Certain phrases that shouldn’t be taken literally nonetheless have a habit of painting vividly silly and very literate pictures in my strange head. Mention a customs border in the middle of the Irish Sea and I immediately see a sad, lonely little Jobsworth with a clipboard standing on a floating Checkpoint Charlie midway between Liverpool and Belfast; I then see goods being dragged onto said edifice by teams of burly individuals as though it were a swimming pool-based prop on some insane Brexit-themed edition of ‘It’s A Knockout’. Actually, more ‘Jeux Sans Frontières’, thinking about it. But I digress before I begin. Naturally, DUP opposition to Boris’s deal brought me here.
It goes without saying that the Democratic Unionist Party has been punching way above its weight for the past couple of years. The dominant force in Ulster Unionism, which was elevated to a position of unprecedented prominence at Westminster in order for Theresa May to shamelessly make up the Tory numbers in 2017, played a key, calamitous role in events leading up to the suspension of regular Stormont business almost three years ago; but Mrs May’s magic money tree rescued Arlene Foster and her henchmen from the fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive affair and gave them disproportionate clout at the Commons whilst the party’s rightful home of the Northern Ireland Assembly remained mothballed.
The DUP’s main objection to the current PM’s solution to the backstop problem seems to be based upon the drawing of a distinct line between the mainland and Northern Ireland where Brexit is concerned. The DUP doesn’t want the special concessions that keep Ulster’s ties to the EU far tighter than the rest of the UK’s will be; DUP thinking is that the nation’s future relationship with the EU should be the same across the whole of the United Kingdom, as though the overemphasis on ‘Britishness’ that is a traditional hallmark of Unionism implies there has never been any divergence between Northern Ireland and the other three constituent countries of the UK – and any sign of one now is somehow selling-out to Nationalists or, even worse, the dreaded Dublin.
Which is, of course, bollocks. Ulster Unionism has always been quick to raise the Union Jack, but it’s a pick ‘n’ mix patriotism in which Northern Ireland gets to choose which bits of Britain it fancies and disregards all the bits it doesn’t. The liberal removal of many illiberal, archaic British laws that began during Roy Jenkins’s social reforming tenure as Home Secretary in the 1960s never crossed the Irish Sea at all; even when the old Northern Ireland Parliament was abolished in 1972 and the province was governed from London for the next quarter-of-a century, there was little social reforming in Ulster. Mind you, it could be said there were perhaps more pressing issues there at the time.
Social (and what is no doubt regarded as moral) conservatism has typified Protestant Northern Ireland and its political face for decades; at one time, such an approach was also regarded as being characteristic of Catholic Northern Ireland – just as it was of Catholic Eire. Listening to a radio adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s ‘Country Girls Trilogy’ the other day reminded me of how young women in particular – especially those from rural Ireland – were utterly infantilised by the considerable, corrosive power once wielded throughout the Catholic community by the Church of Rome. However, the irreparable damage done by the child abuse scandals, which have undoubtedly contributed towards the church’s waning influence, could well have played a part in creating the kind of climate conducive to the radical reforms that have taken place in the Republic recently.
In the public perception, these social liberalisations have tended to make the Republic resemble a vivacious party animal who happens to live next door to a curmudgeonly middle-aged man forever complaining about the noise. They have made Northern Ireland look as much of an anachronism to Dublin as it is to London, yet with Stormont in a state of suspended animation ever since the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in January 2017, members of the Assembly (who continue to draw their salaries, by the way) haven’t exactly been in a position to address such issues.
Ironically, their absence from Stormont and the return of effective direct rule from Westminster has enabled certain policies to be imposed on Ulster that, had the DUP been more active on home soil, would probably have struggled to get a foot in the door. And the one Great British social reform of 1967 that even the Republic has now adopted was the one whose glaring omission from the Northern Ireland statute book made a mockery of Unionist objections to any Brexit deal making a clear distinction between Ulster and the mainland. Indeed, that very omission showed there have always been very clear distinctions. However, as of midnight last night, abortion is no longer a criminal offence in Northern Ireland.
As Suzanne Breen from the Belfast Telegraph pointed out on ‘Newsnight’ yesterday, the hypothetical (albeit plausible) scenario in which a rape victim risked receiving a longer prison sentence than her rapist should she terminate an unwanted pregnancy provoked by the rape has now been belatedly consigned to history, along with the Victorian legislation that has kept Northern Ireland out of step with the mainland for 52 years. The fact that the DUP were strong enough in their opposition to go so far as to recall the power-sharing Executive said a great deal about the party’s priorities; the less headline-grabbing, albeit important, issues affecting the Northern Ireland electorate were not deemed significant enough to warrant reconvening at Stormont, yet offer women the same ownership of their bodies as they have in England, Scotland and Wales, never mind the Republic, and the DUP are there.
Mercifully, they left it too late. Their failure to stem the march of progress also merely highlighted how detached they are from wider public opinion beyond the hardcore Unionist enclaves; temporarily resuming business at Stormont to debate a single issue ended in farce with petulant walkouts that emptied the chamber. The fact that Ulster will also be brought into line with the rest of the UK (and the rest of Ireland) on the legal standing of same-sex marriage must have been an additional kick in the teeth for the DUP. For some reason, I can’t help but remember Mo Mowlam’s recollection of Ian Paisley’s fire-and-brimstone reaction to the news that Elton John had been invited to play at the ceremony marking the founding of the Northern Ireland Assembly – ‘Sodomites at Stormont!’ All that remains for the DUP now is to lick their wounds and return to Westminster, where – unlike at Stormont – the party’s appetite for destruction at least has numerous sympathetic allies.
© The Editor