Partition running out of road

The continuing stalemate in northern Irish politics is not simply due to the Brexit protocol or tendentious rumours of joint Dublin–London authority: the underlying cause of chronic political deadlock is the result of unionist anxiety.

     There is a growing realisation throughout the region that the future of the Six-County state as a distinct political entity is in question. Consequently, practically every issue, regardless of how seemingly minor, is viewed through the constitutional lens. Fearful of conceding an inch, the DUP is unable and unwilling to participate in the normal give-and-take of parliamentary politics; hence the impasse.

     Evidence of a heightened recognition of the North’s fragility is even to be found in the words and actions of one of the most prominent unionist families, the Paisleys. Rev. Kyle Paisley, son of the late Ian, recently addressed the Seanad’s public consultation committee. During his presentation he said that talk of a united Ireland is not as easily dismissed as it once was.

     While that observation was significant, his brother Ian Junior made a still more telling contribution to the subject. Last month the fun-loving MP for North Antrim introduced, with the support of his party leader, a Referendums (Supermajority) Bill in the House of Commons. If enacted, this would ensure that significantly more than a 51 per cent majority would be required to change the North’s constitutional position. The fact that such a measure would be considered necessary by the DUP is surely a sign of diminishing confidence in the durability of Northern Ireland.

     That partition and the union are at risk of running out of road is hardly surprising. Since its foundation, the northern Six Counties has ever been a dysfunctional political entity. Northern Irish unionism, though often refusing to recognise this reality, is in retreat. Over recent decades its one-time position of absolute power and authority has been steadily eroded—to such an extent that it is now facing the unwelcome spectacle of having a Sinn Féin politician positioned to claim the role of Northern Ireland’s first minister.

     If that wasn’t enough, the recent census has delivered an ominous signal to supporters of the union. Although it is important not to fall into the trap of sectarian head-counting, demographics has always played an important part in unionist calculations. The changing population make-up will not of itself bring about an end to partition; however, the new composition has fragmented the old monolith and dissolved the certainty that had once locked the North into a political Ice Age.

     Meanwhile the northern political entity is ruled over by a dysfunctional United Kingdom. The British state is now struggling to come to terms with the destructive failure of neoliberalism. Hardly a day goes by without another gloomy report on the state of its economy and wider social infrastructure. Last month the right-wing Daily Telegraph published an article claiming that “the NHS is failing Britain . . .” Shortly thereafter an OECD report drew attention to the fact that the British economy is lagging substantially behind other G7 and G20 countries.

     Elsewhere, the Financial Times was informing its readers that current wage stagnation is the worst since 1820. Yes, 1820—one year after Peterloo. Moreover, Martin Wolf, the paper’s associate editor and chief economics commentator, has predicted huge reductions in living standards for the British people. Interestingly, albeit ominous perhaps for some, he ended the same article by arguing for a close and stable trading relationship with the EU¹—an outcome that would surely appeal to many in a struggling economy further shaken by the ill-judged intervention of Truss and Kwarteng.

     Yet such an outcome would be incompatible with an acrimonious, unilateral shredding of the protocol—a reasonable analysis that can only add to unionist anxieties.

     Taken together, the changing make-up of the population and a faltering British state have undermined unionist certainty. No longer able to rely on crude majoritarianism, it is now also losing the once-powerful “superior UK quality of life” argument.

     As for the old Home Rule and Rome Rule chestnut—for all its faults, the Republic is not now in thrall to the Vatican, thereby diminishing the old stratagem of the Orange card

     This new reality has also thrown up another worrying phenomenon for pro-union diehards: that of constitutional agnosticism—in other words, the Alliance Party types, people who for the most part broadly favour the English connection but are prepared to be pragmatic and open to persuasion on the issue of partition.

     Faced with this different dispensation, mainstream political unionism has proved itself incapable of adjustment. Unable to come to terms with the new order, it has retreated, adopting a form of siege strategy. The hope is that by creating a continuous crisis they can panic supporters into remaining within the fold, and this while hoping to simultaneously dissuade the Southern establishment from intervening in any meaningful way.

     Under the current implementation of the Belfast Agreement, this strategy is capable of prolonging the deadlock. Its weakness, however, lies in the fact that it is purely negative and therefore vulnerable to an active challenge. There are several scenarios for how intervention might happen, but the most potent could come from London.

     Whether Her Majesty’s Government would act in such a way is open to debate. At first there would be a widespread and understandable preference to let sleeping dogs lie. Then there would be opposition from hard-line, ultra-reactionary elements within the Conservative Party ideologically supportive of unionism.

     Against this do-nothing policy will be pragmatic calculations of Britain’s self-interest. Can Britain afford a trade war with the European Union simply to appease the DUP? Would overturning the protocol create problems with the Biden government? How might negating international agreements be viewed by Britain’s allies in the Republic? Moreover, does continuous long-term stagnation in the North threaten political stability, or even peace?

     On balance, it would appear that Britain wants to end the deadlock. The North’s secretary of state, Chris Heaton-Harris, has warned that he will implement savage budget cuts in the absence of a sitting Assembly. Coupled with a threat to introduce water charges, the intention may be to pressure Jeffrey Donaldson and colleagues. Add to this a recent leak from Westminster embarrassingly pointing out that the former DUP leader Edwin Poots sought to dilute the protocol in order to favour the North’s farming community.²

     That much is public knowledge. What we don’t know is whether bribery or, alternatively, arm-twisting is happening behind the scenes. The St Andrews Agreement, for example, made it clear that were there to be no progress by a certain date the British and Irish governments would work together to implement a “plan B” over the heads of the Northern politicians.

     Whether such a scenario is in the offing is impossible to tell. What we can say, though, is that how ever and when ever the present stalemate ends, it will lead to a further weakening of the union.

     It is important that the left recognise this and begin to act accordingly, and act now. It is clear that conservative Ireland is already laying its plans for a post-partition Ireland. And we, the working class, certainly don’t need another century of Freestatery.


1. Martin Wolf, “No jam today and none tomorrow,” Financial Times, 18 November 2022.

2. Peter Foster and Jude Webber, “Top unionist tried to dilute NI protocol bill,” Financial Times, 26 November 2022.