GERARD HOWLIN: English nationalism is the real threat to British unity and identity

What for Ireland, after Brexit, will dominate the political horizon?

Abortion is now a matter of legislative detail. The principle is decided. The consequence of Brexit, however, is not simply Britain’s exit, it’s the survival of British identity itself, after 500 years.

That issue, if destined for decades more in the making, is ultimately more important than the imminent exit.

English nationalism, showboating Brexit as a strategy for resurgence, is the greatest threat to British unity and identity since it was originated as a political strategy by King James VI & I.

Succeeding to the English throne in 1603, he embodied a personal union of crowns, but wanted a firmer political union.

The English parliament refused to interlope with Scottish carpetbaggers. The powerful wool trade particularly was opposed, but there was much more to it.

In the event, James’s actual British polity was not first founded on the island which bears the name, but in Ulster and Virginia.

There, at the start of the 17th century, what came to be a specifically British identity was rooted in plantation.

British identity originated as a colonial project to civilise wild places and people.

What began in outposts only subsequently naturalised at the centre. One driver was the shared interest of its constituent parts in colonisation.

Much later, on the eve of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, a burgess of the Virginia legislature, articulated, in 1774, the “fervent prayer of all British America” in a “humble application” to the “imperial throne” for rights and free trade.

Irony now abounds in the age of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. But Jefferson’s terms of reference show how something once tenuous in terms of identity took hold, and was then cast off.

Just as competing English and Scottish interests subsumed into British identity, so eventually did bitterly conflicting Anglican and Presbyterian ones.

Pan-Protestantism was a cornerstone that signified Britain in opposition to Catholic Europe, and the Catholic Irish.

In Ulster, internecine protestant sectarianism solidified into a broad front with the early years of Union, after 1801 and the defeat of the United Irishmen in 1798.

In that sense, Britain in Ulster, and the completion of the union flag motif across the three kingdoms, was 200 years in the making. After Brexit, it may be quicker in its undoing.

Britain is compounded from separate elements.

Time and empire gave it the sheen of apparent immutability. In Ulster, unlike in Virginia, failure to extirpate the native population meant it remained, to a degree, a fortress community on a frontier.

Crown, Protestantism and empire, and the afterglow of all, ensured the ideal of Great Britain continued into the 21st century.

Brexit now is an outright threat to that. If the British construct weakens or dissolves, the whole context for Ireland changes completely.

The harder Brexit is, the more likely Scotland breaks from the United Kingdom. Contrary to all talk about border polls here, it is far more likely that the decisive rupture will be with Scotland.

In that eventuality, or more prosaically, regardless of the eventual direction for Scotland, years of uncertainty will come first and this of itself is destabilising. In a history that on this page has skipped centuries in paragraphs, single decades might seem hardly worthy of a phrase. But they are the meagre span entire lives are made of.

Northern Ireland and the UK’s Exit from the EU: What do people think? by academics John Garry, Kevin McNicholl, Brendan O’Leary, and James Pow, published last month, shows up the chasm between where people want to go and where they are being led. Specifically on a border poll:

“There is a widespread reluctance to hold a referendum on Irish unity in the short-term. Instead, most people would like to move beyond the UK’s exit from the EU, before considering any further constitutional change. That said, there is considerable openness to the idea of a referendum in at least ten years’ time”.

 

Conclusions from the survey and deliberative forum also found: “For a sizeable number of Catholics, their voting intention in any future referendum on re-unification is dependent on the outcome of negotiations between the UK and the EU-27.

A ‘soft’ exit appears to make little impact on their reported preference, whereas a ‘hard’ form of departure would make Catholics significantly more likely to support a united Ireland.”

Demographics are changing in Northern Ireland. The next census, in 2021, may make the Boundary Commission of 1925 look, in hindsight, as a missed opportunity for unionism.

But that misses the point, because it completely misunderstands the challenge, which demands for a border poll now do, too. The potential passing of a Protestant majority in Northern Ireland does not make a majority for a united Ireland. Firstly, time is a factor, because neither newborn babies nor children vote.

Secondly, there is no absolute alignment between Catholicism and ardent nationalism. In any event, there is a growing gap between cradle confessionalism and any mature religious affiliation.

Clearly, however, the context of Brexit matters as much in Northern Ireland as in Scotland. The harder the exit, the tougher a likely reaction is afterwards.

What is happening now is that the middle is being eaten at either side. That is demonstrated by the hardening of attitudes among DUP and Sinn Féin supporters on Irish language legislation. There is a growing shrillness.

In unionism, as the quality of its leadership and sense of strategic direction deteriorates, so does resentment at the success of Sinn Féin and an as yet unspecified determination to do something to stop it.

As recently as the 1950s, unionism was resplendent. In 1951, Churchill returned to power with the support of 35 Scottish Tory MPs, as many as Labour mustered. In any event, all were solidly British in outlook.

In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party was a true cross-class coalition. It’s a bygone age. The remnants of empire have vanished. Staunch Protestantism has receded across Northern Ireland, except within the DUP.

The DUP may have its first woman and first Episcopalian leader, but it’s in full retreat from Peter Robsinson’s 2011 plan to appeal to Catholic voters, which came to nothing, ironically just as native papists abandoned Rome.

At the moment, the British hinterland, an idea as much as a place, faces its greatest test since it was first planted. The mistake of unionism is its failure to capitalise on opportunities inherent in the Good Friday Agreement.

Meanwhile, English nationalism feeds off the European Union as if it were the threat of a new armada.

Maybe Britain’s prime minister, Thersea May, can muddle Britain into interminable transition. Limbo seems heaven now. If not and there is a hard exit, Scotland will likely break, too. Great Britain will break apart at the source.

The view from Antrim across the Moyle would no longer be a British vista.


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