At the time of writing (I have to start with that phrase since these days anything can and often does happen), the mad gallop of Boris and his Brexiteers towards the Brexit cliff-edge seems to have been slowed if not stopped. So is there a small dark part of us that feels disappointed? At the back of our minds is there a tiny devil cavorting and grinning and rasping “Bring it on, Boris!” ?
After all, the harder the Brexit, the sooner people on this end of the island will be desperate to escape from the kingdom of Bonkers Johnson and into the relatively sanity of the EU by way of a border poll. If Brexit is reversed in a second referendum, or even if it happens but turns out to be less ghastly than predicted, might pressure for a border poll slacken? Might the nationalist middle classes ‘Wrap the green flag round me, boys’ but add, St Augustine- style “But not yet.” Mightn’t the tide towards a new Irelaand recede, with the nationalist/Catholic middle class settle back and tell us that sure aren’t we grand as we are, and so much better than we were?
Not so, I fear. This is a tide that is going to stay surging. For unionism, once so comfortably in command, will never know glad confident morning again. For many reasons.
The demographics, for a start. The Catholic/nationalist population within a year or two will exceed the ageing Protestant/unionist population. And since the whole purpose of the state’s existence was to keep control with a strong unionist majority, the loss of that majority will mean the loss of the argument for our north-east nest to exist. If it’s not to maintain a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people, what is Northern Ireland for?
Besides which, we can always depend on Britain to do the wrong thing. If there’s some way of raising Irish hackles, the Brits will find it. Often with the best of intentions. The present talk of a return to direct rule from Westminster is a case in point. The Tories may argue that certain decisions, especially with the Brexit cliff in clear view, simply cannot be made by civil servants, and in the absence of a working Stormont, they need direct rule to protect us from massive economic harm. Except that nationalist/republican reaction will be similar to that of a small cat confronted with a very big dog. Call it instinct, call it irrational, call it what you want, but the thought of being pulled closer into the boney breast of Britain makes great numbers of us shudder and grit our teeth. Look at the horlicks they made of Brexit. Direct rule? Thanks but no thanks.
Besides, even they were right and we are incapable of ruling ourselves in this NE Nest – we’d rather that Britain didn’t smear the fact on our face and rub it in. Who wants to be told they’re politically incompetent by people who are themselves spectacularly incompetent?
Then there’s Scotland. The Scot Nats were thinking about independence years before Brexit was even a gleam in Boris’s swivelly eyes. Now that they English political class has taken to devouring each other, do you think that’ll encourage Scots to think Better Together? A second Scottish independence referendum is now almost certain, with a strong chance of success this time. If that’s what happens, that’ll leave Wales and ourselves on the fringe of the precious union, while at its centre, English nationalism grows more delusional with every passing day.
Let’s grasp the gloomy fact: Brexit of any kind is a cloud in which there is no silver lining. With the centenary of the creation of our NE nest, it’ll be time to take stock. How have things been here economically (disastrous – the north started as the rich industrial part of the island, and look at it now), militarily (the border has been under attack of varying intensity for 100 years), and socially (we’re cut off from our kith and kin in the south and we’re cut off from trust in those with whom we’re supposed to power-share). Not what you’d call a five-star rating for the north-east of Ireland.
No, Brexit has put thoughts into our heads and they simply won’t go away. The choice is to run shackled with Britain over the Brexit cliff-edge, or find ways of staying in the EU with all its warts. The DUP may wish to shackle up and keep running; the rest of us have, now and forever, had enough.