If supporters of a united Ireland achieve their aim, they may want to erect statues of those who have done most to ensure the success of their cause. A strong contender for this honour will be Boris Johnson for destabilising the statelet created by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and making the partition of Ireland an international issue.
Ending the Troubles required compromises between Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists, British and Irish governments – and ultimately between Britain and the EU. A rickety but potentially stable balance of power was created in Northern Ireland which is now unravelling thanks to the crass manoeuvres of the British Government.
It is a depressing spectacle as Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss hack away at what was one of Britain’s greatest diplomatic achievements. Wallowing in hypocrisy, they claim to be riding to the rescue of the peace process while in fact undermining it by unilaterally revoking key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol designed to preserve the GFA in a post-Brexit world.
Eviscerating the Protocol
A minefield of distrust and disagreement is being systematically re-laid. This does not mean that violence is going to erupt any time soon, but that the most explosive issues in British and Irish politics are being disinterred. The peace settlement is under attack at several levels. Sinn Féin became the largest party in the Assembly election on 5 May and 53 out of 90 Assembly members support the Protocol.
But Johnson is effectively allying himself with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in supporting its demand that key parts of the Protocol relating to the Irish border be dropped before they will enter a power-sharing executive. This gives the British Government a respectable reason for eviscerating the Protocol which it wants to do anyway.
Given the backing of the Westminster government, the DUP has every incentive not to compromise with the other political parties which means deepening sectarian divisions. For all the talk in the media about ebbing religious identity, some 80 per cent of the electorate voted solidly green or orange in the poll earlier this month.
A united Ireland?
Close co-operation between the British and Irish governments was essential to re-establishing peace in Northern Ireland, but this is being casually discarded. In practice, the building blocks of the Northern Ireland mini-state created by the GFA are being dislodged one by one and will be very difficult to replace.
The DUP and the right wing of the Conservative Party may imagine that something closer to full-blown British authority can be restored in the province, largely ignoring the Sinn Féin success in the election and shorn of interference by Dublin and Brussels.
But by putting in doubt the reality of a power-sharing administration, the Government is propelling the Catholic community, whom the census results in June may show to be a majority of the population, to look increasingly to a united Ireland. The effect of Brexit has already been to disillusion many Catholics who formerly accepted the union with Britain.
Johnson’s antics – his false promises and U-turns – delegitimise British rule in Northern Ireland. Conservative parliamentarians expressed horror this week as the Government outlined its plans to gut the Protocol: “The duty of government is to uphold the law,” said Simon Hoare, the Conservative chairman of the Northern Ireland affairs committee. “If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it is inconvenient – if government does that, then so will the governed.”
A cult of Johnson
A similar criticism but with a different emphasis was made by the former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Patten who said that “if Johnson intends to try and override a deal that he himself signed I cannot, as a Conservative, support this”. He added by way of explanation that “we don’t have a Conservative Government. What we have is an English nationalist government with a cult of Johnson.”
It is not just English nationalism which is in the ascendant but a feckless version of it that sees the referendum of 2016 and exit from the EU as their Crécy and Agincourt. Amending the Protocol is an admission that Brexit was not “done” as claimed in the 2019 election, but blaming everything on Brussels retains its jingoistic attractions.
But when it comes to the future of Northern Ireland, this is a dangerous game. It empowers the DUP, with its history of sectarian intransigence and yearning for a return to Protestant domination in Ulster. They may have grudgingly accepted the GFA, but the party never relished power sharing. Before he mellowed, Ian Paisley used to bellow his rejection of bridge building to the Catholic community. “Where do bridges go?” he used to ask. “Over to the other side.”
The DUP never liked the agreement and its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party and joined the DUP to oppose it. The great attraction of Brexit was that it would re-establish a so-called hard border along the 300-mile frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. But the DUP leaders have become unrivalled experts in shooting themselves in the political foot, and ended up with the reverse of what they wanted: a trade border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Defiance towards Brussels
Like many people who pride themselves on trusting nobody, the DUP leaders ended up putting their trust in exactly the wrong person in the shape of Boris Johnson. They are now credulously doing so again and will probably come to regret it, yet there is more at work here than bone-headedness and wishful thinking on the part of the DUP. There is, rather, a generalised unionist refusal to accept that their old battle cry of “No surrender” might have worked when they were strong, but a rejection of compromise is no longer in their best interests. They should have fostered the peace agreement because it froze in place a balance of power that can only tip further against them in future.
It is easy to see why the Johnsonian Conservative Party and the DUP see much to like in each other, but they suffer from the same weakness – which is to overplay their hands. The DUP did so for years before reluctantly agreeing to power sharing and then trying to capsize the arrangement through Brexit.
The British Government has repeatedly breathed defiance towards Brussels only to be forced into humiliating retreats because the EU has the big battalions and Britain does not. Some in the Government may hope the Ukraine war will change this balance of forces, but there is no reason it should.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson is earning his place in the pantheon of those who fostered a united Ireland by undermining the power sharing mini-state in Northern Ireland which is its only alternative.
Are we watching the strange death of Protestant Ireland? Coming from that part of the world myself, I have a personal interest in this process, which has been going on since Catholic Emancipation in 1829.
The Good Friday Agreement provided a compromise solution which the Northern Ireland unionists should have grasped with both hands as a recipe securing their position permanently. But the Democratic Unionist Party was never happy with power sharing and, through comical ineptitude, ended up with a trade border running down the Irish Sea.
The Johnson government – perhaps the most irresponsible in British history – is now effectively allying itself with the DUP to sink the Northern Ireland Protocol without any idea of what it would put in its place. With any luck this piece of bravado will end up in another humiliating climbdown by Johnson, but, then again, Northern Ireland is not a lucky place.
Cockburn’s pick – Fergal Keane: Living with PTSD
I watched my friend Fergal Keane’s fascinating documentary about living with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) with an interest that was in some part personal. Fergal had reported barbaric wars for decades and suffered from the accumulated mental stress of witnessing their savagery. I witnessed a dozen or more wars between 1972 and the present – my uncertainty about the number is because one war would slide into another, so I do not know if I should count them once or twice.
I do not think I was traumatised by any of these, not even the Sabra-Shatila massacre in 1982 when 1,500 Palestinians were butchered by Christian militiamen in Beirut as the Israeli army looked on.
I remember the sweet smell of the decaying bodies of women and children piled up in the alleys of the shanty town in which they lived. Other corpses were half buried by bulldozers who appeared to have tried to hide the slaughter by scooping out mass graves but had given up because there were too many dead to conceal.
It seems to me that I can visualise these horrors quite clearly but they have never given me nightmares. I suspect that I was traumatised but by an event early in my childhood when I caught polio and spent several months in a ward of an orthopaedic hospital in Cork where physical cruelty and verbal abuse of the disabled children was routine.
The experience seemed to have numbed my reaction to violence and even drew me towards it in later years.