Last November, a few days after the Withdrawal Treaty was published, and on the eve of British Prime Minister Theresa May travelling to Brussels to sign it, Boris Johnson arrived in the North. He was in Belfast to address the DUP’s annual party conference; the night after the British Chancellor Philip Hammond attended it. Johnson entered the Crowne Plaza amid great fanfare. The visits were a show of solidarity and plamas by English Tories to keep the DUP on board the partnership arrangements. There was a standing ovation and lots of photos of a beaming Boris hugging Arlene. Smiles all around. Johnson told an enraptured DUP audience that the British government was “on the verge of making a historic mistake.” He told them: “We need to junk the backstop.”
Johnson told the DUP conference exactly what it wanted to hear. Just like Jacob Rees Mogg. In recent weeks as the debacle of a succession of failed Westminster votes and defeats for the May government unfolded, the Tory backbencher, and leader of the right wing European Research Group (ERG), told every media outlet who asked that his vote on the backstop and the Withdrawal Treaty was entirely dependent upon on the DUP. Using emotive and divisive rhetoric Mogg claimed that the Withdrawal Treaty would leave Britain a vassal state to the EU. He said: “It is not something I would vote for, nor is it what the British people voted for.” In his scathing criticism of Theresa May he accused her of giving Brussels “everything they want … It’s not so much a vassal state anymore as a slave state.” The DUP were delighted.
Last week it all came unstuck. Johnson and Mogg both u-turned, abandoned their friends in the DUP and walked through the lobby in Westminster in support of May’s Withdrawal Treaty. Could Johnson’s ambition to be the next leader of the Conservative Party have had anything to do with this volte-face?
Almost 100 years ago Edward Carson, the father of Ulster Unionism, was faced with a similar betrayal. Addressing the British House of Lords in December 1921, on the issue of the Treaty and the Partition of Ireland, Carson was contemptuous of the British government’s willingness to negotiate with the “Sinn Feiners”.
Carson said: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power. And of all the men in my experience that I think are the most loathsome it is those who will sell their friends for the purpose of conciliating their enemies, and, perhaps, still worse, the men who climb up a ladder into power of which even I may have been part of a humble rung, and then, when they have got into power, kick the ladder away without any concern for the pain, or injury, or mischief, or damage that they do to those who have helped them to gain power”.
Carson’s words echo down through the decades as a warning to unionist leaders that the real threat to political unionism comes from English Tories who are prepared to betray unionists in Ireland if English interests require it.
Thatcher – the Iron Lady - demonstrated that same calculating approach when, in November 1985, she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Irish government against the expressed wishes of political unionism. Ian Paisley led tens of thousands in mass demonstrations to oppose an Agreement that appeared to give the Irish government some sort of role in the North. It was his “Never, Never, Never” moment. Unionists felt betrayed. But Thatcher believed that the tokenism of the Agreement, with its objective of bolstering the SDLP against the electoral advance of Sinn Féin, were worth it. British interests again trumped unionist interests.
Last Friday, at two separate ‘Leave’ rallies outside Westminster, one of which was led by two loyalist bands from Scotland playing The Sash and other Orange songs, Ian Paisley Jnr tried to emulate his father. He treated the crowd to ‘No Surrender’ and claimed that: “Ahead of us stands the sunny uplands of Freedom! Do not let any government put upon you a Withdrawal Agreement that cuts our great nation in two”.
Almost two years ago after Theresa May’s disastrous general election saw the Conservatives lose seats and enter into an alliance with the DUP, I warned then that it would be a relatively short-lived experiment and that there would be tears at the end of it. In the midst of the back-stabbing and schisms at Westminster that is a daily feature of British news, the British political system is now more divided than at any time in its recent history.
It is also increasingly clear with every day that passes, and with each report that is published, that Brexit – whether hard or soft - poses a huge threat to the two economies on this island.
Brexit threatens thousands of jobs, our farming and agri-food industry, the human and civil rights of citizens, and the Good Friday Agreement. In addition, the British government is using this crisis to undermine the rights of Irish citizens living in the North - enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement – by trying to force British citizenship on to us. This is unacceptable. There is a huge onus on the Irish government to stand up to British jingoism and Tory partisan policies. It must defend the rights and entitlements of all citizens living in the North that are a fundamental part of the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement.
At the weekend thousands turned out at a series of events along the border, organised by the Border Communities Against Brexit, to protest at Brexit. They were good natured protests. But there is a clear determination on the part of the border communities not to see the clock turned back to the days of border checkpoints and disruption of community and family life.
There is now hardly a day passes without the issue of a referendum on Irish Unity and of a United Ireland being part of the discourse around Brexit. Former President Mary McAleese made a thoughtful speech last week on this and related issues. Reunification is now a mainstream topic. A referendum on Irish Unity will happen.
The fiasco that is Brexit, and the Tory and DUP shambles of a response to it, have together opened up a willingness for a real and meaningful conversation on Unity. It is an opportunity that must be grasped and not ignored by the Irish government. The debate is happening anyway. Dublin needs to embrace it and face the future. A united and fair future for everyone on the island of Ireland. So, let’s prepare for the referendum”.