This blog first appeared as a column in The Andersonstown News
Only a fool would squeeze all unionists into one category. Like nationalists and republicans, unionists come in all shapes and sizes, all temperaments and outlooks.
Let’s take an example: Sammy Wilson of the DUP and the good Lord David Trimble. Sammy is red-cheeked and a bit overweight, the good Lord is thin-lipped and somewhat pale. Sammy is moustached and joking, has had a photograph of his naked rear on the front of the tabloids; the good Lord is clean-shaven and prissy, and the very thought of his naked rear makes one catch one’s breath. And could you ever, in your maddest dreams, have seen the good Lord rise from his place in the House of Lords yelling “Go to the chippy!”?
And yet both men have unionism in common, and when it comes to a moment of crisis, they tend to gaze into the same crystal ball.
When nasty graffiti began to appear in Larne, threatening those operating the checks on goods coming from Britain to North(east)ern Ireland (NEI), Mid and East Antrim Borough Council withdrew twelve members of staff from carrying out checks. East Antrim is, of course, Sammy Wilson’s bailiwick, and at the time he declared “The fettering of trade between GB and NI has now regrettably led to threats against staff at both Larne and Belfast Ports. These threats must be condemned without equivocation and I welcome support from all parties to withdraw staff.” In case you missed it, Sammy in that second sentence condemned all threats and welcomed the result of these threats. Hokey-cokey Sammy.
And the good Lord Trimble? “If the genuine grievances and resentments caused by the protocol are not addressed politically, then there is real potential for those who have engaged in past violence to take action again into their own hands.”
If Sammy and the good Lord had two more members, they could form a barbershop quartet. They are both warning that, despite an agreement signed by their Prime Minister, loyalists will (again) resort to violence.
Both Trimble and Wilson indicate that they issue their warnings with a heavy heart. Sammy has said he condemns such behaviour “unequivocally”. The good Lord chooses to focus on the protocol itself: “I personally feel betrayed by this”, he says, and the majority unionist population in Northern Ireland “feel betrayed too.”
Of course, once you convince people that they have been betrayed, you point them towards violence as a reaction.
There has been much talk of a border poll, and many southern politicians as well as northern unionists have warned that 50% + 1 in favour of a reunited Ireland would be so disastrous, we dare not embark on any such poll. Why? Because the 50% – 1 – unionists – would feel betrayed and might resort to violence. The only possible route to a reunited Ireland is to make the northern state work and cross-community bonds strengthened until there are enough unionists who will agree to a reunited Ireland.
Given that the Troubles are seen by the southern establishment as a thirty-year blood feud, southern politicians are keen to avoid having history repeat itself by provoking loyalism.
What links these two matters – the Irish protocol and a border poll – is that unionism must have its way. If the protocol and the border in the Irish Sea are not removed, there may very well be loyalist violence. If there is a border poll and it is won by those seeking Irish reunification, there may very well be loyalist violence. And so the logical thing to do is to stop having a border in the Irish Sea and stop all attempts to hold a border poll.
The thing about appeasing unionism by abolishing the Irish protocol and avoiding the holding of a poll on Irish reunification is, you’re saying “OK, the threat of violence trumps everything”. Alas, there is a catch. In avoiding unionist violence at all costs, you’re conceding that democracy and international agreements must be dismantled and concede defeat, because unionism is waving a gun or threatening to wave a gun.
The trouble with that is that people who support democracy and the observance of international agreements may feel they have no choice but to reach for their gun.