Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Boris Johnson may 'Get Brexit Done' but the disaffection and resentment refuses to leave

In identity politics terms it's a pity that England can't be more like us in Northern Ireland, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Malachi O'Doherty

By Malachi O'Doherty

The peace process started on the assumption that Northern Ireland was a strange and different place. Other parts of the UK and, indeed, the wider world did not agonise about identity the way we did. The character of the nation in which you lived was determined by the prevailing culture and the votes of the electorate.

Northern Ireland was still trying to decide what nation it actually belonged to. And that could be an interesting topic of discussion in the pub - leading to blows, of course - but when placed at the centre of political party discourse, it led to the stalling of what the rest of the UK thought of as real politics.

It also led to violence because some groups were prepared to assert their view of which nation we rightly belonged to through murder and destruction.

And that further complicated politics, because it was impossible to form a devolved government until the violence was substantially reduced.

This wasn't just a security problem. It stemmed from identity considerations, too. Unionists were always going to be inclined to defend the police and the Army; nationalists were never going to be part of a government that bent the law to defeat the paramilitaries.

The lesson from our experience is that no other country in the UK should get fixated on identity in this way, because division of this kind can go to the heart of all political considerations and make a place ungovernable.

What Northern Ireland needs is a full reshaping of politics, taking the national question out of it.

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One way for that to happen is for the national question to be resolved once and for all.

But how do you do that? That question just takes you back to the original problem. Some say that if we had a united Ireland, unionists would reconcile themselves to it, or move to Scotland. Problem solved.

Others think that the growth of the secular tendency represented by the Alliance Party and a few others will erode the concern for national identity on both sides.

That would amount to most people being de facto unionists, without the usual essentials of reverence for the monarchy and the imperial tradition. Some would say that best describes where we are now.

All we need, then, is a border poll to demonstrate emphatically that most people are content with the Union, even if they don't rely on it as an expression of their identity.

Or we need people to just accept that reality now and stop agitating for a border poll, which will just revive intercommunal tensions without making life better for anybody.

What complicates all of this is that Northern Ireland is losing its distinctive eccentricity. It is ceasing to be a uniquely anguished part of the UK, more concerned with defining its national status than with, say, running a health service.

We may in future thank the health service employees for reminding us where our priorities should have been all along. We may just hope now that the message registers before the damage is made irreversible.

But what are we to make of the fact that the rest of the UK is getting worked up about identity now, too?

England is leaving the European Union and taking the rest of us with it. That fires up resentment here and in Scotland that challenges the very legitimacy of the Union of the UK. Perhaps we should start calling it the UKU to distinguish it from the EU.

Interestingly, after three years of identity being the prevailing concern in English politics, the country has voted for an unlikely mountebank of a party leader who has promised to "Get Brexit Done" so that government can focus on other things.

No one here ever promised to "Get Irish Unity Done" in order to help us govern ourselves more practically. Or to "Get The Union Done"; that is, to make it secure and permanent. Neither option has proved possible.

In that sense, there does seem to be a difference between the English obsession with identity and our own. After just three years of deadlock on whether or how to leave the EU, the English voter appears sick of the whole thing and prepared to follow the mountebank over a cliff rather than endure another month of the bickering. Maybe that says something good about England.

A little further thought would have taken the same voters to the understanding that Johnson is not freeing them from identity politics at all, but plunging them deeper in. What might momentarily look like England getting a grip of its knickers and choosing not to be like us is more likely to result in the break-up of the United Kingdom, or something worse.

That something worse would be decades, even centuries, of struggle centred on the question of whether the UK should break up or hold together. That would be the Northern Ireland model writ large.

Worse than Scotland breaking out of the UK in the next few years would be Scotland divided against itself for a generation on whether to stay or go and that question being made more passionate and urgent by Brexit and English obstruction.

Boris Johnson has already said that he would refuse Scotland a referendum. That sounds like a formula for the sort of deadlock that would harden nationalistic feelings.

And what is to become of English nationalism after Brexit? Will it settle down, placated? Or might it start to anguish over the Union, too, viewing a restive Scotland and a bickering Northern Ireland as not worth the bother?

The interesting development in the evolution of nationalism in Northern Ireland and Scotland is that it is morphing from romantic chauvinism into pragmatic internationalism.

The converts to the cause are not people who cling to the old mythologies. They are not spurning England as an ancient oppressor who can finally be shaken off, but as a partner who has gone a bit nuts, too dodgy to be associated with.

Hence, the glorious anomaly that the Sinn Fein vote falls as the interest in a united Ireland increases.

England looks for now like a country that is sick of arguing over Brexit and is happy to have yet another Tory government rather than prolong the argument. It is currently enjoying a confidence that all will work out for the best and that Brexit will be forgotten. Well, maybe it will. But the wrath and disaffection that produced Brexit in the first place may still be there, ready to find something else to worry about.

It's a pity they couldn't be a bit more like us.

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