Northern Ireland-only backstop could be Johnson’s gift to unionism

Northern Ireland-only backstop could be Johnson’s gift to unionism

Tumultuous events seen at their enactment as unprecedented, are often insignificant and measure history repeating itself.

Though the context has changed, and the consequences are different, much of what we looked at in Westminster in grim fascination, is if not a repeat, then certainly a reprise of old tropes.

Increasingly I think now of people not much remembered anymore; southern unionists.

Their fate was sealed on February 22, 1886, when Lord Randolph Churchill declared at the Ulster Hall in Belfast that: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right.”

In advocating the cantonisation of Ireland along tribal lines he instituted the original Irish backstop. One part of the island at least would he held against Home Rule, and its full alignment with Westminster secured. It took a generation to play out and ended in partition. Southern unionism was stranded.

The Tory party playing the Orange card is a coincidence. It is the underlying rationale which is history repeating itself. Visceral unionism had deep allegiance across 19th-century England and Scotland. There was a cultural context of Protestantism, and in the Empire surely sound proof of a divinely blessed enterprise, as well as a profitable one.

The extent of that underlying attitude in Britain was that Home Rule not only divided Ireland, it partially split Gladstone’s Liberal Party. The Orange card was as much a tactical manoeuvre as any statement of principle. The tactic was to corral unionist MPs across the House of Commons, and unionist opinion across the country into an anti-Gladstone camp. Tory government was the object.

The theme of recurring history is Irish unionism becoming over a hundred years, first intermittently but then permanently, not so much a matter for principle for the Conservative Party as of opportunity.

It is delusional to think the backstop wouldn’t be reversed back into its Northern Ireland-only form, to allow the rest of Britain to Brexit, and Boris Johnson campaign as liberator from the tyranny of Brussels. He will be the champion of a people who couldn’t be stymied by the elites.

With Brexit in the rear-view mirror, all changes.

The poison of no-deal is removed, and Johnson can then focus on Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s surge against Theresa May was partially the proposition that a vote for Labour was an effective protest again May.

It wasn’t a vote for Corbyn for prime minister, however, because he couldn’t be elected anyway. Next time, it is clear he might.

If the choices seem unappealing from a distance, there won’t if there is a deal, be any automatic protest vote for Corbyn’s Labour.

It is surely Boris Johnson’s greatest achievement that he has made Labour electable. He must undo that proposition and remind people of their fear of Corbyn before Boris became the bigger bogeyman. And then there is the one consistent thing about Boris.

He is an opportunist on a grand scale. He has the cynicism, the ambition, and perhaps too the capacity for self-destruction of a Randolph Churchill. The Orange card is not in safe hands.

The possibilities for manoeuvre over the coming weeks are so numerous that there are no certainties. What has receded is a general election and no-deal. What has begun is an as yet unknown dynamic of a prorogued parliament and an empty chamber.

Only the prime minister has his public stage intact with the spotlight on. The irresistible draw of endless hours of political pornography that consumed millions of viewers is over for now.

All others will struggle to replicate what in the mother of parliaments was temporarily the world’s greatest stage. Recess is always balm for the government.

Contrary to what they say, neither oppositions nor media mind ample holidays scheduled regularly. But this is different. The prorogued session was essential oxygen in a mission-critical operation.

It was a rare example of the debate being the event. The brutality of the close-down has bruised tender consciences. But that’s tactics. The issue is Brexit, and it is how that ends on October 31 which counts.

Prompted by necessity or opportunism, if Boris reverts under a different name and cunningly confusing addendums to a Northern Ireland-only backstop, ensuring an open border and regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland while enabling Brexit for Britain he will do unionism a great favour.

Ulster unionism fundamentally disrupted the British-Irish relationship.

It secured for itself another hundred years of a fortress style existence, but only at the cost of enforcing a quasi-police state and institutionalised discrimination.

It has historically trapped itself in a double bind. One part of that was majoritarianism. In a winner take all society, right was the rights and wishes of the majority within Northern Ireland. That has broken down for them on Brexit.

The other in 1922 was the exceptionalism of Northern Ireland within the British union.

That exceptionalism was re-enshrined by a democratic mandate North and South in the Good Friday Agreement.

The story of unionism since is of how having decisively won the war, they have ever since lost the peace.

Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and first minister, articulated the need for unionism to find friends outside its own tribe.

The Good Friday Agreement, by accommodating nationalism, enabled unionism to create a wider base not of tribal loyalty, but of understated comfort with a new status quo where nobody was alienated.

That opportunity, even as its tribal dominance diminishes, was never taken. Robinson, the last serious politician within Ulster unionism is gone, and so is his vision.

Lesser people, profoundly misunderstanding the basis of their relations strategically within the union, and politically with the Conservative party seem to think this is 1886 again, but forget they were more a pawn than a prize.

A northern Ireland-only backstop is something fluttering in the breeze in a very crowded field now. It would cut the knot for Boris Johnson, in circumstances where the DUP’s 10 MPs no longer matter.

It would allow him to reach his objective of an election, in circumstances now where it would be infinitely better for him if he had a deal. Johnson, won’t care of course, but it would be the greatest, last help he could give unionism.

Despite themselves, they would be dominant forces in an entity which, if power-sharing was re-established and because it accommodated nationalism, could potentially be stable. Because it straddled Britain out of the EU, and Ireland within it, could attract considerable economic advantage, and a deal of practical support from Brussels.

This was obviously available to the DUP, but rejected. They won’t thank anyone for forcing it on them.

It is potentially a decade-long answer to a border poll. It detoxifies tribal politics, and it shows that Ulster does not have to fight to be right, it just has to be smart.

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