The greatest danger to the Union may be unionism itself

I don’t agree with the Tánaiste on many things, but I found myself in total agreement with something Leo Varadkar said to Mark Carruthers last week regarding the UK government’s Protocol Bill:

“I think it’s a government that’s…siding with [unionism]…and I think that’s a strategic mistake for people who want to preserve the Union…because if you continue to impose things…that the clear majority of people of Northern Ireland don’t want…more people will turn away from the Union…”

Much is indeed being imposed upon Northern Ireland by the incumbent Tory government against the will of most people here: Brexit, the legacy bill, Westminster’s legislative scheme to unilaterally disapply key aspects of the Protocol and so forth.

British and Irish interests have diverged drastically since Brexit, and it is against this backdrop that talk about Irish reunification has arguably become much louder in recent years than in the previous two decades.

This all occurs in an era which has heralded demographic change in the North and the growth of Sinn Féin across the island.

Whether or not Irish reunification is ineluctable, the totality of these factors make it somewhat more foreseeable to anybody whose head isn’t lodged in the sand. It is plainly undeniable that many certainties upon which unionism formerly relied are no more.

A while back, I wrote about how unionism must therefore “wake up, shake up and start selling the Union.” But while change has come thick and fast, unionism remains in a self-induced coma.

As if the self-professed Conservative and Unionist Party shaking the Union’s foundations in their pursuit of a hard Brexit wasn’t enough, the DUP and other unionist representatives maintain a strategy of antagonistic obstinacy that totally disregards the gusty winds of change.

Two months since the last election, the DUP show no sign of returning to Stormont. They maintain they won’t return until the Protocol, which most citizens and MLAs do not object to, is eviscerated by the Tories to their satisfaction (although nobody knows what that means, not even the DUP).

As such, the institutions that over two-thirds of the electorate voted to establish cannot be formed, preventing key decisions from being taken (not least with regard to health services which are frankly in a heap) and leaving the poor, sick and vulnerable in limbo. Indeed, the DUP’s abstentionism could be pushing Northern Ireland towards another outing at the ballot box, which may be hazardous for the DUP given Sinn Féin’s success in May’s election and the potential that moderate nationalists could come out in force behind Sinn Féin to, as Suzanne Breen described it, give the DUP “a bloody nose”.

Alongside abstaining from Stormont, the DUP have thrown their lot in with the very British government whose legislative proposals with regard to legacy issues and the Protocol itself are generating so much displeasure throughout Northern Ireland.

And the DUP remains associated with unelected rabble-rousers who oppose the Good Friday Agreement and with apologists for loyalist violence. Not satisfied with obstructing democracy themselves, the DUP readily enable others who wish to subvert it.

Meanwhile, the UUP’s ambition to grab a slice of the DUP vote in the recent election was not realised. The progressive alternative the UUP offered didn’t capture the imagination of voters, perhaps because some UUP figures appeared not to be on board with the UUP’s change of tack, making its rebrand appear superficial. The DUP and their associates therefore remain the de facto face of unionism.

Unionists can lambast Sinn Féin’s links with paramilitaries, their glorification of IRA violence and their collapsing of Stormont for three years all they like. Indeed, such criticisms are valid in my opinion. But doing so won’t change the fact that Sinn Féin is the leading party in the North and is by far the most popular party across the island as things stand.

At the same time, unionism is split three ways and the DUP’s current strategy vis-à-vis the Protocol, which is having a real impact upon the delivery of services here, is opposed by the vast majority of voters. The DUP’s frustration of democracy, combined with the antics of Boris’ blundering government provides endless fodder for Sinn Féin in their push for a border poll and for the outcome they desire.

I wouldn’t think many unionist representatives have listened to Christy Moore, but their behaviour reminds me of his 1983 anthem: “Don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work.” The DUP and other unionists dug themselves a massive hole by supporting Brexit (which of course most of Northern Ireland’s voters rejected), demanding that the UK leave the EU on hard terms and that Northern Ireland leave on exactly the same terms as Great Britain.

They dug deeper yet with their support for the Tory government which delivered Brexit and they seem determined to keep on digging. While this strategy appeals to hardline unionists, it has seemingly alienated moderate unionists, driven the growth of Alliance and pushed even the most moderate of nationalists towards Sinn Féin.

What’s more, irrespective of the issues the Protocol creates or may create, unionism’s current strategy along with that taken at Westminster is creating great instability for Northern Ireland and stoking up increasing resentment among many voters in a way which makes republicans more determined to see the Union’s demise and may make many undecided individuals rethink the value of being in the UK.

It may be an overstatement to say that the Union is in imminent danger. But it is certainly in a less comfortable position than a decade ago, when not many would have foreseen the fallout from Brexit, Sinn Féin’s growth on both sides of the border, or the boundless instability the incumbent Tory government would visit upon the UK.

Far from seeking to insulate Northern Ireland from this instability, the DUP and other unionist representatives have relentlessly enabled the Tories in creating it. The people of Northern Ireland are acutely aware of this and have sent many warnings to unionism, not least in May’s election when two-thirds of voters gave their first preference to parties (including the UUP) who pledged to return to Stormont immediately and these parties won over two-thirds of seats.

Yet, unionism hasn’t heeded those warnings. By proceeding upon its current trajectory, unionism gives an abundant stream of ammunition to the republican cause. Far from the Protocol being the existential threat to the Union that unionists maintain, the greatest danger to the Union may well be unionism itself.

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