There are two only things that I can say with certainty about Brexit. One is that it has driven normally level-headed people off the rails; the other is that journalism seems to have been worst hit by this ailment.
I can’t explain the former, but the latter I suspect is due to the naivete and inexperience of the reporters covering the story, especially but not exclusively those working for London outlets.
It has been, remember, more than twenty years since the Troubles ended and many of those now reporting Brexit were in nappies, short pants or whatever young girls wear, when, in the mid-to-late 1990’s, the guns fell silent in Belfast. Their understanding of the why’s and wherefore’s of the Troubles is consequently lacking, to put it mildly.
And these are also days when an American reporter can make a whole seven trips to Belfast, write a book filled with stories that were first told nearly a decade ago, and Hollywood comes calling, movie contract in hand.
The problem is that so many in the ‘Hard Border Will Rekindle The Troubles’ camp have accepted, without much consideration it seems, the following proposition: the Troubles were caused by the IRA trying to force the British out of Northern Ireland, abolish the Border and re-unite the country.
Since the IRA wanted to remove the Border, the Troubles were therefore caused by the Border. It follows that anything which strengthens the Border will anger the IRA, persuade them to reach for their guns again and thus endanger the peace deal enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
Ergo, Brexit is a threat to peace on the island.
Much of the media appears to have swallowed this analysis uncritically; so has the European Commission, it seems, while the Varadkar government in Dublin has skillfully (and cynically) peddled this version of Ireland’s recent history in corridors of power around the world.
The real story of how the Troubles began is very different. They didn’t start because of the Border but because of the nature of the state erected by Unionists within the boundaries of the Border, a state that one historian memorably dubbed ‘A Factory of Grievances’, in which Catholics were discriminated against at virtually all levels of society.
Had the Unionist politicians who held power in those early days adopted a more generous attitude towards their Catholic citizens, it would all have been very different. But they didn’t. And so when the civil rights movement began, Unionist leaders chose repression, as they always had, as their response. For a few critical years the British either did nothing to ameliorate the situation, or so little it did not matter. And so began the slide into the Troubles.
The Border was scarcely mentioned by the civil rights protesters in those early days; it was only when internment was introduced and Bloody Sunday happened that Catholics in significant numbers began to ask whether the state ever could be reformed, and gave support in a significant way to the IRA, whose simple goal was to destroy Northern Ireland.
The first Unionist leader to try to stem this rising tide was Terence O’Neill. A former captain in the Irish Guards, his roots were in the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and arguably that gave him a better feel for the tide of events than many in his party.
As prime minister of Northern Ireland in the mid-1960’s, he attempted to assuage the Catholics community with a simple, if condescending philosophy: give a Catholic a job and a decent house and he’ll behave like a virtuous Protestant.
He visited Catholic schools and was filmed shaking hands with nuns, a sight that thrilled many Nationalists but horrified Unionists. He invited the prime minister of the Republic to Belfast where they sipped tea and munched biscuits in Stormont Castle – a gesture of friendship that went down well on the Falls Road but had the Orangemen of the Shankill up in arms.
Patronising and minimal as this was, it very nearly worked and probably would have had not a loud preacher by the name of Ian Paisley worked his voodoo magic and with the help of bombings of water pipes and electricity stations in Protestant East Belfast disguised as the IRA’s work, he was forced out of office and politics. With O’Neill went the last chance at peaceful reform.
The real point of the Terence O’Neill chapter in the North’s history is that many if not all Catholics/Nationalists would probably have settled for what he was offering them.
In those days the IRA in the North, especially Belfast, was a small, introverted group of dreamers, organised largely along family lines; political beliefs were inherited along with genes. Forced to choose marriage partners from within the republican clan and tiny in number, the IRA in the pre-Troubles era was largely disavowed and avoided by many Catholics.
The truth about Northern Catholics then, and even now, is that their demands were pretty modest. A large section of them, possibly a majority, would have settled for a fair swig from the jug over a united Ireland.
These days things appear to be different, but are they? Sinn Fein dominates Nationalist electoral politics but only because the party has ended the IRA’s violence and occupies ideological ground which once defined the SDLP.
So what are the implications of all this for the other political fantasy spawned by Brexit, that if there was a referendum on Irish unity, a majority would vote Yes.
The latest contribution to this frenzy came in, of all places, an opinion column in the New York Times on March 16th, written by one Timothy Egan and titled: ‘A St Patrick’s Day Miracle: United Ireland‘.
His argument is that the Good Friday Agreement makes allowance for a Border poll (wrong, that possibility has been in place since 1972, long before the GFA), and, he writes:
From the depths of British bungling, hubris and incompetence is emerging a St. Patrick’s Day miracle: the real chance of a united Ireland……After more than 800 years, it’s not just possible but also seems inevitable that London’s ruling reach will no longer extend to part of the island west of the Irish Sea.
The solution? It’s there in the not-so-fine print of the peace agreement. Should a majority of Northern Ireland residents desire to leave Britain, it is required to call for a vote of those people.
That majority is fast approaching…….Catholics, long a persecuted minority, will soon be a majority in Northern Ireland if demographic trends continue.
Except, as Mr Egan might have discovered had he done a bit more research, the reality is a tad more complicated. He is making the same mistake that hard-line Unionists did when they ditched Terence O’Neill, assuming that all Catholics share a passion for Irish unity when the reality is that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland is a complicated beast and has a range of views on the matter and not all favour Irish reunification.
He would have done well before writing his piece to have consulted an MRBI poll on this subject published in The Irish Times on March 7th, in plenty of time for his column. Evidently he missed it.
Now, some people will remember me as the guy who routinely preached that the results of opinion polls in Northern Ireland should be regarded with great scepticism. But that was when the Troubles were still raging and I believed then that such polls routinely understated support for the extremes, as in support for Sinn Fein, because those being questioned did not want to admit their true feelings to a stranger.
But that was then, and this is now and I have come to the view that current opinion polls conducted in these more peaceful times do not suffer from that particular deficit.
The results are interesting, to say the least, although a likely disappointment for those who share Mr Egan’s exuberance.
Asked whether there should be a referendum on Irish unity, 45 per cent of all respondents said No; 38 per cent said Yes. Broken down further, 22 per cent of Protestants believed there should be a referendum while 62 per cent said there shouldn’t be. Fifty-five per cent of Catholics said there should be a poll, 30 per cent said there shouldn’t be.
Asked how they would vote if there was a referendum, 45 per cent said they would vote No; 32 per cent said Yes and 23 per cent were Don’t Knows. Broken down into religious persuasion, 75 per cent of Protestant plumped for No while just 9 per cent said Yes. Fifty-eight per cent of Catholics said Yes but 18 per cent said No while 22 per cent said they Didn’t Know. The Don’t Knows on the Protestant side came in at 16 per cent.
What these results say seems to confirm the analysis of political loyalities outlined in the early part of this article. Protestants are pretty solid in their opposition to Irish unity (75 per cent No; 25 per cent either Yes or Don’t Know) while Catholics are much more uncertain about the merits of Irish unity (58 per cent would vote Yes in a referendum, while 40 per cent would vote No or did not know how they would vote) and implicitly would be happy in a Northern Ireland that treated them well.
If this opinion poll is meaningful, and I suspect it is, then Mr Egan and his ilk have got the story badly wrong. A Border poll is likely to produce the same result it did in 1973, when the first and only referendum was held.
Can we now have a sane and fact-based discussion on the implications Brexit may have – or not have – for politics in Northern Ireland?