Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: SF chortle at polls that show a majority of Britons would dump NI to get Brexit done... that wouldn't have anything to do with 30 years of murder and mayhem, would it?

But YouGov survey suggests a heavy price is already being paid for DUP standing in the way of England's desire to leave the EU, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Sinn Fein representatives including, second from left, Foyle MLA Elisha McCallion
Sinn Fein representatives including, second from left, Foyle MLA Elisha McCallion
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

There was a chat doing the rounds on Twitter over the weekend in which people recounted their most humiliating tales of rejection. One man recalled asking a girl out in 1977 and how she laughed for three straight minutes before he left. "For all I know, she's still laughing," he wrote.

Another found out that his fiancee had bought a house without telling him. Understandably, he took it as a sign that the relationship wasn't quite as solid as he'd hoped.

To the category of humiliating rejections can now be added the latest YouGov poll, which reveals that 58% of both Leavers and Remainers in Britain would be perfectly happy to ditch Northern Ireland if it got them what they wanted when it came to Brexit.

A mere 18% of people said they would choose Northern Ireland staying in the Union over their preferred form of Brexit and four in 10 said they didn't care what happened in Northern Ireland at all. That rose to almost half of Leave voters. What a humiliatingly public way to be dumped.

Of course, Northern Ireland has never been hugely popular in Britain, but Brexit seems to be making the situation worse.

There was a similar poll conducted by Ipsos Mori for King's College London in the spring. It found that, while a majority of Britons had wanted Scotland to remain part of the UK before that country's independence referendum in 2014, there was no similar appetite for keeping Northern Ireland. The latest figures just confirm those worst fears.

To be fair, why would Britain bend over backwards to please Northern Ireland? We're a high maintenance partner.

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This little corner of the Union costs billions of pounds each year to maintain and is unlikely to stand on its own feet economically for years to come - if ever.

Add to that the long history of the Troubles - a conflict that most people outside Northern Ireland didn't understand, except insofar as they thought it had something to do with religion - and it's a wonder that the number of Britons in favour of getting rid of Ulster wasn't consistently higher.

Appearing on a BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight election panel a few weeks ago, Sinn Fein's Foyle MP, Elisha McCallion, made great play of this growing indifference.

"We need to be honest, folks," she said. "They (Britons) don't care about Ireland. They don't care about nationalists, they don't care about unionists and they don't care about anyone in between. They only care about England."

Looked at coldly, she's probably right. But there is something unpleasant about the gleeful, gloating tone in which this pronouncement is routinely delivered.

Republicans talk as if a lack of interest in Northern Ireland is just another black mark against perfidious Albion's name, when, to a significant extent, it's an inevitable reaction to a vicious Provisional IRA terrorist campaign that lasted decades.

Sinn Fein supported that bloody crusade, believing it would eventually wear down the British will to stay in Northern Ireland. In terms of public opinion, that's exactly what happened.

Now, they present that outcome as a further reason not to trust the selfish, back-sliding Brits. Republicans are like people who keep provoking a brawl in a bar, then cry, "See, I told you they never wanted us" when the landlord finally says they're not welcome.

Even in the darkest days of the Troubles, though, the sense of rejection from ordinary British people was never this intense.

It seems that frustration over Brexit may have put out the last smouldering embers of affection for the Union on the other side of the Irish Sea.

To say that presents a problem for unionists is the understatement of the century. It was always in the interests of constitutional nationalists and armed force republicans alike to erode Britain's patience. Unionists don't have the luxury of alienating the neighbours.

If there is to be a Union long-term, they constantly need to cultivate the goodwill of Middle England. Instead, they often set out to push it to its limits.

One particularly alarming finding from that previous poll was the difference in attitude when it came to party allegiances.

Just 34% of Labour supporters and 27% of Liberal Democrats said they wanted Northern Ireland to stay in the UK. The equivalent figure for Tories was 49% - still worryingly low from the self-styled "Conservative and Unionist Party", but way ahead of other potential candidates for government.

Put bluntly, unionists need Conservatives in their corner, but right now they're in open conflict with what a majority of that party's members want, which is to get Boris Johnson's deal over the line.

If unionists set out to scupper Brexit in order to ensure that the whole of the UK stays in the same regulatory framework, rather than risking a border down the Irish Sea, they should expect the number of ordinary Conservatives who are supportive of the unionist position to fall further.

At what point in that decline would it become untenable to keep the Union going in its present form? No one knows, because it's never been tested before. It's like playing political Kerplunk. If you keep taking out more straws, eventually the balls will fall.

An even more uncomfortable truth for unionists may be that much of what happens next is out of their hands, anyway.

Polling by Lord Ashcroft last month put the number of Tory Leave voters who would also happily lose Scotland in order to get Brexit done at 76%.

The English are understandably tired of hearing Scottish nationalists whining all the time, even as polls show no great appetite for independence.

Once Tony Blair allowed Scotland and Wales to have their own regional governments, it inevitably weakened the Union and strengthened nationalist movements across the UK.

As people in England started to see that Scotland was becoming semi-detached, it was only a matter of time before they turned to asking if they needed Northern Ireland either.

English nationalism was, in turn, given a shot in the arm and Brexit was the natural outcome.

Northern Ireland is suffering the collateral damage from this experiment in devolution.

Unionists have to decide whether thwarting Brexit will slow down that process, or dangerously accelerate it.

The YouGov poll suggests that a heavy price is already being paid for standing in the way of England's desire to leave the European Union.

Unionists may be furious with Boris, but can what they ultimately want most survive without him?

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