Belfast Telegraph

Why my friend John Foster is wrong about Europe and the Union

The writer and academic characterised leaving the EU as a desire for 'elbow room and fresh air' in these pages last week. Former European Commission representative Dennis Kennedy disagrees.

Unionism faces a dilemma over Brexit
Unionism faces a dilemma over Brexit

The very word "Brexit" seems to trigger such an emotive response in even the most discerning minds that rational debate on this crucial issue remains impossible. For example, friends and admirers of Professor John Wilson Foster - and I have for years happily been both - can only have been dismayed and bemused by his article, "So, who will speak up for the Union?" in the Belfast Telegraph.

The Union, in this case, is not the EU, but the UK, and Professor Wilson, with some of his characteristic erudition, catalogues and bemoans the withdrawal from politics of the gentry, the industrialists, the businessmen and academia, who once provided what he rather charitably sees as a liberal element in unionist leadership. Hence the question in the title.

Before answering the question, he sets the current unionist dilemma in the context of renewed demands for Irish unity and the issue of European integration.

His case for the Union is essentially an argument for the large and inclusive as against the small and particularist - as in an all-embracing Britishness against competing claims of Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalism and "bonfire unionism".

Unionist culture, he writes, is bigger than bonfires, bigger than Sinn Fein, bigger than Ireland. One of his objections to a united Ireland is that it would "return (us) from the larger to the smaller". He then throws in Sean 0'Faolain's dictum that "any sensible man naturally goes from smaller to larger islands ... and ends up with continents".

He tells us he loves Dublin, but asks, as London is his capital, how could he shrink his civic horizons by, presumably, transferring his allegiance from the larger to the smaller. As an Irish citizen myself, born and raised in Northern Ireland and once again living here, I am happy to have Dublin and London as my two capitals and also enjoy, as a citizen of the EU, civic horizons which include 26 other capitals.

At a mid-point in his article, the author seems to have realised that all this is an argument for European integration and against Brexit, which latter is, surely, an undeniable "return from the larger to the smaller".

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So, "with all respect" he tells us that "EU membership is not the answer to our Irish dilemma" and states baldly that "the European Union project is to shrink Europe to a stifling, unitary bureaucracy". And anyone who thinks otherwise, he suggests, is a dunce.

This is an abrupt abandoning of erudition and a sudden descent to Borisjohnsonian, or Govean, invective in all its daftness and disregard for fact. It ignores entirely the argument that the best defence of the Union could be continued membership of the EU - it would lessen the chances of a Scottish breakaway, it has helped many in Northern Ireland with a strong sense of Irish identity feel comfortable enough living in a UK inside the EU.

The history of unionism since the 1960s is only partly the abandoning ship by the professional and business classes, it is also the lurch of political unionism away from the admittedly somewhat insipid liberalism of the O'Neill years to what became the triumph of Paisleyism and a unionism that repelled, rather than attracted, those leaving the ship.

Today, moderate unionism is eclipsed, leaving the DUP, not exactly a Paisleyite party, but an extreme British nationalist party, with strong overtones of fundamental Protestantism, as evidenced in its enthusiasm for Brexit and its ultra-conservative stances on social issues.

On the other side, Professor Wilson says pan-nationalism has suddenly returned to threaten Northern Ireland. But, surely, pan-nationalism is an obsolete term? There is, effectively, only one nationalist party, Sinn Fein, with the SDLP struggling to survive.

Again, extremism has triumphed over moderation, aided, it must be said, by policies emanating from London and Dublin and by the workings of the Belfast Agreement.

Europe has been plagued by the problem of nationalism since the early-19th century, causing, at one level, the break-up of the United Kingdom in 1921 and the 30-year Troubles in Northern Ireland, and, at another, repeated wars between nation states culminating in the disasters of two World Wars, followed more recently by appalling bloodshed in the Balkans between warring national groups.

European integration was launched in the aftermath of the Second World War as an extremely brave and innovative project to contain the plague of nationalism that had almost destroyed it.

The means to achieve this were a common market, a customs union and a succession of sectoral policies, plus increased social and political co-operation and integration, where possible. It has been remarkably successful.

Integration has necessitated a great deal of legislation at European level, which Professor Wilson sees as "stifling bureaucracy". But you cannot have a common market, a customs union, or even simply free trade without measures to ensure that the result is not a free-for-all, in which the powerful few triumph and the rest go to the wall.

At this moment, the UK parliament is transferring the entire corpus of European law to the British statute book and the probability is that practically all of it will remain in force, because that is how the modern world works.

The Northern Ireland problem today is of conflicting national identities, Irish and British, which are now represented at political level by two dominant extreme nationalist parties.

The problem unionism faces is that it has no future unless it can persuade the almost half of the population who feel Irish, with varying degrees of robustness, that they can live reasonably content within a British state.

Membership of the EU and continuing integration at European level involves a sharing of European identity and a much-needed dilution of particular national hang-ups.

For Northern Ireland unionists, Brexit is the last thing they need.

  • Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times. He served as European Commission representative in Northern Ireland from 1985 to 1991

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