Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: DUP's folly in backing Brexit may lead to the break-up of its 'precious Union'

There are many who would feel that in the event of a no-deal the best way to stay in the single market would be to unite Ireland, writes Malachi O'Doherty

In some ways these delusions may feel like fair recompense for England's inability to focus on Ireland. But they leave us inadequately prepared to contemplate the horror of Brexit and the retraction into English nationalism.
In some ways these delusions may feel like fair recompense for England's inability to focus on Ireland. But they leave us inadequately prepared to contemplate the horror of Brexit and the retraction into English nationalism.

By Malachi O'Doherty

Who are the British? Or, to frame the question a little differently, what does it take to be British? The people most assertive of their Britishness, in my experience, are the Ulster unionists of various types.

Yet look at how uncomfortably our DUP MPs sit in their corner of the parliamentary chamber.

In a debate last year on whether to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, Sammy Wilson appalled the representatives of Scottish, Welsh and English constituencies by bellowing red-faced that abortion was akin to dumping babies in dustbins.

Now, there are many sincere people who do believe that, but set that argument aside and you have to acknowledge that most British people see abortion as a medical procedure for the legitimate benefit of the woman.

If Sammy was to have the slightest hope of swaying the House behind a refusal to change the law here, he had to frame a different argument, around the need to honour devolution, for instance. That's how his party did it when the issue returned last month, though by then the House was so fed up with the DUP that it paid no heed.

What you cannot do, to win over British MPs in a vote, is tell them that they are baby-killers, that they lack all decency. They simply don't see themselves in that way. He might as well have said you people are barbarians and we are not like you. And if he wants to align himself with them as a fellow Briton, they'll expect his thinking to be a little closer to their own.

Yet, would even that ideological empathy make a person British?

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If you were to march the entire body of MPs of all parties down Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon, they would look pretty conspicuous, just as the DUP MPs look conspicuous on the benches.

For the elected representatives of the constituencies do not themselves look typically British either.

They are mostly white, middle and upper class and mannered according to their public school or university educations.

You can no more assess the character of modern Britain by treating the MPs as a representative sample than you could take the pulse of modern Ireland by only speaking to mass-going gaeilgeoiri.

The Orangemen of Ulster parade traditionally in bowler hats with rolled black brollies in order to look British, modelling themselves apparently on the commuting civil servants of the 1950s.

Today, if they want to look British they would be as well dressing in knee length floral shorts and flip-flops.

Now it is not the Twelfth that looks like a celebration of British values, but the Pride parade.

Yet Britishness also includes Orangeism and Protestantism and reverence for the monarchy and things that are not conspicuous at Pride. Islamic and Hindu culture are not part of Pride either. They are part of Britain.

England is wonderfully diverse and London is one of the most international cities in the world.

Here in Northern Ireland, both nationalists and unionists fail to appreciate this.

Nationalists, in their determination not to be British, are setting themselves at a remove from Britain that many of Somali or Fijian extraction wouldn't contemplate.

Our non-Britishness is a fantasy, perpetuated in an Irish determination not to join the Commonwealth, though India, which suffered much more under colonialism than we did, is content to be part of it, and even to honour the Queen as head of it and to accept her bumbling son as her successor.

When nationalists shun Britishness, they are seeing the same Britishness that unionists cling to, and both are culturally myopic.

Some say this is what we love, others that it's what they hate, and neither sees what is actually there.

In some ways these delusions may feel like fair recompense for England's inability to focus on Ireland. But they leave us inadequately prepared to contemplate the horror of Brexit and the retraction into English nationalism.

In fact, that retraction is something we should understand better than anybody, since we've had a a double dose of that kind of thing here.

Our connection with Britain is as complex and international as our connection with Europe.

I look at England today and I dread the prospect of being part of a Union with a reduced Britain, governed in perpetuity by old Etonian prats like Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

But most of England must feel the same as I do about this.

The UK may well break up if narrow English nationalism takes us out of the EU against our will. Unionism's folly in being part of this will erode prospects of healed relations here.

A momentum will grow towards Scottish independence and a border poll.

Some in the Republic will argue that the best way to secure a border and stay in the single market will be to unite Ireland. If unionists can't bear it to be one market inside the EU, then they may have to settle for it being one jurisdiction and live with having brought that fate upon themselves.

Part of this triangle of indifferences is the English failure to notice us. In some respects they can hardly be blamed if they think we are hoodlums and buffoons, since for decades people from here bombed their cities and sent eccentrics like the Paisleys and Wilson and the others to represent us.

Yet part of the problem, too, is Britain's failure to represent its own diversity in its own Parliament.

I am wholly opposed to Brexit and incline to thinking that I might vote for a united Ireland if Brexit goes badly, but I would do so with a sense of what is lost.

And that is a proper sense of neighbourliness with Britain, a region as colourful and interesting as the whole world. And, of course that panoply of cultures is a legacy of Empire and plunder, but it is there and we should wilt at the prospect of being estranged from it.

We are part of an archipelago in which we share a language that is not spoken as a national language anywhere else for three thousand miles.

We are more British than we like to let on. And the sorry fact that our handful of MPs look ridiculous and alien is, I suppose, no more tragic than that the rest of that Parliament is equally estranged from the real Britain.

What is more tragic is that the DUP, the supposed guardians of the Union, failed to represent Britishness as something we might want to be part of.

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