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Ulster Says Yes?

Updated: Mar 7





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It’s a stretch to suggest that the United Kingdom is about to be shorn of Northern Ireland. But a potential historic first step has been taken. This because the new boss in its restored government wants to return the place to the Irish fold. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, her getting the job is indicative of fundamental change within the province.


There’s a tendency across the UK to react to news from their side of the water with a Gallic-style shrug of the shoulder.


That, broadly, was the case during the 1840s when the potato crops kept failing and a million people starved to death.


Likewise, during the scarcely muted civil war euphemistically termed ‘the troubles’, the Brits didn’t take much notice until the IRA started taking out targets in England.


But, given that the province’s population is roughly equal to that of Birmingham, Bristol, Basingstoke and Basildon put together, it’s not exactly negligible.


So getting its government back up and running after a two-year hiatus does mean a lot, to a lot of people, who are, after all, British citizens.


And the fact is that the pickle they’ve been in all stems from the policy enacted by Stuart monarchs back in the seventeenth century, of ethnic cleansing.


Harsh though the term is, it’s hard to find another way of describing the process of chucking out the Catholic locals in large swathes of Ulster and shipping in Protestant colonists.


This might sound like so much mists of time mumbo jumbo, but descendants of those incomers from the North of England and Scotland wanted to hang on to their hegemony.


Hence their partition from the newly formed, independent and mainly Catholic Irish Free State a century back.


And, until not so very long ago, the north’s Protestant majority upheld a form of apartheid, getting the best jobs and social housing. Hence the bitter resentment that finally spilled over into the troubles.


What’s changed is that there are now more Catholics kicking around the place than Protestants.


Irrelevant though this might seem in today’s increasingly secular age, the animosity’s rooted as much in tribalism as religion.


Also, much calmer though things are these days, they’re a kind of mirror of the historic rivalries and hatreds currently besetting the Middle East and threatening the world order.


That said, since the momentous signing of the Good Friday accord getting on for three decades back, a new generation has sprung up in Northern Ireland.


And, to many of these young folk, all the feuding and fighting of yesteryear means little more than World War Two did to the kids who’ve come to be known as baby boomers.


So the fears of the ever-so-Protestant Democratic Unionists that the province’s status within UK might be at risk in the post-Brexit world don’t really resonate with them.


Of far greater concern are the sharp deterioration of essential services, and failure to address public servants’ pay claims, stemming from two years’ worth of non government.


All that, plus the offer of a cash bonus of three-point-three billion pounds for the place if they get on with their work, finally seems to have concentrated the politicos’ minds.


To keep them happy, the British government has also managed a few tweaks to the arrangements for moving goods to and from the province.


The land border between what’s referred to as Ulster, which is outside the EU, and the Republic of Ireland, which is in it, created problems that Boris Johnson didn’t think of when he ‘got Brexit done’.


Rishi Sunak has managed to iron some of them out, hopefully just about enough to keep the newly reconvened Northern Ireland government show on the road.


The rebranding of the so-called ‘green lane’ for stuff that’s not crossing the border to Ireland proper as the ‘UK internal market system’ says it all about underlying Protestant sensitivities.


Of course, the other huge psychological hurdle the Democratic Unionists are having to overcome is the very idea of playing second fiddle, nominally at least, to a nationalist First Minister.


It’s the first time it’s ever happened. But it comes about because Michelle O’Neill was elected on the Sinn Féin ticket, and they won the most seats in the last election.


That alone speaks volumes about the changed mindset in Northern Ireland, given that until not so long ago her party was dubbed the political wing of the IRA.


And for many years the voices of its representatives weren’t even allowed to be broadcast in Britain.


The thaw got under way when the late Martin McGuinness became deputy to the Reverend Ian Paisley back in 2007, the friendship they struck up earning them the nickname ‘the chuckle brothers’.


Given that the one was a former IRA commander and the other a firebrand Protestant preacher, that was a heartwarming testament to human chemistry.


Also, arguably, an echo of the older generation of Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who wanted to let bygones be bygones for the benefit of their kids and grandkids.


Things later turned sour again until, with a bit of luck and a following wind, now.


If things carry on relatively smoothly then there can be no doubt that Ms O’Neill’s elevation does bring her party’s principle long-term objective, a united Ireland, one step closer.


Her party’s leader in Dublin has said it’s now ‘within touching distance’. But, realistically, it’s a fair bit further away than that, for two reasons.


One, if anybody tries to move too fast the fragile restoration of power sharing in the North of Ireland could easily collapse.


And two, there are myriad everyday political and practical imperatives to get sorted. Not least the clearing up of the backlog left by there having been no government for so long.


Still, it’s not like Belfast has the monopoly on problems besetting leaders. Rishi Sunak knows all about that.


Last week he held a dinner at a swanky London hotel in the hope of finally getting his parliamentary party to unite behind him.


Fat chance, as it turned out. As only the loyal half showed up. And even they weren’t exactly brimming with confidence about their prospects at the election.


One Tory MP confided to a hack that after the PM’s optimistic speech had been respectfully heard: ‘We can all sneak off to the toilet and then go somewhere else to drown our sorrows.’


On the plus side, at least Sunak seems to be bucking the trend of Prime Ministers not getting on too well with their Downing Street neighbours.


The difficulty stems from Number Ten always wanting to give the people what they want, and the Chancellor always having to point out there isn’t enough money in the kitty.


Question is who is the top dog? Seems the pooches know the answer to that.


There’s a very assertive female Labrador currently resident in Number Eleven, and rather a shy male of the same breed living next door. Not hard to work out which one often feels it’s a dog’s life.


So much for the gentler gender. The Barbie movie may have been rather snubbed at the Golden Globes ceremony, but in Downing Street it’s girls on top.


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