Both sides are becoming more polarised (PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images)

October 14, 2021   6 mins

The past century, since Northern Ireland was cut out of the whole green cloth of the Irish island, has seen violence flare and subside, and now lies largely dormant. But dormant is not dead: the IRA Army Council still exists, and is believed by police, north and south, to wield some influence on its legal form, Sinn Fein, presently the most popular political party in Ireland.

Yet reconstitution of a fighting force would take some doing, not least because its recruiting ground, northern Catholics, are more prosperous and less easy to mobilise than their parents and grandparents were in the late sixties. And mobilise for what? Polls continually show that a majority do not want, at least not soon, a United Ireland — the IRA and Sinn Fein’s reason for existence. In any case, Irish nationalists of every stripe now see themselves as in the ascendant, and thus believe that political pressure and elections will bring nationalist majorities in parliaments, both in Ireland and in the North. This is similar to the belief held by Scottish nationalists: both groups have faith that youthful cohorts will support radical change – unity for Ireland, secession for Scotland – and will, when the cagey elders remove themselves, bring victory .

Nationalists believe that Ireland’s geography is destiny, and that unionists should see that the island has room for only one nation state. The view isn’t a Sinn Fein preserve: Simon Coveney the Irish Foreign Minister in the Fianna Fail government described its formation this as a “terrible mistake (which) caused extraordinary division”.

Behind this view, overtly or by implication, stand the Catholic Church, the European Union, all the Irish political parties and — at times the heaviest guns — American politicians with Irish forebears. They, from the Kennedys through Ronald Reagan to Joe Biden, have felt empowered to intervene in the business of the British government to secure a greater all-Irish dimension to Northern Ireland’s politics, a tendency not confined to American leaders of Irish descent, and one always couched in terms of securing better relationships and lasting peace.

With these centres of influence now must be counted most of the Irish commentariat and intellectuals — men and women who command space in the Republic’s newspapers, talk shows and opinion websites and blogs. The leader among them is Fintan O’Toole, a writer with a large Anglophone audience for his commentaries in the Irish TimesThe Guardian, the New York Review of Books and beyond. His book, Heroic Failure (2018), pictures Britain in masochistic but rebellious submission to a Brussels dominatrix, a posture he believes had been deliberately prepared for by the well-timed publication of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011.

His visceral dislike of Brexit and by extension the present British state is amplified by other powerful voices, such as Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to the UK and a reliable defender of all the European Union does and says. They view the unionists’ Euroscepticism, and their anger at the Protocol which retains large EU control over their border with Ireland, as evidence of reaction.

The columnist Emma de Souza sees Protocol denial as “chest-pounding bravado and posturing”. Pat Leahy, the Irish Times’ political editor, believes Sinn Fein is a government-in-waiting — an increasingly common trope among Irish columnists. O’Toole, a long-time and continuing critic of Sinn Fein’s “amnesia” about the IRA’s decades of massacre, torture and crime, still believes that it should be part of a “progressive” government coalition. A large exception: Ireland’s most remarkable novelist, Colm Toibin, who in a Guardian column asked of the anti-British, pro-United Ireland/Sinn Fein crowd: “do they want to import sectarian hatred and the politics of perpetual grievance from the north into the south”?

Sinn Fein, at 32% in the opinion polls, is 10 points ahead of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, governing together in a unique coalition. Leahy salutes the party’s “waves of energy, commitment and conviction”.

For unionists, Sinn Fein is remembered as having other qualities. In his essay, the deputy editor of the Belfast daily News Letter Ben Lowry laments that IRA leaders, including the late Martin McGuiness, a former head of the Londonderry IRA, were not brought to any kind of justice for the many killings they ordered. He quotes Alan McQuillan, a former assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, as noting that investigators face pressure from both the British and Irish governments “not to pursue those whose arrest would destabilise the peace process”.

The force and power of Irish commentary has spurred the unionist intelligentsia to a collective response. In a collection of essays out this week — The Idea of the Union — they give tongue to defiance of nationalists’ growing assumption that the territory’s time as British possession is up, and that unionists must sooner or later recognise it.

Thus two sets of highly educated, strongly motivated, radically conflicting groups lay out their respective stalls. On the Northern side, this comes with a painful recognition of a subaltern status. “Nationalism,” writes Arthur Aughey, among the most lucid of Unionist intellectuals, “can mobilise its friends and unionism has few or no friends — and, in the text of the present post-Brexit protocol, has been betrayed once more by those it believed were its friends” — in this case, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Note the “once more”: it is an insistent theme in the essays, that unionists, the most demonstratively patriotic of all the national groups which make up the United Kingdom, should, over the long century of the province’s existence, have been so grievously disregarded by their own government. The political scientist Geoffrey Sloan highlights a Northern Ireland Office discussion paper of 1972 which insists that all policy on the province must reside within an “Irish Dimension” – instead, Sloan writes, “of defending the integrity of Northern Ireland’s territorial boundaries as part of the British state, a distancing process was set in motion”.

The historian Paul Bew, now a crossbench peer, notes that a “remarkable aspect” of the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol was “the way in which the British government allowed the Irish government to control the narrative”. The former Northern Ireland first minister David (now Lord) Trimble writes that the Protocol , “rips the heart out” of the 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, which set up a  government sharing power between the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the United Unionists (later the Democratic Unionists): “it does so by removing the assurance that democratic consent is needed to make any change to the status of Northern Ireland.”

Leo Varadkar, Taioseach until June 2020 and now Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) to Micheal Martin, is much blamed for being used by the European Union to pile pressure on the British. Ray Bassett, a former head of the Irish Consular Service and now a stern critic of his country’s policies towards Northern Ireland, accuses Varadkar of “misusing the border issue to maintain Brussels control… to display its euro credentials”.

Micheal Martin as Taoiseach has been more emollient than Varadkar: but the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol prevents any serious softening. The deal, agreed in December 2020, was necessary for a quick agreement on the terms of Brexit, and keeps the movement of goods free from check between north and south, while erecting a new trade border with the UK — retaining the authority of the European Court of Justice over the arrangement, a clear diminution of British sovereignty.

Yesterday, the European Union revealed it would offer “far-reaching” reductions on the checks presently required on goods moving between the British mainland and Northern Ireland: but, in the negotiations to come, will be reluctant to reduce the ECJ’s authority, and thus the wound to Britain’s sovereignty. There is little hope that the Irish government will take the British side on this, or even use its good offices to bring about compromise.

Some of the essayists in The Idea of the Union seek to cut Irish claims down to size — none more forensically than the economist Geoff Gudgin, now an advisor to the Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, who by careful statistical accountancy shows that the Irish claim of possessing one of highest GDPs in Europe, substantially higher than that of the UK, is based on it being one of the greatest of world tax havens. All of the more than 20 writers, inflamed or moderate in their tone, insist on what they see as the core truth: unionism is not to be argued, seduced, persuaded or charmed with any greater success than it was terrorised away.

It is a different culture: prepared to live in friendship (and often doing so, in Northern Irish communities) but not to have unity thrust upon them. If attitudes in the south have become more militant, those in the north have hardened round the old cry: “No Surrender”.

Irish intellectuals, as jealous of their independence as any other such national grouping, now line up with their government’s pro-EU, anti-Brexit, anti-Unionist themes. Katy Hayward, writing in the French journal Etudes Irlandaises, remarks that Irish intellectuals “play an increasingly “functionary” role in debates about “Europe”, in effect “supporting the official position of the Irish government without being given much scope for critiquing or elaborating upon it”.

They are not alone in this. The Scottish National Party enjoys the support of some intellectuals — such as Tom Nairn, the cornerstone of nationalist ideology through his diabolisation of England, the commentator Neil Ascherson and the academics Ben Jackson and Scott Hames. They are fleshed out by enthusiastic support from some English intellectuals: the novelist Will Self, the founder of Open Democracy Anthony Barnett and the writer Paul Mason. And it has nearly all the “creative” community behind it, including two novelists who won the Booker prize, James Kelman in 1989 and Douglas Stuart in 2020. This broad strand of opinion generally sees Irish unity as desirable, without violence if possible.

The well-worn observation of Orwell in England, Your England — that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals 
are ashamed of their own nationality” — seems to remain substantially true, taking extra strength from the horror with which the intelligentsia, together with the bulk of the middle class, view Brexit. It is a horror which, much magnified, has given the Irish intelligentsia, and their governments, a new lease of anti-British life; and their Northern Irish unionist equivalents a tighter grip on their Britishness.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.