirms my long held view that political Unionism is rightly held in contempt worldwide.

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WorldbyStorm - April 14, 2021

It’s interesting how Kane can adjust his view to block out the obvious. That said he’s not alone in that and he’s a fair bit more cop on than most in political unionism.

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Bagatelle's Ungirded Tact - April 14, 2021

You are right there. He’s modified his statements since quitting the UUP communications director position in 2010. But this was about how he was during the GFA negotiations 2005 slugger article: “…nationalists really do hate us [Unionists] more than they disapprove of the thundering dishonesty and congenital criminality of the IRA.”

As you say, he’s one of the better Unionist analysts and yet he remains inscrutably incurious regarding the absence of anyone intervening to restrain the Unionists. In contrast to the Nationalists.

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4. Phil - April 14, 2021

Viewed from Britain, the key thing about Unionism is how different it is – and how un-British, ironically.

Admittedly, Scotland and Wales also have a “unionist” element to their political spectrum, with people who would call themselves British first and Scottish/Welsh second or not at all – but “British” in those contexts means “English”, or at least “aspiring to pass among the English”. “British” in the Unionist context is its own identity, defined by the fact that it’s been upheld – and imposed – in that territory for all this time (which is another reason why they can’t entirely move beyond the experience of 1921-1972, even if they wanted to).

To be brutally honest, to an English eye Unionism is just another way of being Irish. (They even have their own language, for goodness’ sake.) Over time, the direction of travel is always going to be towards reunification – at least, it’s never going to be in the other direction. I don’t believe the current government’s stance in this respect is all that different from what previous governments believed – they’re just spelling it out more loudly and clumsily.

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WorldbyStorm - April 14, 2021

“Over time, the direction of travel is always going to be towards reunification – at least, it’s never going to be in the other direction.” That’s a key point. There’s no plausible scenario where the union becomes a goal for a supermajority within NI. Indeed the current situation where the union in a sense persists because all others bar unionists can’t be pushed to push too hard to a UI sort of underscores that underlying dynamic.

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oliverbohs - April 14, 2021

There’s some fella writing in the IT on this who seems the sort of pompous ‘adviser’ who clogs up the arteries of governance in places like Stormont, whose chiding tone annoys. His take is that anyone talking about UI shouldn’t cos they might be ‘articulate’ and that’d spook Unionists what aren’t used to folks what can speak good about such matters. They never needed to use their words before you see.
It would be one thing if Unionists had the capacity to argue for a new dispensation that would be better for them than the present in material terms and in political influence. Does the rioting just continue in the absence of this? It didn’t work during the Spirit of Drumcree days. There’s such a sense of using their hand so poorly over the past half dozen years, never mind the decades before

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5. CL - April 14, 2021

” This is endgame territory for the Belfast Agreement. Its survival should no longer be taken for granted…..
Have our politicians never watched the Universal horror classics from the 1930s and realised what happens when you tinker too much with assorted grotesquerie?
Is there, I wonder, anyone (and I’m excluding those already diagnosed as clinically insane, or who think ‘The Crown’ is a history programme) who believes the Belfast Agreement can be rescued?….
No political/electoral change or consensus after 25 years suggests there won’t be any: or any of the significance required to engender hope. And history further suggests that no change and no stability usually leads to collapse and a return to the dreary steeples.”
https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/alex-kane-the-survival-of-the-belfast-agreement-cant-be-taken-for-granted-3196379

Meanwhile….

” The UK Brexit minister will meet his EU counterpart on Thursday to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Irish sea border.
Lord Frost will travel to Brussels for talks with EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.”
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-56742783

” The United Kingdom has asked for more time to respond to the legal action taken by the EU over its unilateral decision to ease the requirements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, RTÉ News understands”
https://www.rte.ie/news/brexit/2021/0414/1209802-brexit/

No recent commentary from Micheál Martin or Simon Coveney.

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