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BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – DECEMBER 06: Sinn Fein hold an anti-Brexit rally on December 6, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Brexit negotiations broke down earlier this week after the DUP led by former Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster telephoned British Prime Minister Theresa May stating they would not support the proposals put forward. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which has a land border with the rest of the European Union. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
The death of compromise

The death of compromise

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – DECEMBER 06: Sinn Fein hold an anti-Brexit rally on December 6, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Brexit negotiations broke down earlier this week after the DUP led by former Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster telephoned British Prime Minister Theresa May stating they would not support the proposals put forward. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which has a land border with the rest of the European Union. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

How Northern Ireland’s moderates are losing the faith

Over the 2017 Christmas break, a large funeral took place in my hometown – Downpatrick, a market town in Northern Ireland. It was for a retired civil servant named Maurice Hayes. In the congregation, Michael D Higgins, the Irish president, sat in the same nave as the local Lord Lieutenant, the queen’s representative. Past and present leaders of all the major churches attended.

Why this story?

When we talk about Northern Ireland, we usually do so through the prism of hardline parties who are determined to stay in the UK or leave it. But the moderate middle quietly make it work.

I asked Matthew O’Toole to consider whether moderate catholics are now turning away from making the province work – and towards reunification.

The passing of bureaucrats, even very senior ones, does not generally attract media and political attention on this scale. The difference was that Hayes was the embodiment of something. He was from an Irish nationalist background, meaning his primary identification was as Irish and not British. But having been born on the wrong side of a border most people from his background did not want to exist, he (and others like him) served the partitioned, British state.

Among other things, he had been Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Health, first head of the Community Relations Council and later was deputy chair in the commission that reformed Northern Ireland’s police – an important pillar of the peace process. He was a rare Catholic at the top of the civil service, and he worked for the betterment of Northern Ireland, whatever the ambivalence of the minority community’s place within it.

His Irishness was not incidental: a few days after the funeral in a pub, I was reminded of Hayes again. The bar was decorated with newspaper clippings celebrating the 1960s Gaelic football triumphs of the Down county team. Hayes, in his spare time, had been instrumental in the reorganisation that led to their victory in the All-Ireland championships in 1960 – the first to take the trophy north of the border.

But Hayes’s daughter, Clodagh, also remembers travelling to America with her Irish-speaking father at the height of his career and asking why he carried a British passport. “He told me: ‘I work for the British government, they pay my salary – I don’t feel I can say to them I won’t travel under your passport.’ He didn’t feel that detracted from who he was, or his Irishness – but he was quite pragmatic.”

Maurice Hayes, a man who straddled the Irish divide

Maurice Hayes, and his ethic of accommodation, seems now to belong to another time: this is the time of the hardline Democratic Unionist party, which not only exists to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, but to assert its absolute Britishness via every means possible. Since the DUP holds the balance of power at Westminster, these means currently include vetoing the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union.

It is also the era of Sinn Fein’s Irish nationalism, which seeks to take Northern Ireland out of the UK as quickly as possible. Though the two parties managed an uneasy – and occasionally sleazy – decade sharing power in Northern Ireland, those institutions collapsed two years ago over a spending scandal. Since then, the compound effect of Brexit and intransigence of the parties mean there is no prospect of self-government returning any time soon.

Hayes however is representative of a far deeper reservoir of sentiment than is often credited. He lived his life in a tradition of moderate nationalism whose greatest victory was the terms of the peace in Northern Ireland – an accommodation rather than a victory.

Northern Ireland is the pivot on which the relationship of Europe and Britain is turning. And moderate nationalists of the sort embodied by Maurice Hayes are the pivot on which Northern Ireland may move.

The search for a state

In December, Theresa May gave one of her only spirited defences of the Northern Ireland “backstop” – the provisions in the draft agreement she agreed with the EU which seek to protect the peace in Northern Ireland by preventing a hardening of that border.

The prime minister spoke of meeting people in Northern Ireland who travel back and forward across the border and who did not want a decision taken in Britain to disrupt their everyday lives. “If this House cares about preserving our Union,” she told the Commons, “it must listen to those people, because our Union will only endure with their consent.”

She was mostly referring to people who would understand the life choices of Maurice Hayes: Northern Ireland’s moderate nationalists, a group discomfited by Brexit in general, but even more offended by the manner in which the Conservative Government has pursued it.

Tom Kelly, a commentator for Belfast’s nationalist daily newspaper, The Irish News, and a former staffer for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the standard bearer of moderate nationalism for the past half century, says Brexit has “awakened something in nationalism – but I’m not quite sure what it is”.

As Kelly says, and as others have pointed out, nationalists – perhaps gauzily – viewed the UK and Ireland’s common membership of the European Union as part of a broader softening of a boundary on which they had found themselves on the wrong side in 1921. That softening climaxed in the Good Friday Agreement, a document which in key respects – particularly citizenship rights – made Northern Ireland uniquely binational, while also underlining its constitutional position inside the UK.

To understand the purpose of this seemingly contradictory diplomatic trick, it is worth considering who the soft nationalists of Northern Ireland are, and what they want. The easy answer is that they want a United Ireland, but history has shown that answer to be so incomplete as to be misleading. Professor Marianne Elliott wrote the seminal history Catholics of Ulster two decades ago, a book which portrays not a people incessantly plotting against the state, but in search of a state to which they could belong.

Today, Professor Elliott says the historic predicament in which northern nationalists found themselves a century ago – partitioned into perpetual minority status in a state which at best viewed them warily – created a yearning for something more “amorphous” than simply territorial reassignment: respect.

A Northern Ireland civil rights march In London

A quest for respect was, after all, at the root of the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, the non-sectarian (though largely Catholic) movement for, among other things, an end to discriminatory housing allocation and local government gerrymandering. The reaction to that movement and its perceived subtext of insurrection against the Northern Ireland state precipitated the descent into three decades of communal killing known euphemistically as the Troubles.

But the civil rights movement itself, with its claims of inspiration from US civil rights, and its links to the broader context of international 1960s activism, remains sacrosanct in the minds of many constitutional nationalists. So sacrosanct that attempts by Sinn Fein to absorb civil rights into a greener, more Republican narrative – though there were undeniably Republicans on civil rights marches – is a remarkably quick way of infuriating moderates, especially those in the SDLP.

When May speaks of losing Northern Ireland, she means losing those moderates. And she is right to be concerned. These are the people who have been discomfited by Brexit to the extent that the mostly dormant – though theoretically ever-present – debate on Irish unification has re-emerged, albeit tentatively.


How internationalism quelled nationalism

The civil rights movements of the 1960s, its goals and its treasured myths, help explain why Brexit is so unsettling to this cohort. First, the core civil rights movement considered itself to be internationalist, rather than narrowly nationalist. And second, it aimed at fundamental reform of Northern Ireland, not at Irish unity (even if that was the long-term aspiration of some of its activists).

Civil rights

The Northern Ireland civil rights movement was a coalition of groups to campaign for an end to discrimination in housing allocation, gerrymandering and property rights in local elections.

Though the original Civil Rights Association was non-sectarian in nature, and included trade unionists, feminists and some liberal unionists, it remains principally associated with campaigns against anti-Catholic discrimination.

Paul McGrade, a former senior UK diplomat originally from Omagh in Northern Ireland, points out that moderate nationalism in Northern Ireland has long been imbued with internationalism, something that started in the 1960s with self-identified links to US civil rights and international student movements.

“Many people had already rejected older nationalist politics and made a mental compromise with being in the [northern] state. Part of civil rights and the constitutional nationalism that followed was actually internationalism, and a reaching towards universal values,” he says. “One reason Brexit is so toxic is that (it) threatens that internationalism.”

John Hume, the SDLP leader who won a Nobel peace prize for his role in the Good Friday Agreement, is more responsible for internationalising the Northern Ireland problem than any other politician. Hume encouraged northern nationalists to think about their predicament – being on the wrong side of a border, in a contested space – in the most international way possible.

John Hume, left, joins hands with fellow nationalist politician Eddie McAteer during a march in Londonderry in 1969

He first pushed Irish America to exert pressure on London to cede greater involvement in Northern Ireland to the Irish Government, a process which culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement – a document which Marianne Elliott says was fundamentally designed “for” constitutional nationalists.

Hume, a French-speaking former languages teacher who entered the European Parliament in 1979, then built networks in Brussels – especially through the Party of European Socialists with which the SDLP was affiliated. This was in part an effort to secure peace funding, but also to place Northern Ireland and its conflict in a European context.

In his 1998 Nobel lecture, Hume devoted several paragraphs to the European project, and its influence on both him and the peace process, going so far as to namecheck two successive commission presidents – Jacques Delors and Jacques Santer. His co-laureate, the unionist David Trimble, did not mention Europe once, sticking instead to quotes from John Bunyan and Edmund Burke.

Hume’s voice is now silent: he has been claimed by dementia. But his explication of Northern Ireland – so didactically repeated that it became known as the Single Transferable Speech – echoes loudly. While his concern with the European context was more philosophical than practical, the idea he seeded unquestionably had an impact on the self-image of nationalists, and moderates generally, in Northern Ireland.

David McCann, the deputy editor of the popular Slugger O’Toole political blog, says EU membership was like a “comfort blanket” for moderate nationalists in Northern Ireland. “People were not waking up every day and thinking about EU politics, but membership was clearly a reassuring thing for nationalists – and taking away the comfort blanket has had an impact.”

Such was Hume’s passionate Europeanism that it became common for moderate nationalists to use European integration as an explanation for why Irish unity, understood in the conventional sense, was practically redundant. If the European project had used economic integration to undermine old-line nationalism across the continent, why should nationalists in Northern Ireland persist with hang-ups about an invisible partition?

In that sense, Hume can claim to be the only major UK politician to have consistently and successfully sold European integration to his electorate long before Brexit. I remember a teacher at my Catholic grammar school 20 years ago encouraging me to pursue something called “European Law” as a career. I wasn’t interested in being a lawyer, I said. “Ah, but European law,” they responded – as if the word itself held magical force.

Free for all

At the end of January, an event entitled Beyond Brexit: Ireland’s Future took place in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, the same venue that 20 years before hosted a famous U2 concert ahead of the referendum that approved the Good Friday Agreement. The image of Bono hoisting the arms of David Trimble and John Hume remains synonymous with the peace process. But the 1,600 attendees at the event demonstrably had other things on their minds than the protection of the power-sharing institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement. Those institutions have not operated for more than two years. The event was attended by parties from all over the island – including representatives from Leo Varadkar’s governing Fine Gael, traditionally seen as the coolest on reunification among the political parties in Dublin.

Bono holds up the arms of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, left, and SDLP leader John Hume at the Waterfront concert hall

The Beyond Brexit event was organised by a group describing themselves as civic nationalists. The group, widely considered to have close links to Sinn Fein, describes itself as a “grassroots, cross-community and non-party political movement … to promote and encourage a debate on the reunification of Ireland”. The same group coordinated successive letters to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar calling for the Irish Government to maintain its firm stance on the border in Brexit negotiations. It is, in tone and approach, a break from how moderate nationalism in Northern Ireland has operated for most of its history.

The first letter in December 2017 came a week after the UK signed the interim “joint report” which formalised the principle of the “backstop” arrangement. At that time, Varadkar addressed Northern nationalists directly, telling them: “You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.” It may not have been deliberate, but there was an echo of an earlier Irish leader, Jack Lynch, who took to the airwaves at the outset of the Troubles in 1969 to warn that the Irish Government could “no longer stand by” as the situation north of the border escalated.

Of course, that is largely exactly what they did do, since there were few other practical options open to them. Brexit, however, has altered the relationship between politics on either side of the Irish border. The SDLP, the moderate party of Hume, was wiped out at Westminster at the 2017 snap general election, two of its three MPs – despite being largely respected – were beaten by Sinn Fein.

Constitutional nationalism, with its preference for partnership, is now vanished from Westminster for the first time in more than half a century. Their nuanced political messages had been struggling at the ballot box for some time. Professor Elliott said: “In Northern Ireland [after partition], Catholicism and nationalism were treated as inferior, so there really was just a demand for recognition. But because that demand is so amorphous, it’s why extremists with their simple message run rings around the moderates.”

So what comes next? Heather Wilson, a young SDLP activist and staffer, is stark in pointing out that Brexit has confirmed a widespread alienation from both Westminster and Stormont.

Gerry Adams, then the Sinn Fein President, walks alongside the coffin of his friend Martin McGuinness in 2017

Wilson, from a Protestant background – a fact that is still depressingly notable in Northern Ireland – opposes Sinn Fein’s abstentionism but adds:


The current incarnation of Sinn Fein, known for its links to the Provisional IRA, once maintained a policy of abstentionism from all parliaments in a partitioned Ireland or the UK. In 1986, it started to participate in the Dail, the Republic’s legislature. In 1998, it entered the Northern Ireland Assembly. But Sinn Fein MPs still do not take their seats at Westminster.

“Some people in our party get annoyed when you say nationalists have turned their back on Westminster, but I think there is a truth to it. I do think personally we need to be looking to Dublin especially as London does not seem to be looking after our interests in terms of Brexit.”

Wilson, from a Protestant background – a fact that is still depressingly notable in Northern Ireland – opposes Sinn Fein’s abstentionism but adds: “Some people in our party get annoyed when you say nationalists have turned their back on Westminster, but I think there is a truth to it. I do think personally we need to be looking to Dublin especially as London does not seem to be looking after our interests in terms of Brexit.”

That view is the SDLP leadership’s view. The party has decided to enter into a coalition with Fianna Fail, the shape-shifting movement which has mostly dominated the politics of the Republic of Ireland since its creation. In doing so, it has sparked controversy among the section of its membership that emphasises the “social democratic” bit of its identity, and the European affiliation that goes with it (though it has long since lost the EU Parliament seat Hume once treasured). There are other complex historical threads. Fianna Fail still describes itself as a “Republican Party” and claims lineage to those in the original Irish Republican Army which opposed the 1921 treaty with Britain. It is from a tradition of nationalism that sees the end of Northern Ireland as its aim.

The Fianna Fail tie-up was confirmed at a special meeting at the beginning of February – though opposed by around a third of members. It is a move long in gestation and divisive within the party’s ranks, in part because it gets to the quick of whether all nationalists are really nationalists at all. For SDLP moderates, more often than not, their preference has been for an approach that puts partnership and reconciliation above urgent Irish unity, that is to say ahead of the constitutional outcome that nationalists are supposed to prioritise.

The difficulty for the communal partnership approach, and the difficulty for the constitutional nationalist position over many decades, according to Marianne Elliott, is “that it requires a great deal from the other partner. And that has not always been forthcoming”. And since Arlene Foster became leader of the DUP, that approach has been less forthcoming than ever.

Under her leadership, the DUP has appeared more belligerent than it had for the previous decade. Brexit may be the most consequential illustration of this trend, but David McCann says that one of the most resonant examples was a DUP minister’s withdrawal of a microscopic funding allocation to an Irish language project – for no apparent reason other than tribal power play. Even among moderate nationalists who dislike Sinn Fein’s posturing on the Irish language, this grated. As Marianne Elliot says, the “sectarian antennae” that exists even in some of Northern Ireland’s most broad-minded people, were tweaked.

Newton Emerson, an independently minded unionist commentator based in Belfast, notes that the centre ground – stretching from pale green nationalism to liberal unionism – had shared an approach to the narrow ground of Northern Ireland that differed from that of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. “What the centre ground had in common was a commitment to devolution, with the SDLP going as far as campaigning to ‘make Northern Ireland work’,” Emerson says. “The collapse of Stormont seems to have scuppered this for the foreseeable future.”

All changed, utterly

The power-sharing institutions that constitutional nationalists fought to create are in abeyance, felled by scandal and kept low by intransigence, especially that of the DUP. Most polls show indifference from both unionists and nationalists about whether the institutions are resurrected. Heather Wilson describes power sharing “as the right thing to do but in terms of actually delivering things, I don’t think in 50 years’ time we will be nostalgic for Stormont”.

DUP leader Arlene Foster in January

The DUP is widely blamed for its failure to acknowledge and conserve the goodwill of constitutional nationalists, who had been born on the wrong side of the border but found ethical and constructive ways to forget about that border and make the state in which they lived work. Newton Emerson says Sinn Fein may have seized on Brexit to foment grievance, but also that unionism “has failed to grasp the sense of genuine fear and grievance among nationalists”.

Northern Ireland’s constitutional nationalists had exchanged grievance for governance – a process that may now be in reverse. Brexit has become something done to them rather than by them, much like partition itself. Not only that, but it undoes the conditions on which many of them had accepted partition. And in a further, almost subliminal, reason for grievance, the majority of Northern Ireland voted remain: nationalists and centrists overwhelmingly, with a significant number of unionists too. But since Northern Ireland was expressly created to put them in a minority, some nationalists feel a further twinge of the sectarian antennae at what has happened: even when they find themselves in a majority in Northern Ireland, a Conservative Government allies with the DUP to appear to disregard it.

As with Hayes and as with Hume, constitutional nationalists prided themselves on an ethic of accommodation and compromise, of finding a way to live alongside their neighbours on Ulster’s narrow ground. Now opinion appears to be hardening against making Northern Ireland work, and towards achieving a “new Ireland”, an as yet undefined destination. The alliance of the SDLP and Fianna Fail is a manifestation of that change – though both of those parties are committed to the re-establishment of the institutions – but it is not the only one.

If Brexit is resolved in a way that preserves the ambiguities treasured by moderates in Northern Ireland, the place may yet return to something approximating the status quo ante. An unloved but necessary compromise.

“Be advised, my passport’s green; no glass of ours was ever raised to toast the queen,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote in 1983. In 2011, at a banquet in Dublin Castle during the state visit that was intended to symbolise the final draining of poison from the Anglo-Irish relationship, Heaney raised his glass and toasted the queen.

Northern Ireland’s quiet nationalists had accepted ambiguity. They had championed it. But what happens when an ambiguous compromise once accepted is no longer on offer? Do they seek a return to the status quo ante, or join a push for something bolder, with all of the risk that entails? Perhaps more often than history has acknowledged, it has fallen to people partitioned into a state they didn’t ask for to make that state work. It will be hard to continue to make it work while also campaigning for it to be fundamentally altered, or even abolished.

Perhaps fittingly for a people stuck between the absolutes of Irish republicanism and Ulster loyalism, they are still deciding what to do.

Further reading:

  • Seamus Heaney wrote lots on his own identity. In this interview with the Irish Times, he speaks of seeing himself as “basically SDLP before the SDLP were invented – a nationalist, apolitical background, but with a kind of northern nationalism”.
  • This article by Patrick Kielty, a comedian from County Down, agrees broadly with the O’Toole piece above: the future of Northern Ireland may turn on “nationalists who once felt Irish enough post-Good Friday agreement and those pro-European unionists applying for Irish passports”.
  • The speech given by John Hume on winning the Nobel peace prize explains his very international Irishness. It is very different to the speech given by David (now Lord) Trimble, his co-winner from the moderate unionist UUP. Part of his conclusion: “the paramilitaries are finished. But politics is not finished.”
  • Slugger O’Toole is the leading site for a range of perspectives on Northern Irish politics. The CAIN archive site is a remarkable resource, with resources whether you want to learn more about Northern Ireland – or delve deeply into historical documents.