Is Northern Irish Unionism the only Entity Keeping Britain in Ireland? – by Michael Lagan

Much is made of how partition was intended to be temporary. It was enacted on 3rd of May 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Act intended for both territories, North and South to remain within the UK and contained provisions, ironically, for their eventual reunification.  While this may be correct, we all know at this stage that those darnn British have not played ball…or cricket.  In fact we ended up with a hardcore Unionist Stormont Government not willing to give up the North at any cost.  Even, it seems if the democracy Unionism claims to hold dear is used in that process and is eventually the downfall of the entity known as ‘Northern Ireland’.

During the Brexit debates and after, some pretty damning polls came to light stating figures like 59% of Tory members would prioritise leaving the EU even if it meant letting go of the North of Ireland with 20% of Tory members happy to let the North go regardless if Brexit was an issue or not. Indeed in 2019, only 35% of the British public polled, wanted the North to remain within the UK and 13% straight up stated that the North should no longer be part of the UK. Some 43% polled said they did not have a view on whether the North stayed in the UK and it was for the people of Ireland to decide – and almost 60% of those said they did not care either way which way the people voted. It could therefore be claimed that, in England at least, we wouldn’t be missed if we kind of just fell off the edge of the UK.  Indeed, in the immortal words of Dominic Cummings – “I don’t care if Northern Ireland falls into the fucking sea.”

I’m going to get all controversial here and say that if it weren’t for Northern Irish Unionism, the British Government would have cut the North loose decades ago. It would have saved at least some of the 3,700 lives lost during the Troubles. Indeed, a top-secret memo written in 1972 by Sir Michael Carver, then a British army general and Chief of Staff, during the Troubles refers to Britain needing to find a way to “gradually escape” from its commitment to Northern Ireland.  Carver wrote – “If I am right, and we want a lasting solution, it must lie in finding a way in which HM Government can gradually escape from the commitment to the border.”  He suggested a “plebiscite”, or poll, organised “in such a way that it shows up the inequity of the existing border.”  

On the 9th of November 1990, Peter Brooke, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, gave a speech in London at the annual lunch of the British Association of Canned Food Importers and Distributors.  It was a very public but low-key speech directed at the Republican movement and seen by many, even within British political circles, that the British Government was open to progress on the issue of the border in Ireland.  Those in attendance were there to hear Brooke talk about canned food imports and other canned food related topics. 

However, Brooke spoke specifically about the North, “The obstacle in the development of a new and more inclusive Irish identity, if people want this for themselves, is not to be sought in Great Britain. Those who live here would not bar the way, if at some future time, that would be the wish of the people of Northern Ireland themselves.  Partition is an acknowledgement of reality, not an assertion of national self interest.  The border simply cannot be wished away.” At that point the camera was switched off due to Brooke having little of any significance to say to the canned food industry. What Brooke said immediately after the camera was turned off was explosive at the time but wasn’t caught on camera: “Britain has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland and would accept unification if the people wished it.”

England and the British Government have been looking for a way out of the ‘Northern Ireland’ issue for decades with the answer to that problem being enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. While it seems logical to simply say ‘call a border poll’ with the drive for a united Ireland growing by the day, the British Government has a duty of care to Unionists and ironically Nationalists, Republicans and ‘other’ in the North, whether we want that care or not.  One has to wonder why successive Secretaries of State for the North have refrained from calling a border poll when it is clear that Irish unity is a prominent subject even within Unionism. At a time when political and civic Unionism is expending huge amounts of energy and effort to play down unity and reassure Loyalism that a border poll, never mind Irish unity, is a fantasy of Republicanism and Nationalism, the British Government and Secretary of State for the North must surely see the tide has well and truly turned on the North being part of the UK.

Really, what needs to happen is both British and Irish governments growing a pair of proverbial balls and get together to call a border poll.  Unionism will either come along or they won’t, ultimately it’s their choice.  Either way we must start the planning process for a new Ireland, equivalent if not greater than that seen in the 600 page document released by the Scottish Government detailing what Scottish independence would look like.  What people need is certainty.  Who knows, a bit of certainty, figures and facts may quell the fears of some Unionists.

“A fear of the unknown keeps a lot of people from leaving bad situations.” – Kathie Lee Gifford.

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