May 2014        

Where are Britain’s interests best served?

Alone among Northern Ireland’s unionist leaders, the first minister, Peter Robinson, appears willing to accept reality and recognise the developing nature of the area’s political make-up.
      Speaking at his party’s spring conference in Newcastle, Co. Down, Robinson told DUP colleagues that demographic changes could not be wished away, and that ignoring them would be what he termed “constitutionally dangerous.” He said the test of success for unionist parties would be to stop looking for Lundys and look instead for converts.
      Significantly, this part of his speech went almost unreported in the local press, and no other unionist politician seems willing or able to share his well-founded concerns about the Six-County state’s future.
      No matter how crude and vulgar the sectarian head-count may be in terms of democratic politics, it has long informed much of political life in the North. From the founding of the Six-County state, unionism sought to control the numbers. Since the demise of the old Orange state this is no longer possible, and underlining current reality is the most recent census in 2011, which indicated a declining unionist majority.
      Other factors are combining to make the unionist position ever more precarious. The current referendum campaign in Scotland, for example, is raising blunt questions about the permanence of the United Kingdom as currently constituted. Whether the Scots decide to stay or go is, of course, important, but the very fact that the question of independence is being seriously considered raises disturbing questions for all unionists.
      Most significant of all the factors external to Northern Ireland’s control is that the economic rationale underpinning the union has been steadily eroded over the past few decades, ironically largely because of the efforts of Margaret Thatcher and her supporters.
      As Britain’s ruling class sought to reinforce its position by redirecting the state’s economy away from labour-dependent coal and steel and towards London-centric financial services, peripheral regions have grown less crucial to the needs of the governing elite. In terms of the overall British economy, Northern Ireland is now the least crucial region of all.
      Set against this inauspicious backdrop for Northern unionism is a slew of dismal statistics and reports revealing the region as a failing social and economic entity. A recent survey by the Belfast Telegraph claims that 63 per cent of 19 to 24-year-olds in the North believe that they will emigrate.1 The monthly income-tracker of the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that discretionary incomes in Northern Ireland are less than half of the UK average.2 Research findings published by the New Policy Institute for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in March show that Northern Ireland’s labour market and poverty rates have deteriorated in the last five years, and welfare reforms are likely to exacerbate these problems.3
      Compounding this dismal snapshot of social and economic life is a stagnant political environment so unproductive that many no longer even wish to cast a ballot. Alex Kane, a former adviser to David Trimble, recently wrote in the News Letter that he will not vote in the forthcoming local government elections, because, as he says, “. . . the Assembly isn’t working, the Executive is dysfunctional, we have farce rather than government, the parties don’t care; and nothing is being allowed to change.”4
      Kane was not just highlighting the stalemate in the Northern Assembly but also echoed in his article the words of Theresa Villiers, the British Conservatives’ secretary of state for the North, who had bluntly warned local politicians that if Stormont cannot evolve it may well collapse. She pointedly reminded them in her speech that a state that doesn’t have the means to change is also a state without the means of its own preservation.
      Villiers’ words carry a more profound meaning than many of her audience realised, because they surely reveal a long-term change in Britain’s Irish policy—a change not relating to the North alone but one pointing towards a recalibration of London’s policy towards all of Ireland. Over the past few decades Britain has invested considerable political and military capital in the “Ulster question.” Now, while undoubtedly content that it no longer has to contend with frequent bombings and gun battles, there is clearly a sense of frustration in Whitehall with the never-ending political deadlock in Belfast.
      Moreover, this exasperation has no doubt caused London to view Northern Ireland as unstable or even unmanageable and therefore not the best possible fit for its wider requirements. Britain is no longer the world’s leading imperial power, but it does, nevertheless, have several strategic interests in the island of Ireland.
      London always keeps a watchful eye on events in the country closest to its western shores; and however peaceful things may appear at present, the British state has two constant strategic military objectives in relation to Ireland. In the first instance there is the matter of ensuring that Ireland cannot be used as a base from which to threaten England, and secondly, to keep Irish air and naval ports available for use if needed by the Ministry of Defence or its allies.
      There is, moreover, the more mundane calculation that it is in the best interest of the British ruling class to ensure that the only other English-speaking member of the EU is encouraged to subscribe to a broadly similar economic and global consensus to that promoted by Westminster. London might be unperturbed by the Republic participating in the euro monetary zone but would be deeply concerned if Dublin were to sign exclusive trade agreements with Russia or China, for example.
      At the beginning of the twentieth century, more enlightened members of Britain’s ruling class believed that interests such as these were best secured through an Irish home-rule parliament. When this arrangement failed, the Northern state offered a similar foothold, albeit one less satisfactory than having the complicity of the whole island.
      Events are now apparently turning back in favour of the older concept of a southern Irish parliament willingly embracing a closer relationship with Britain. Some are even mentioning having the 26 Counties back in the Commonwealth. From a British government viewpoint this is an agreeable and viable option and one worth promoting through the diplomatic offensive now under way, with state visits to Windsor Castle and fleánna ceoil in the Royal Albert Hall.
      Where, therefore, does Northern Ireland rank in this scenario, in the light of what Lord Palmerston once defined as Britain’s “eternal and perpetual interests”? The answer is, not very highly, as London will gladly swap Belfast for Dublin. Peter Robinson is probably as aware of this as he is alert to changing demographics. The question is whether the rest of Northern Ireland can find a positive solution to this changing reality.

1. “The young: We want to get out,” Belfast Telegraph, 7 April 2014.
2. “Survey suggests NI disposable incomes rise but less than half UK average” (
3. “Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland.” A team at the New Policy Institute, 25 March 2014 (
4. “Why not voting may be the only way to change things,” News Letter, 21 April 2014.

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