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The Union: It’s all over bar the shoutin’?

Last week I was reminded of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from meeting Hitler and holding that piece of paper declaring “Peace for our Time”. Watching Jeffrey Donaldson clutching the Command Paper “Safeguarding The Union” and declaring the Union safe felt like a similar moment of desperate wishful thinking.

Rather than save the Union the DUP have helped destroy it. The Irish Sea border remains and the seven tests are unmet. Use of ambiguous language can’t conceal the DUP’s failure. It only confirms the emperor (Jeffrey) has no clothes. The dogs in the street know the Union is weaker and the North now a place apart from Britain more than ever before thanks to the DUP boycott.

My unionist mates may say – you would say that Kevin, because you’re a United Irelander. Fair enough, so let’s get the view of a non-United Irelander and man who spent many years of his life trying to get the Union to work for all – Lord Alderdice. He is speaking in our February 27th Westminster debate on the future of the Union and prospects of Irish Unity and Scottish independence.

Lord Alderdice was scathing in his assessment of how the DUP have damaged the place of NI in the Union in his blog post It’s all over bar the shoutin’. He contends that DUP hubris and miscalculation have widened the Irish Sea border psychologically and economically.

The consequence being that fewer English people view the North as really British at all.

“The English public’s attitude to Northern Ireland has changed profoundly… there is now no emotional attachment anymore”.
Alderdice, the former leader of Alliance from 1987-98, believes the pace of decline of the Union is quickening. Recent evidence backs him up. 103 years after partition gerrymandered to create unionist dominance into perpetuity, Sinn Fein is the biggest party in Stormont and Michelle O’Neill is now First Minister. Less talked about but probably more seismic were the recent council elections which saw Sinn Fein win most seats but also for the first time Pro-Irish Unity candidates outpolled Pro-Union candidates.

“That election was disastrous for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the key issue of preserving the union,” writes Alderdice. “From his (Donaldson’s) comments one might be forgiven for thinking that he has not quite realised how catastrophic it is… [The election] may be judged to be one of the most consequential in the history of Northern Ireland”. As nationalists collectively outpolled unionists for the first time he also noted that, “Alliance voters are now moving closer to the position of the SDLP, if not SF than that of the unionists”. The net result is a weaker unionism.

“There is a demographic shift that is proceeding irreversibly and this only increases as we go down the age profile… Unionist talk post-election has all been about getting the unionists together, but it is now too late for that… The Good Friday Agreement offered the last best hope for unionists and they failed to build on it”. The consequence of No Surrender arrogance is a weaker Ulster unionism and dilution of the Union economically, politically but also psychologically in the hearts and minds of English people when they look at the North.

Alderdice takes no prisoners in his critique of the DUP and damage they have done to the Union. “They did not grasp it was they not Sinn Fein who needed Northern Ireland to work and for that to happen they needed to treat nationalists as well as others… They now call for ‘respect’ from republicans, but they provided little example of that when they were the dominant force, even after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”.

In his assessment on the state of the Union, Lord Alderdice also highlights a development that has gone largely unnoticed in NI. It is the profound change in attitudes in England since he joined the House of Lords in 1996.

“There is now no emotional attachment to Northern Ireland – commentators on UK affairs regularly speak about the UK without any thought of, or reference to, the Northern Ireland component”. The English have all but forgotten about that bit of land across the Irish Sea. They show little interest. They have checked out. When pondering the future of the Union with the six counties, Lord Alderdice concludes his judgement with the old Northern Ireland saying – “It’s all over bar the shoutin’”.

Lord Alderdice is a panellist on our debate where we look forward to him elaborating. Read his full article on his blog.