Wednesday, 21 May 2014

UKIP and the Stability of Northern Ireland

The question of what effect Scots independence might have on Northern Ireland has been raised by more than one commentator recently, with some controversy surrounding the reporting of remarks by former UUP leader David Trimble. Looked at dispassionately however, it's clear that, while Scotland going its own way would disconcert Unionists and give heart to Nationalists in equal measure, there's no reason why it should, of itself, lead to renewed violence or to Irish unity, for the simple truth is that it's not, of itself, a game-changer. Probably its biggest impact would be to nip in the bud the development of deep-seated and sustainable Unionist sentiment among middle-class Catholics, who, the Irish language and contentious parades notwithstanding, aren't nearly as oppressed as they were in the 1960s. Unionists would continue to vote in line with how they view their national identity, and even if a few more might stay at home on election day or even emigrate to Britain, that would hardly change much.

Such developments are significant only in conjunction with demographic change, which is a slow process. Although Catholics will be a majority in the general population by 2017, that will not be true among voters until a few years later, and there has always been a reasonable minority of Catholics who would vote against unity in any referendum.

A far greater threat to the stability of Northern Ireland is the re-imposition of a manned land border complete with customs posts between North and South, something that a UK exit from the European Union would make a distinct possibility. Although there's an outside chance that some sort of derogation could be negotiated, it remains at least a very likely scenario.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the advent of the more recent Troubles, the IRA commonly attacked customs posts along the wavy and indefensible border, and it's hard to envisage that, to some degree at least, the same wouldn't happen again. Imagine what would happen if troops had to be drafted in to protect isolated outposts, if they were themselves attacked, necessitating the drafting in of more troops. Not only that, but imagine that same scenario attended by a slender Catholic majority in the North, by Scots independence, and by political stasis or collapse at Stormont, all within the space of a few years.

One scenario is that there will be a narrow "no" vote in September, followed by a second referendum after England votes to leave the European Union while Scotland opts to stay. A triumph for UKIP tomorrow could therefore ultimately result in England losing both Scotland and Northern Ireland, in the latter case following another upsurge of violence. As with Scots independence, that violence would not itself result in British — or, more correctly, "English" — withdrawal, but it would persuade many more Catholics, by that stage a voting majority, that their future lay with the South.

For its part, the Republic's Government would be quite justified in viewing the re-imposition of a manned border as a breach of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, although it would almost certainly refrain from stating that publicly.

In Northern Ireland, many Unionists have sympathies with UKIP. To some extent, this may simply be another case of seeking friends without bothering too much about how savoury they are. There have been far worse examples. In one bizarre incident, the West Belfast UDA festooned lamp-posts with Israeli flags as a counter to the Palestinian ones in Republican areas only to be advised to take them down again to avoid offending a visiting delegation from the neo-Nazi Combat 18 — whose name allegedly derives from the first and eighth letters of the alphabet. Of course, it's also possible that some Unionist UKIP sympathisers will have done the math with regard to the border. While the siege mentality is rejected by some, for others it is the ultimate recognition of partition.

As for England, it will make its decision without any regard for the consequences in Scotland or Northern Ireland — or for the wishes of Wales, a relatively poor country that has been a major beneficiary of EU funding over the years. And the EU will fall victim to a proxy hatred genteelly deflected from the brown people next door.

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