Ever since last year’s EU referendum, the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland have thrust the province onto the radars of the mainland press.
Unfortunately, the almost total isolation of Ulster politics from the British national scene – the unfortunate result of combining extensive devolution with an entirely separate party system – means that understanding of it over here remains stubbornly limited, and a lot of the resultant coverage less than illuminating.
Nowhere is this more the case than with the idea that Brexit will lead to the province finally consenting to be subsumed into Sinn Fein’s Greater Ireland. The imposition of a hard border with the Republic and the loss of EU funds, the thinking goes, will make Northern Ireland’s position in the UK impossible.
The most striking thing about this line of reasoning is that it takes so little research to dismantle. Lord Bew has magisterially laid out the structural imperatives binding Ulster to the mainland for Policy Exchange. But you can get an idea of the actual logic of Brexit and the border on Northern Irish trade by consulting page one of the latest Northern Irish official statistics, which reveal:
- NI ‘exports’ to the rest of the UK total £13.8 billion
- NI exports to the non-EU world total £3.8 billion
- Exports to the Republic of Ireland total £3.4 billion
- Exports to the EU (sans Ireland) total £1.9 billion
If you’ve been counting along, you already know that this means that EU and Irish trade is worth £5.3 billion into the Ulster economy, whilst British and non-EU international trade account for £17.6 billion. That’s more than three times as much.
Not only do many of those writing about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland fail to mention this statistic but even the staunchest proponents of the nationalist view, such as Kevin Meagher, don’t seem to have a ready answer either.
Nor is this the only inconvenient fact of its kind: as Bew points out, those apparently-vital EU funds add up to merely one per cent of the Exchequer’s expenditure in Northern Ireland – and as a net contributor to Brussels Britain would be able to replace it all anyway.
A description of the solution that Irish legislators are currently considering to that conundrum is worth describing properly:
“Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit would need to be paid for – and the report finds that the Irish government should not have to pay it. Northern Ireland’s net fiscal deficit in 2013-14 was £9.3 billion (€12 billion). The Oireachtas report states that the current full Northern Ireland deficit should continue to be paid by HM Treasury for a period of 30 years after a vote for unification. This could be a hard one to sell to the British.”
Next time you read about the economic imperative of a united Ireland, remember that the closest thing to an official plan for it on the Dublin side involves post-Brexit Britain picking up the tab for three decades.
We saw a similar reaction when the EU announced that Northern Ireland could rejoin the EU by acceding to the Republic. This wasn’t surprising (to do else would be to deny Ireland a right already afforded to Germany) yet again was often treated as though that meant that such unification was actually coming.
As Newton Emerson, a unionist commentator, tweeted: “The only ominous sign for the union in the EU united Ireland guideline is that almost none of the London media understands it.”
In one sentence, he gets to the heart of the real long-term threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union: it’s political isolation. Contrast the keen interest taken in the apparent Tory surges in Scotland and Wales with the scant attention paid to the general election in Northern Ireland to see what happens when all your MPs, regardless of party, sit with the ‘Others’.
The basic case for the Union, especially in economic terms, is overwhelming. But political unionism in the province is in bad shape. The disastrous Stormont elections earlier this year only cast into stark relief how tired old-fashioned, capital-U Unionist politics has become.
A healthy, free-standing Union needs three pillars: support from both communities in Northern Ireland and from the mainland British. At present the Union’s standard bearers in Ulster are just about propping up one of the three.
Unionism needs shaking up, and absent fresh thinking from the established local parties (or even absent a devolved Assembly) it will fall on the Conservatives to provide it. The party remains woefully uncompetitive in Ulster politics but there are some reserved areas where it can get on the front foot.
First, the Government should come up with a way to make EU ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland into a win. As Emerson has pointed out, Brussels isn’t averse to case-by-case deals and there will almost certainly be one in this instance.
Instead of allowing it to undermine, or to be portrayed as undermining, the integrity of the UK, London should be pro-active in designing and advocating for a model that serves Northern Ireland, the Union – and Ireland too.
There’s no reason in principle why a special EU deal to keep the border soft couldn’t have elements that extended to the Republic too, and as Dublin needs to safeguard its own access to the British market there should be a common interest in such a broader arrangement. These isles are a natural unit, however much nationalists may hate it, and a generous approach to Ireland is in the best traditions of unionism.
Beyond the EU, James Brokenshire should heed Ben Lowry’s warnings and oversee a serious re-assessment of the various probes into the legacy of the Troubles, which are consistently and disproportionately targeting the British State and its agents over the terrorists they defeated.
If allowed to proceed a string of prosecutions against British troops and intelligence officers, coming on the heels of Tony Blair’s decidedly shady amnesty to their opponents, risks not only creating a false and exaggeratedly negative impression of Britain’s conduct during the Troubles but undermining the Armed Forces’ ability to wage that sort of asymmetrical war.
Such moves would ultimately be only a start. Re-connecting Ulster and the mainland will take much, much more, as will finding a way to sell an eminently-saleable Union to voters outside the traditional Unionist coalition.
But if Theresa May and Nick Timothy really are taking inspiration from Joseph Chamberlain, one of the Union’s greatest champions, they have no excuse not to do their bit.