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The Tories’ Troubling Alliance With Northern Ireland’s Unionists

Northern Ireland’s Protestants have always proved useful political tools for British ministers and ambitious, desperate politicians. Churchill played the “Orange card” before the First World War. Callaghan was weak enough to need the province’s Protestant Unionist MPs in 1976 and offered Northern Ireland five extra seats at Westminster. They obligingly won the lot. Almost two decades later, John Major needed their support in a minority government in a vote on Spanish fishing rights – an abstruse, ridiculous performance that somehow parallels Lady May’s cynical “deal” with the DUP.

By chance this week, I’ve been re-reading Lloyd George’s memoirs of the Great War, in which the “Welsh wizard” – as deceitful as he was eloquent – alludes to the results of the Curragh mutiny of 1914, in which a cadre of British officers at the army’s Irish headquarters made it clear they would not march on the armed Protestants who opposed Home Rule

The British government had agreed to Home Rule for Ireland, but as Lloyd George puts it with devastating accuracy, “the Protestant North had reached a state of incipient rebellion and drilling for resistance to the decision of the Imperial Parliament. The Catholic South had begun to copy these tactics, and raise National Volunteers to match the Ulster Volunteers of the North … the paradox of the situation was that Ulster’s rebellion was acclaimed by a powerful section of British opinion as loyalty, while Southern Ireland’s preparations to defend the decision of the Imperial Parliament were denounced as sedition.”

Quite so. In the middle of the Great War, the Easter Rising broke out in Dublin and was savagely repressed by the army, its leaders shot by British firing squads. Lloyd George, the minister of munitions who was about to embark for Tsarist Russia with Lord Kitchener on HMS Hampshire prior to the fatal battle of the Somme, was asked by prime minister Asquith to seek a new Irish settlement. He produced some proposals for Nationalist and Protestant Unionist leaders to accept. They included bringing the Home Rule Act into operation immediately with an Amending Act and a temporary inclusion of Ulster counties under the British government. Painfully, Edward Carson and John Redmond agreed.

But then a senior Unionist in the British government successfully persuaded the Cabinet that Lloyd George had put unfair pressure on the Protestants and that the Nationalists of Ireland were “sullen and hostile” and would not abide by the agreement. Lord Lansdowne, minister without portfolio, then spoke in the House of Lords, in words which Redmond described as “a declaration of war on the Irish people”.

Lloyd George had been forced to cancel his trip to Russia and HMS Hampshire set off with Lord Kitchener onboard. The ship was sunk by a mine and Kitchener drowned. This final attempt at Home Rule thus saved Lloyd George’s life – but it doomed Ireland to a harsh war of independence and, later, to civil war.

When the Second World War broke out, the Free State of Ireland declared its neutrality while the Protestants of Ulster maintained their loyalty to the British war against the Nazis, even though Churchill was to make a duplicitous offer of “unity” with Northern Ireland to De Valera in return for Ireland’s participation on the Allied side. Typically, that offer turned out to be hinged on the agreement of the Protestants once the war was over.

In the aftermath, the Protestants continued to control their own Cabinet at Stormont, but only as a province – something which is undefined in UK law and which placed the Northern Ireland majority (then) as both half in and half out of the mother country.

To this day, British readers will find that their passport declares them to be citizens of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. It also says “European Union”, which may soon disappear (or may not), but the passport’s title quite clearly separates Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) from Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland are thus citizens of the United Kingdom – but cannot claim, as the Protestants have, to be legally British. Or not entirely.

Once Britain imposed direct rule on Northern Ireland – after the brutal Protestant “B” Specials and the Protestant-run Royal Ulster Constabulary had been used to crush Nationalist pro-democracy demonstrations in the six counties – the majority might have welcomed Westminster’s decision, since it implied that the province was part of Britain. But the Protestant community developed a hard core of Carson-like militancy against Westminster and the British secretary of state in Belfast. Already at war with the IRA, the British found themselves in conflict with the Protestants.

It was around this time that The Times editor (I was then his Northern Ireland correspondent) decided I should put quotation marks around the word “Loyalists” in my news reports. I agreed with him. Years later, under Murdoch’s rule, the paper decided to drop the quotation marks. This inability to grasp what loyalty really means was typical of British cynicism towards Northern Ireland, and vice-versa. A former colleague of mine in Belfast reminded me this week of an attempt by the British government of the time to enlist Protestant Unionist support in the British parliament. “The Unionists drew up a big wish list for Westminster,” he said. “We knew they had run out of steam when one of their final demands was a tunnel, or a bridge, linking Northern Ireland to Scotland.”

And of course, the Protestants had run out of steam. The Good Friday agreement implied this, along with the IRA, whose veterans found themselves physically exhausted by the long war against the British. Some new and fair laws – European laws, in fact – were introduced into Northern Ireland. And then came last year’s British referendum which rendered the Irish-UK relationship far more fragile and gave the hard men of Northern Ireland the opportunity of brandishing their integrity once more.

A hard Brexit might put the border under police control. A new generation of Nationalists could destroy the border posts. Destroying a new IRA would become part of the “war on terror” for a British government. No wonder the Democratic Unionists now waiting for Theresa May’s bribes also want a soft border – for their own hard men would quickly take up the fight against a new IRA if it was hard.

In reality, of course – and this is a British conundrum foisted upon Northern Ireland – the very terms soft and hard Brexit are ridiculous. Nobody anywhere in the UK knows what they mean. Most UK citizens have probably grasped the fact that Brexit would be a tragedy of historic proportions.

For the sake of Tory party unity, Cameron called a referendum – and lost. Then, for the sake of Tory party unity, May called an election – and lost. Or, at least, she lost the majority which she thought she could improve on by holding this wretched election. It was highly instructive that May repeatedly announced that “the British people have spoken” after the narrow majority referendum, but that she wants to stay in power on a minority after the election, apparently unaware that the British people had spoken once again.

Corbyn’s sudden popularity among the British electorate was undermined only by his refusal to confront the Brexit crisis. Perhaps aware that Labour constituencies that voted to leave the EU might be lost to him if he did, he stuck to his domestic policies, believed in the young and used social media during the election. Besides, those politicians who used the Remain card as a vote-catcher largely perished in the election. But Corbyn’s lack of bravery may have robbed him of a larger vote – perhaps even the prime ministership – and hope for Northern Ireland.

The depth of this mistake, and of our refusal to turn the election into a second referendum, is now shown in its coldest light by the May Tories. Once more, they turn to political and financial bribery. May will have to hand over millions of pounds to the anti-abortion, misogynist, homophobic Protestant “Democratic Unionists” – note the quotation marks – to keep her own discredited Government in place.

In parliament, May will have to justify her alliance with this disreputable crew – and put the Good Friday agreement in serious danger – by reminding us of the fruits of Ulster’s “loyalty” (I suspect we may have Belfast’s patriotism in the Second World War trotted out). It will be a sorry business, lasting only so long as Arlene Foster and her Protestant party can be of use to her.

The Catholics of Northern Ireland will have no say in this. They chose abstentionism and thus cut themselves out of the parliamentary debates. But who in Sinn Fein would ever vote for May’s Government? It’s going to be cash for the province’s Democratic Unionists all the way. The amount will not be stated, but who knows – we may even see the secret offer of a tunnel or a bridge between Ulster and Scotland.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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