Shortly after the terms of the Scottish independence referendum were set, in the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, a few of my colleagues and I were interviewed in Holyrood for a Northern Irish current affairs programme. Because of the peculiarities of their region’s politics, the show had decided to have each Scottish politician interviewed by both a unionist and a nationalist, simultaneously. As a former broadcaster, it struck me as a particularly clunky way to make television, but I suppose the programme’s flow was less of a concern than demonstrating balance on a hot topic with deep resonances in the country where it would be shown.
After my little stint on camera, I chatted to my interrogators. The politician representing the Irish nationalist community told me how closely Scotland’s referendum debate was being followed across the Irish sea. A Yes vote, I was informed, would do more for Irish unification than any bombing campaign during the troubles, or any politics since. If Scotland were to go, Northern Ireland would be next.
A decade on, UK constitutional politics is still obsessed with the Scotland question, yet events in Northern Ireland remain relatively underreported. The Stormont Assembly was suspended for nearly three years, from 2017 to 2020: a significant piece of our country’s political apparatus was broken. And barely disturbed the bulletins. Had MPs all been sent home from the Commons on full pay for three years, had Nicola Sturgeon sat around in Bute House while civil servants ran Scotland without political direction or control, news editors would have got hours of content out of it.
The almost complete silence on Northern Ireland ahead of the Brexit vote was a disgrace. All those 1.8 million lives, hundreds of businesses and millions of pounds worth of trade upturned — without discussion, dissection or negotiation, until after the fact. The imperfect patching currently underway won’t mend this constitutional tear.
A mega poll of more than 3,000 voters by Lord Ashcroft, published last week, shows the Irish Nationalists, Sinn Fein, winning the next Northern Irish election at a canter — and most people in Ulster believing that a border poll in 10 years’ time would deliver a united Ireland. It is not an outlier.
Perhaps our gaze needs to shift from Scotland — where even the sustained, bellicose sabre-rattling of our First Minister has seen her move not an inch closer to securing a second referendum in her seven years of leadership — to our neighbours across the Irish Sea. New and resurgent political parties and movements, along with the great disruptor of Brexit, mixed with some good old-fashioned political regicide, has created all the ingredients for a generational shift.
Many Brits don’t realise that the power-sharing requirement of the Good Friday agreement means that both the leading Unionist and Nationalist parties must be represented in Northern Ireland’s government, with the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister occupied by a member of each. The DUP has been the major Unionist force in the region for almost two decades, recording between a quarter and a third of overall votes at Assembly elections, in a five, six or even seven-party system.
The pro-Brexit party was instrumental in sinking Theresa May’s proposed EU deal, which would have avoided extra checks and red tape for goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and minimised disruption between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The protocols agreed following Boris Johnson’s deal gave no such protection, and are currently being renegotiated. But the anger in Ulster contributed, in no small part, to the defenestration of the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, earlier this year. Her successor, Edwin Poots, lasted just 21 days in post. The DUP’s chaotic transition has resulted in a current party leader who does not sit in the Stormont Assembly and therefore cannot be the First Minister of Northern Ireland.
To me, there is a sour, bleak, almost Old Testament defensiveness to the DUP’s unionism. And as someone who believes in the UK, and has spent all my political life espousing the positives of co-operation within wider unions (whether that is Scotland in the UK or the UK in the EU), I worry that defensive unionism does nothing but harm its own cause.
But the DUP are not the only pro-UK force in Northern Ireland.
Enter the most popular leader in the province, who has a Boys’ Own backstory to send any spin doctor into raptures. Born in barracks, the son of a soldier, he suffered childhood trauma when he accidentally shot a friend in the head with his father’s service weapon. At 16, he joined up as a boy soldier, rising through the ranks to become regimental sergeant major, and later commissioned as an officer. In Afghanistan, he was awarded the Military Cross for retaking a town from the Taliban.
There is an earthiness about the man, and a wicked humour. He passes the “pub test”, of whether voters would want to go for a drink with him, with ease — not least because he sends out plenty of pictures of himself on social media enjoying a pint of Guinness or large dram of good malt whisky. Commenting on an internal squabble between DUP MP Sammy Wilson and party leader Jeffrey Donaldson last week, he suggested a “bare belly fight to sort it out”. He has the highest approval ratings of any political leader in the country. And yet he is practically ignored by a UK political press happy to dissect every word, action, belief or motivation if the source is Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson.
But, still, Doug Beattie is the man, quite probably, who will save the Union.
Beattie took over as leader of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in May. In making his pitch, he said he was “able to reach out to all people in Northern Ireland regardless of what your religion is, sexual orientation or ethnicity”. In the last six months he has done just that, convincing Cllr Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston, NI’s first openly lesbian elected Unionist, to quit the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and join his party. In Autumn, Beattie was pictured smiling next to Stephen McCarthy, introducing him as the UUP’s first working-class Catholic candidate for an Assembly election. Mr McCarthy, who grew up in a nationalist household and whose grandfather was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries, says there are many “de facto unionists within the Catholic community”, and that the only way that Unionism would win a future border poll was through “reaching out to people like me”.
Beattie’s unionism is expansive, seeking to embrace groups that have often felt excluded. He also wears his unionism lightly, knowing that not everyone is as passionately entrenched as some of the representatives sent to Stormont. He seems to instinctively understand that his impeccable unionist credentials — military service for the crown, his uncle’s death at the hands of the IRA, the fact that he grew up on Union Street in Portadown — give him much greater licence to talk freely and generously about Irish identity.
He can face down hardline unionist critics by declaring, “I always viewed myself as Irish … clearly I’m British as well but my whole life I’ve identified as Irish”. On talk radio in Dublin, he’s confident enough to dive into that identity:
“I’m Irish. I’m an Irishman. .. I’m also an Ulsterman. You know, I’m British, I’m a European. I’m all of these things and I’m multilayered … God Save the Queen represents me, as does The Sash My Father Wore, Ulster rugby. But so does the shamrock, so does Gaelic games. So does Guinness. So does St Patrick’s Day. All of these things are part of my identity.”
He talks about “the union” not as an immutable object, preserved in aspic, but as a “Union of People” with all the scope and contradiction that entails. He wants little short of a complete transformation of Northern Irish politics — reshaping the devolution architecture to allow for what he calls “working power-sharing” and “power-sharing opposition” — coalitions that bring unionists and nationalists together in order to get things done, rather than (as he sees it) forcing them together in a way that means mutual vetoes often result in stasis. He wants what the rest of us in the UK take for granted: the ability to vote politicians and parties out of office, which he believes will make them work harder and concentrate on voters’ priorities over their own constitutional posturing.
And his confident, positive vision is transatlantic. In Washington DC, recently, he spoke to members of Congress, who are more used to seeing Sinn Fein and the Irish-American organisation Noraid making their nationalist case before passing round the hat. In seeking to address this one-sided view of Northern Ireland, he said: “Unless we engage, they will only hear one story. And it will not be our story.”
Beattie’s mix of statesman and soldier, parliamentary chamber and sergeant’s mess hall has struck a chord. In August, a LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph saw the UUP overtake the DUP in voting intentions for the first time in more than 20 years. Of all the party leaders in Northern Ireland, Doug Beattie was the only one to record a net positive rating of +20%. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill recorded -16%, while the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson recorded -20%. For context, Boris Johnson recorded -70%: even if most people in Northern Ireland want to remain in the UK, they don’t think much of the person leading it right now.
With the DUP regularly dropping in the polls to half of their 2019 general election high of 31%, it’s clear that there are thousands of Northern Ireland Unionists feeling politically homeless right now. Doug Beattie’s message to them at party conference was clear: “We have self-belief. And that self-belief is contagious. The public are picking up on it and tuning back into the Ulster Unionist Party … We are confident unionists, we are positive unionists, we are inclusive unionists, we are welcoming unionists. We are the Ulster Unionist Party and we are back.”
And, as someone who believes in our union, I breathe a sigh of relief to see a modern, moderate voice making its case across the Irish Sea.
For me, the fabric of the UK is always in tension. And the “otherness” of my part of it, is, in part, offset by the “otherness” of Northern Ireland. What I couldn’t say, all those years ago, to the nationalist politician impressing upon me Scotland’s potential role in Irish reunification, was that they were probably right. I see the counterbalance that one province provides the other and can accept that Scottish secession, had it occurred, may well have helped tip majority opinion in Northern Ireland towards Irish reunification.
And if I accept that, I must push myself to acknowledge the counter may also be true. That were Northern Ireland to go, and part of that fabric in tension rip, desire in Scotland to be a northern outpost of an English and Welsh block would be less strong than desire to remain part of a four nation union.
So those who believe in the union must turn their gaze west. Scotland is no nearer another referendum than it was the morning after the votes were counted in 2014; but Northern Ireland is probably less than six months away from having its first ever nationalist First Minister. And if the Scottish example is anything to go by, a Sinn Fein victory would give the party a platform to campaign relentlessly to end the UK, just as the SNP have done.
The fight for the future of the UK is about to enter a new phase.