Jon Tonge: Deal or no deal, unionist Brexiteers will be stuck in an undesirable position
Today is potentially one of the most momentous days in unionist political history. A vote in favour of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will fundamentally reshape Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, in economic terms at least.
The Northern Irish economy will be, in terms of rules at least, as closely aligned to the rest of Ireland and the EU.
A border poll would at some point follow to seek constitutional as well as economic unification. However, a vote against the Prime Minister’s deal may mean that Brexit might never happen — to the relief, ironically, of those who until this week may have been unionist Brexiteers.
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The unionist community may have voted Leave in 2016, but hardly overwhelmingly.
A substantial minority of DUP voters supported Remain and nearly half of UUP voters did likewise. Survey evidence showed considerable unionist antipathy to a backstop Brexit. Enthusiasm for a bespoke Boris Brexit for Northern Ireland may be even lower.
So there will be many Leave unionists tomorrow forging alliances with Remainers to thwart a Brexit which they fear semi-detaches Northern Ireland from the UK (economic) Union.
If the DUP’s 10 votes are successful in contributing to the prevention of Brexit there may be unusual celebratory configurations.
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What happens if the Prime Minister’s deal is voted through? A section of unionism may rage, but to little effect.
The awarding of mere consultative rights to the Irish Government in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement precipitated mass unionist protests and disruption for several years.
Imagine what might have happened if the UK Government had attempted regulatory, customs and VAT all-island alignment during that era?
The 1980s protests overhyped an Agreement that Margaret Thatcher saw as little more than tea and chats with Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald and Charlie Haughey in return for stronger border security. And the protests failed.
Boris Johnson’s form of Brexit is perhaps the biggest ever shift to a united Ireland, given its economic rules apparatus and possible political consequences.
Yet it is unlikely to ferment oppositional fervour. It is not 1985, when Northern Ireland remained entombed in conflict and inter-communal hatreds.
Passions have subsided. In that era there was relative unionist unity, a community largely united against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Now, there are numerous splits within unionism.
There are unionist-owned businesses and farms trading across the border very fearful of the implications of a no-deal Brexit.
They would have happily settled for the Theresa May backstop and are content for a successor which keeps the border on Irish soil seamless.
Then there are unionists, particularly younger and middle-class ones, who have always regarded leaving the EU as a foolish idea.
That leaves the hardcore of committed unionist leavers, who believe passionately in Brexit. These are most likely to be found within working-class loyalism.
But many of them will regard the version promoted by Boris Johnson with contempt, given its alignments to the Republic. So protests would be a case of Brexiteers against Brexit.
How could an anti-Boris Brexit campaign possibly develop? It may be big on denunciation and loud on wailing and gnashing of teeth, but in practical terms Northern Ireland’s distinctive Brexit seems impossible to oppose.
Public burnings of the EU protocol? Protests at customs and regulation checkpoints in Larne? A cry of no surrender, but come when (excise) duty calls?
Unionist opposition would achieve little. Unionist extra-constitutional action’s last victory was 45 years ago, downing the Sunningdale Agreement — and that triumph proved pyrrhic.
Since then serious — and for a time extensive — protests on agreements, parades and flags have fizzled out amid defeat and recrimination.
There have been dark mutterings from a few associates of loyalist paramilitaries on Brexit but these seem over-hyped and have been quickly disowned. If Boris Johnson is defeated in the Commons tomorrow, a second referendum on Brexit is possible.
This would pose an interesting Remain or Leave dilemma for the DUP.
Having seen what Brexit would mean in terms of Northern Ireland’s distinct alignment to Ireland and the EU, how would the party campaign? But it may be too late.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on the DUP and UUP (Oxford University Press)
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