It’s easy to misinterpret what’s published in newspapers, and particularly so when the narrative appears favourable to a reader’s own point of view. However, when three pillars of the British establishment’s conservative press publish articles raising doubts about Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom, and all published within the space of one week, it is at least worth reflecting on the significance of this phenomenon.
Speculating on whether or not this is part of a conspiracy is to miss the point. The fact that the Evening Standard, Financial Times and Sunday Times are covering the issue in this fashion is a clear indication of informed thinking within Britain’s ruling class.
The series of articles began with a comment article from the editor of the Evening Standard, the former Tory party chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne. And, notwithstanding the bitter Ulster unionist description of him as yesterday’s man, Osborne not only reflects the received wisdom of high-level opinion-formers in London but also commands the attention of many influential Conservative Party movers and shakers.
His assessment of the Six Counties’ position within the United Kingdom is blunt and startling. “Northern Ireland is already heading for the exit door,” he writes. It pains him to report that “most here [i.e. in Britain] and abroad will not care.”
The full article is well worth reading, albeit deeply alarming for Northern unionists, with Osborne arguing that Scotland is vital to the sustainability of the United Kingdom while Northern Ireland is not.¹
As if that dose of reality therapy were not enough, the Financial Times journalist Robert Shrimsley wrote an article published under the heading “Democratic Unionists are now Irish reunification’s secret weapon.”² As the title indicates, he filleted the DUP’s incompetent performances. In his biting assessment he wrote that the strategic judgements of the North’s largest party “have been among the most consistently witless in recent politics.”
He illustrated his claim by stating that the ultra-unionist DUP scuttled Theresa May’s withdrawal plan, which, as he sees it, “maintained the integrity of the union . . . only to see Boris Johnson sign up to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.” He then pointed to the impact of the current Brexit deal, which keeps the North inside the EU customs union and single market for goods, weakening its legal and commercial ties to the United Kingdom—an opinion echoing Osborne’s description of the Northern Ireland protocol as delivering, de facto, an economic united Ireland.
Newsagents had hardly removed copies of the above-mentioned papers from their shelves when the Sunday Times joined the discussion. Although not actually predicting the demise of the Union, it published the results of an opinion poll showing that a majority of people in the Six Counties would support holding a border poll within the next five years.
While such a poll at this point would most probably return a slim pro-Union majority, the very fact that it would take place underlines the precarious nature of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. Moreover, in spite of the newspaper’s assertion that an end to partition is not within sight, the findings of the opinion poll were not nearly so conclusive in that respect.
Reaction to all this was predictable. Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin welcomed the findings and called on the Dublin government to prepare for unity. Not surprisingly, Arlene Foster disagreed, declaring demands for a referendum to be reckless and divisive. Interestingly, though, less than twelve months ago Foster was predicting that there wouldn’t be a border poll in her lifetime. Perhaps the chastening experience of dealing with duplicitous senior Tories brought about a change of mind.
Regardless of opinions held around the Stormont Executive table, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a serious debate within British governing circles about the future of the entire Union, a discourse that must surely include the Six Counties. Moreover, during any such dialogue some participant is bound to mention the difficulties created for the Tory party during Brexit negotiations by the dreary old “Irish (Northern nowadays) question.”
All told, it’s clear that partition is no longer only an academic subject but is instead a live political issue. To repeat the words of one of Ireland’s leading communists of the last century, we may ignore the national question but the national question won’t ignore us.
Whether the ruling class here and in Britain are familiar with the thinking of the late Seán Murray is doubtful, but we can be sure that on this one point they at least share his analysis. Mícheál Martin may fluster and prevaricate while the DUP growl and fulminate about reunification, but there’s little doubt that the permanent government or the deep state is making pragmatic calculations. They are aware that constitutional change is inevitable, and are determined to shape the resulting governing institutions and economic system.
Britain’s long retreat from empire has left it with much experience in determining the transition from direct rule to neo-colonial status. After all, the Irish Free State was one of its early successes in this field. Using this expertise, and availing of willing participants in the 26 Counties, they are undoubtedly already laying plans to ensure that a united Ireland remains embedded within the global free-market zone and supportive of imperialism.
This is not to say, of course, that the left should oppose the ending of partition. Breaking the constitutional link with Britain must create a new set of conditions in the country as a whole, and all demanding answers. Would the population, for example, be satisfied with a health service not fit for purpose, prepared to accept a never-ending housing crisis, or remain content with the ever-increasing inequality between its citizens?
Worryingly, though, there are those who would see that the answer to these questions lies in crushing such demands by promoting an authoritarian, quasi-fascist regime. Rumbling or even orchestrated discontent within loyalism would provide a spurious excuse for doing so.
A simplistic agenda merely calling for a united Ireland risks just such a disastrous outcome. To counter the likelihood of this 21st-century carnival of reaction, the left has to be explicit about the type of united Ireland we want. It is vital, therefore, to campaign not only for an end to partition but for the establishment of an all-Ireland workers’ republic.
After all, we still only want the earth.
- George Osborne, “Unleashing nationalism has made the future of the UK the central issue,” Evening Standard, 20 January 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/y6g6b5tr).
- Robert Shrimsley, “Democratic Unionists are now Irish reunification’s secret weapon,” Financial Times, 20 January 2021.