When the news broke that a withdrawal Brexit agreement had been reached between the British government and the EU Sammy Wilson of the DUP responded in time worn fashion. It was, he said “a punishment beating for the UK because they dared to vote to leave the EU”.Even before he had read the agreement Wilson declared that the DUP would not support it. Later he told Channel 4 News, "If the EU think that what the IRA couldn't achieve, they're going to achieve, they have another thought coming to them."
Outside the Westminster bubble loyalist activist Jamie Bryson was warning that the Brexit deal would "almost certainly trigger a grassroots unionist reaction that would dwarf the anger of the flag protests and Drumcree".
This type of excessive threatening language has long been part of political unionism’s response when faced with the prospect of change. It’s a combination of hysterical exaggeration and threat. It’s the language of dire warnings, of civil war and armageddon, and of fear. It’s the language of 1998 when the DUP stood outside the negotiations as the Good Friday Agreement was achieved and then opposed it during the referendum campaign.
It is the language of 1985 when the DUP and UUP raged against Thatcher and the Anglo Irish Agreement or when hundreds gathered on a cold mountain waving their firearms certificates in defence of the union. It’s language which in the past excused and justified sectarian murder, and defended thousands of masked men in red berets marching through towns and villages.
It is the language of inequality and division which fed unionism’s anti-civil rights – anti-Catholic – attitude in the 1960s, and which 50 years earlier had created the apartheid orange state through partition.
DUP anger at Theresa May’s Brexit deal boiled over on Monday evening when its Westminster group voted in one instance with Labour against Theresa May and abstained in a number of other budget related votes in the British Parliament. The focus of the DUP now appears to be on joining with those remaining Brexiteer Ministers in the British Cabinet who believe that it is still possible to renegotiate the Brexit deal – something which has been ruled out by May and by the EU. They have only days to achieve their objective before an EU summit at the weekend signs off on the deal.
What happens if, as likely, they fail to change the withdrawal agreement? Will May survive? Have the dissidents in the Tory ranks the 48 signatories to demand a vote of no confidence in her leadership? Have the DUP overplayed their hand?
For most citizens living in the North the political machinations around the decisions which will shape our lives for decades to come has been reduced to a spectator sport. It’s a moment of high drama which has seen the North’s business community and farming sector publicly oppose the approach of both the DUP and UUP.
However, it is also a crisis with political implications that extend beyond the economic consequences of Brexit. It is always short sighted to judge any development solely by the discomfort it causes our opponents, notwithstanding the entertainment this provides. The reality is that the Good Friday Agreement now faces its greatest threat.
It is important to recall that in the section of the Good Friday Agreement, under Constitutional Issues, the role of the British government in the North is explicitly spelt out…”the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.”
This fundamental role as joint co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement – of being impartial - has been significantly undermined. While many of us, including mé féin, remain justifiably sceptical about this, it is what the British government signed up for. The British refusal to defend the rights of Irish language speakers; to protect equality and human rights for gay and lesbian citizens; to implement agreements on legacy; or to honour outstanding Agreement commitments, for example on establishing a Bill of Rights, and create a Civic Forum, are all evidence of the absence of ‘rigorous impartiality’.
Moreover, following Brexit the British Conservatives remain wedded to ending the role of the European Court of Justice and getting rid of the Human Rights Act which protects the equality and human rights principles of the Agreement.
All of this heightens the need for the Irish government to defend the Good Friday Agreement and for the North to have a special relationship with the EU that reflects our unique situation. This is essential if the Good Friday Agreement is to be protected.
In this context the objective of Irish unity takes on a greater significance and imperative. This is a logical, common sense outcome to the political, social and economic fractures imposed by partition but it also makes sense in the current Brexit provoked crisis. Reunification will allow for the North to again become part of the EU. Hard border? Soft Brexit? Better to have no border at all.