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Working towards Irish Unity

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The rise of the Reform party is bad for Ireland and for Britain

At a U.K. level the Conservatives own Brexit and its downsides, just as the DUP own Brexit more than any other party in Northern Ireland. They campaigned for it and signed up to a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives where they could influence the type of Brexit which was delivered. By voting against Theresa May’s proposed backstop, they undermined her position as British Prime Minister and ultimately ensured a harder border between Britain and Ireland. Nigel Farage’s reemergence in the mainstream of British politics through Reform UK threatens Tory and DUP control over the Brexit narrative.

Nigel Farage has publicly admitted that Brexit has been a failure but his Reform party still advocates the UK being outside the EU. He has also admitted that there will be a United Ireland and his views reinforce the perception that Brexit is ultimately an English Nationalist project. This is likely to become more explicit in the coming years as Britain continues to struggle with self-imposed barriers and restrictions to trade with the European Union.

The TUV during the General Election have already experienced the consequences of entering an agreement with the Reform party. They thought they had secured Reform’s endorsement of their candidates when a Reform-TUV electoral pact was announced to great fanfare in March. Since Farage took over as leader of Reform, he has personally endorsed two DUP candidates in the election, thereby undermining the entire deal. 

Several opinion polls have shown Reform level or above the Conservatives. Under the First Past The Post system, they are unlikely to get more seats than the Tories but the impact on British politics could still be seismic. Northern Ireland will not be at the centre of the debate but is likely to be directly affected. The political realignment will happen after the General Election. The opinion polls have consistently shown that the result is likely to be  a heavy defeat for the Conservatives, at best on a par with the 1997 result but perhaps even worse. History shows us that the Conservatives react to a defeat by becoming more right-wing in their positions on issues. We can expect this to happen again. 

There are already Conservatives saying that Farage should be welcomed back into the Conservative Party. Under a Labour government with a large majority, we can expect the Conservatives, supported by a handful of Reform MPs to become more reactionary. They will look to the Canada 1993 federal election where the ruling Progressive Conservatives were heavily defeated, its aftermath and will take the wrong lesson from this. In Canada Conservatives only formed a federal government again when the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance, the successor party to their Reform party. 

From an Irish perspective we do not want to be collateral damage to the rightward march of British politics. All of the main political parties in the Dáil worked together to minimise the negative impacts of Brexit. They should do so again to prepare for unity and work with all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly who are willing to be involved. British Labour has stated on multiple occasions that they will not seek to reverse Brexit, they will not seek to rejoin the Single Market or to become part of the Customs Union. Britain can expect to live with the damage of Brexit for a generation or longer. 

The recent comments by Leo Varadkar at the Ireland’s Future conference in Belfast are welcome. Now is the time to prepare for Irish unity. We also need to get clarity on the criteria for a border poll, so that we are ready when the referendum is called. Ireland cannot wait for Britain to regain its political common sense and reverse Brexit. That means engaging with wider society, through mechanisms such as a citizens’ assembly and a consultative forum. Ireland is in the process of setting up a sovereign wealth fund and Varadkar has suggested that funding for reunification should be included in this. 

In a recently released report by IMD, Ireland was ranked as 4th in the World Competitiveness Rankings. The U.K. was ranked as 28th. The Reform party like the Brexit party and UKIP before them, are not only hostile to unfettered trade with our closest neighbours but also are against immigration. Farage has said that he thinks that immigration should be reduced to a net zero. This would have a hugely detrimental impact on health and other public services which are already in crisis after 14 years of restricted funding. We need immigration across Ireland to help our growing economy and for the cultural diversity which it brings. 

Unfortunately there are some within Unionism who are against immigration, who hark back to a supposed British nirvana when Northern Ireland was a one party state. The first fifty years of Northern Ireland’s existence after the partition of Ireland was imposed by the British Government led to significant problems. This resulted in misrule with many people being discriminated because they weren’t part of the Unionist majority. The second fifty years of Northern Ireland’s existence involved a series of initiatives being brought forward by the British Government with the support of the Irish Government, to create a power-sharing government. These arrangements have often been opposed by Unionists. But the Unionist majority, in a place which was created specifically to have one permanently, is now gone.

The appeal of Reform for some people is the promise of a return to a supposed golden past. What Unionism doesn’t realise, particularly those who value the support of Farage and his Reform party, is that there will be limited interest and less financial support for Northern Ireland under a future British Conservative/Reform rightwing viewpoint. The hostility towards Ireland will increase and they will continue Brexiters’ previous attempts to undermine Ireland’s membership of the EU. Meanwhile the incoming Labour government will inherit a bulging in-tray with multiple crises demanding urgent attention on day one.

These are dangerous times for Europe with a war in Ukraine and ongoing bloodshed in Palestine. The US Presidential election could lead to Trump retaking the White House. Ireland cannot control these external events but we can as an island take steps to secure our own safety through reunification. We can insulate ourselves from the further radicalisation of political discourse in Britain, by preparing for and securing a New Ireland. Ireland can be a beacon of prosperity and progress by taking an all-Ireland approach to the many challenges which, like all European countries, we face. Our destiny is our own to make. We just have to decide that we want to prepare now for Irish unity and then work together across all political parties and none, to secure it within the next decade.