Ulster Deserves Better than Second Class Status

June 18, 2019

 

Talk has now turned to whether or not the Stormont power-sharing talks should be suspended for the Summer. What is most striking however is not the talks themselves, but rather then sense of apathy and disinterest amongst the general public.

The reason for that is significant: because the restoration of power-sharing and devolved government is the wrong goal. Nobody really wants it. Sinn Fein are determined to bring down any arrangement which would allow Northern Ireland to function within the United Kingdom. Most unionists have little enthusiasm for restoring a system that makes Sinn Fein rule over them, regardless of whether or not they are in an awkward, enforced coalition with the DUP.

 

It is little wonder that unionism is plagued by apathy and low turnout. Why should ordinary unionists be enthused about a system of devolved government which entrenches Sinn Fein in power, institutionally separates Ulster from the rest of the UK and has repeatedly failed and broken down?

 

The biggest danger facing unionism right now is that amongst ordinary voters, apathy is turning into a sense of resignation. Nothing makes this clearer than the reaction to the Northern Ireland backstop proposed in May's disastrous Brexit deal. It was a sad - but more significantly - a predictable betrayal.

 

The backstop would have placed Northern Ireland within the regulatory sphere of Dublin and Brussels while severing it from the rest of the United Kingdom; no unionist could accept it. It was a major danger to the constitutional integrity of the Union. And yet there were no protests in the streets, no great coming together of unionist civil society to stand for Ulster's place in the UK. There were no scenes reminiscent of the British government's previous betrayals; for example as with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

 

The only significant figure to take a passionate and outspoken stance on the issue was the TUV's Jim Allister, and that is to his credit. He was absolutely correct to point out the separate, second-class treatment embodied in the backstop, and the constitutional danger it posed to the Union.

 

But a rather hard and sober truth is that these things are nothing new - in fact they have become the norm; they define the politics of Northern Ireland over the past several decades . And that is why there was no great unionist reaction against the backstop. It is why the fiery rhetoric employed against it - while absolutely correct in principle - rang somewhat hollow.

 

That last point is hugely significant - it rang hollow because we have been here before many times. Mainstream unionism has long come to accept second-class treatment and a rather ambiguous constitutional position for Northern Ireland within the UK.  So why would anybody expect the wider unionist public to suddenly be shocked and appalled by the backstop?

 

The 1985 Anglo-Irish Treaty gave the Irish Republic a direct, institutionalised role in the governance of Northern Ireland; indeed Dublin co-brokered the current power-sharing talks, a staggering interference in the affairs of a foreign nation.

 

Since 1998 Northern Ireland's place within the UK has been left open-ended, and the British parliament itself has surrendered its sovereignty over Ulster to the mechanisms of the Belfast Agreement. Through it, Northern Ireland's future is to be decided collectively with consent between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; the United Kingdom as an entity in its own right is pushed almost entirely out of the equation.

 

The very fact of devolved government - of passing entirely separate laws and legislation for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK - is another elephant in the room. Some may argue the creation of devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales normalises this, but the truth is those assemblies merely reflect the increasing disintegration of the United Kingdom. Since the onset of devolution Scotland has rapidly descended into the same tribal, constitutional policies of unionism and nationalism that defines politics in Ulster. Still, roughly 85% of the UK population live under what in Ulster is dubbed "direct rule" - devolved government is separate treatment.

 

Indeed, even the most impassioned critic of the backstop - Jim Allister - accepts all kinds of separate treatment for Northern Ireland. Separate laws, separate legislation, a separate assembly (and consequently second-class MPs at Westminster, stripped of any say on devolved matters at our British parliament). The TUV opposes mandatory coalition government but not devolved government per se - indeed it takes its seats at Stormont and endorses separate laws and legislation for Northern Ireland; it stands on a devolved manifesto. As a party it organises only in Northern Ireland, accepting Ulster's separate party system. Like the DUP it fell into the trap of the "our wee border" mentality when it came to the Irish border question, instead of recognising that that "Irish border" is in fact the United Kingdom border; the point at which the UK as a sovereign nation must exercise regulation over goods and people. The only alternatives are either an internal border, or we accept no border controls at all.

 

Unionism must recognise that if separate, second-class treatment is accepted in everyday government then outrage - however justified - over the sort of separate, second-class treatment embodied in the backstop will continue to ring hollow to ordinary, disaffected unionists.

 

As power-sharing talks once again grab the headlines, Unionism must consider a real change of direction; a new way forward. The politics of separate, second-class treatment must end, but they cannot end with the restoration of devolved government. Only UK Unionism - full political integration for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom - offers a real solution. That means an end to devolved, Dublin and Brussels rule, and an end once and for all to everyday second-class, separate treatment.

 

This is the traditional, historical Unionist position, and it is the position that we as UK Unionists maintain.

 

 

 

 

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