Monday, May 8, 2017

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A Potent Mix

In his latest Ireland Eye column in Tribune magazine, former Blanket columnist Dr John Coulter examines how official and unofficial Brexit and anti Brexit pacts could affect the outcome of the North's Westminster poll on 8th June.

What a shambles! Next year I clock up 40 years in Irish journalism, yet never have I witnessed a bigger political mess on the Emerald Isle, and ironically democratic elections are making the situation worse.

Just when we thought the two main Northern parties – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein – could reach a deal to restore the power-sharing Stormont Executive, up pops ‘Big T’, the British Prime Minister, and dumps a snap General Election – just weeks after Ulster voters had gone to the polls for a snap Assembly election.

As the parties gear up for the Westminster showdown – which many want as a mini referendum on Brexit as Northern Ireland voted Remain – the Stormont peace process has been dumped into the political fridge and the talk is more about election pacts, or lack of them!

Some of the nationalist and centre parties want an anti-Brexit coalition to oppose pro-Brexit MPs, but this move has been dogged by the perception it is the so-called Pan Nationalist Front under another name as most defending pro-Brexit MPs are Unionists. 

Unionists are attempting to agree unity candidates in seats under threat from either Sinn Fein or Alliance, but as always, the bitter rivalry between the DUP and Ulster Unionists is never far from the surface. 

On paper, unity candidates from both political camps makes common sense, but long gone are the days when IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was the nationalist unity candidate winning Fermanagh South Tyrone, or the 1974 Unionist Coalition of parties which swept up 11 of the 12 Commons seats. 

But the signs are ominous for Unionism – March’s Assembly poll saw Unionism lose its majority in a Chamber it took as the main grouping for generations. 

Indeed, if Alliance, Greens, SDLP and Sinn Fein could agree anti-Brexit unity candidates, five Unionist seats would be in jeopardy, with Sinn Fein best placed to pick up four and Alliance winning back East Belfast. 

Like the calls for a second ‘Indy’ referendum in Scotland, such a result in Northern Ireland would greatly enhance the chant for a border poll on Irish unity.

As it stands, 11 of the 18 Ulster seats are held by Unionists – eight DUP, two UUP and one Independent. Nationalists hold the other seven – three by the SDLP and four Sinn Fein.

Anti-Brexit unity candidates would see the Ulster political map change radically, with 12 seats held by nationalists and Alliance, with only half a dozen remaining in Unionist hands. The Anti-Brexiteers would sweep up Fermanagh/South Tyrone, East Londonderry, North Belfast, East Belfast, and Upper Bann.

In hard turf terms, it would leave Unionists effectively jammed into two of Northern Ireland’s six counties, forming the mini-state of ‘North East Ulster’. Ireland would unofficially be a 30-county republic!

But what about the impact of Unionist unity with agreed candidates in all 18 seats? Probably only South Belfast would return to the Unionist fold. However, the bitter political reality is that Unionist unity has become almost as big a myth as the tooth fairy and Easter bunny combined!

Unionism seems hell-bent on refusing to accept the common sense solution – accommodation on agreed candidates leading to a firm coalition, ending in a single Unionist Party.

As with the snap Stormont poll, Unionists may suddenly awaken from an election to find they are the minority voice in Northern Ireland and they may need to start making preparations for the inevitable outcome – some form of all-island partnership.

Brexit will not only see the redrawing of the European Union map, it could also see a realignment within the British Isles, with the Scots gaining independence and the Irish Republic wanting a closer formal tie with what remains of the UK.

The initial shock to the Irish system will not come in the aftermath of the implementation of Article 50, but if the Northern parties cannot agree a deal to restore Stormont by the Tories’ latest deadline of late June.

That will see the eventual mothballing of the Assembly, to be replaced with the cutting austerity of Direct Rule from Westminster. And the political buzzards from Dublin will be hovering to get a slice of the joint authority cake, too, as they did in 1985 following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Direct Rule has always left Unionism in a weaker position, but unlike the 1970s and 1980s, Dublin will not be in as strong a position economically to rebrand Direct Rule as joint authority.

Dublin has already witnessed the collapse of the once unassailable Celtic Tiger economy, requiring a multi-million euro bailout with most of the cash coming from the UK. Brexit will further isolate the Republic geographically and economically.

Even if the Scots go independent and rejoin the EU, a Celtic Alliance between the Republic and Scotland is economically very fragile and unstable politically. There’s nothing like a good dose of ‘independence from the Empire’ to bring a state to its senses! Just ask many of the African nations who have abandoned imperialism.

A unified Ireland back in the Commonwealth – now there’s a potent mix to get Unionist and nationalist tongues wagging!

Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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