Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Unionism feels betrayed by Boris Johnson over Brexit but must caution against knee-jerk reaction

Ian Paisley during the 1974 loyalist strike
Ian Paisley during the 1974 loyalist strike
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

There is an anger in unionism I haven't sensed since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

And it is an anger that spreads right across unionism. They feel betrayed.

Even those who voted Remain and worried about the consequences of Leave at the time feel betrayed.

Mind you, I always thought it a bizarre argument from some unionists in 2016 that you should vote Remain primarily because you couldn't necessarily trust Westminster to protect your interests if Leave won.

Anyway, unionism is angry - and when it is angry it circles the wagons.

There are efforts in some places to promote a strategy built around civil unrest, rallies and protest, with some media outlets even reporting loyalist sources suggesting a violent response.

I'm old enough to remember standing in the grounds of Stormont in March 1972 along with tens of thousands of others on the day the Stormont Parliament met for the final time.

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I also remember subsequent rallies and threats - none of which ensured the return of Stormont in that form.

I remember the 1985 anti-Anglo-Irish Agreement rallies and the unionist parties' campaign of non-cooperation.

Indeed, I remember dozens of rallies and protests and campaigns down the years, most of which just withered on the vine and delivered nothing of value to unionism.

I remember the various efforts to unite unionism, the earliest being the United Ulster Unionist Council coalition in 1974, which collapsed Sunningdale but put nothing in its place; and the latest, the Unionist Forum in 2013, which folded within months.

I remember the serial division and sub-division within unionism.

I remember Drumcree; and the flags protests; and Ulster Says No; and bonfire protests, and dozens of other here-today-gone-tomorrow protests with here-today-gone-tomorrow leaders and organisations. And yet, time after time, we return to the same anger, the same sense of betrayal and the same clarion call for protest, usually accompanied by references to Lord Carson - who in the end was seriously miffed by his former mates in the Conservative Party - and "united we stand" mantras.

Why is that? Why the singular failure to persuade Westminster and successive Governments to take our side? Why the constant need to threaten our supposed friends and fellow-UK citizens in London's political/governing establishment. Or, putting that another way, why do we seem to need to bully people into protecting and promoting unionist interests in Northern Ireland?

Who will be the target of the anger this time? The Irish Republic? The EU? Westminster? The Conservatives? The Remainers? The DUP, who put their faith in May and Johnson? Those millions of Brexit Party supporters and Conservatives who, if polling is to be believed, are happy enough to let Northern Ireland swing? Or Parliament itself, which by a majority - the bedrock of sovereignty - has chosen to thwart Brexit?

Because if you don't know the target of your anger then how do you prepare your response and deconstruct their arguments? And how do you deal with the pesky fact that a majority in Northern Ireland supports Remain?

There are competing arguments within unionism right now.

The PUP favours a unionist forum of some sort.

The UUP is putting the boot into the DUP and seemingly shifting towards a full Remain position.

The DUP still thinks it can wring concessions from Boris Johnson. The TUV seems prepared to accept a no-deal if that is the only way of leaving.

Many ordinary unionists would, I think, settle for a second referendum and Remain.

Elements within loyalism seem to be encouraging on-the-street activity, which experience suggests never ends well.

And people I've spoken to who have links within loyalist paramilitarism acknowledge that there is unrest, but also voice concerns about the "real dangers of bringing our young people onto the streets".

As I say, I've seen quite a lot in my lifetime, and that is why I would urge great caution right now.

There is clearly anger across unionism, which I can understand, but there is no consensus in how we should respond to the problem.

Indeed, my fear would be that there is more likelihood of further division within unionism/loyalism than there is of winning friends and influence where we really need it.

Sometimes caution really is a stronger weapon than the kneejerk, predictable response.

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