Ulster and the back door

What the IRA failed to achieve with bombs and gunshots will perhaps come as a rebound from Brexit, demographic change and the need for policies to ensure a better life for people.

Ulster and the back door

What the IRA failed to achieve with bombs and gunshots will perhaps come as a rebound from Brexit, demographic change and the need for policies to ensure a better life for people. While Emmanuel Macron proposes a European Political Community that expands the borders and powers of the current EU, the Europeanism of the facts has sided with Sinn Féin, which has won the elections in Northern Ireland for the first time in votes and seats, territory that has been part of the United Kingdom for a hundred years, when, after a war against the British, the Irish Free State was established, which later gave rise to the current Republic of Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 left six of the nine counties of Ulster under London's sovereignty, a compromise that provoked the 1922-1923 civil war between Irish nationalists, a conflict whose mark has marked politics on both sides of the island for decades. .

In 1993, before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, Canadian professor and politician Michael Ignatieff traveled to Ulster and summed up his impressions: “Two nation states claim the same province. Nine hundred thousand Protestants or descendants of Protestants want to remain British. Six hundred thousand Catholics or descendants of Catholics want, mostly, but not always, to be Irish. Since one desire can only be achieved at the expense of the other, it is hardly surprising that the end result is endless conflict.

The leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), now losers at the polls, are very angry and denounce the protocol on Northern Ireland signed by London and Brussels together with the Brexit agreement. For now, they have decided to block the constitution of the autonomous government, whose institutional architecture requires the collaboration of the two main formations to ensure consensus between Catholics or Republicans and Protestants or Unionists. We will see if Boris Johnson tightens the rope and confronts the European authorities, thus seeking to nurture grassroots support for him. At the heart of this issue is the perception of unionist politicians, who feel betrayed by the Brexit negotiators. The feeling that they have been left alone holding the flag comes from afar. Ignatieff writes that “Loyalists (Unionists) bitterly point to the curious disparity between displays of nationalist sentiment when Argentina invaded ‘British sovereign territory’ in the Falklands versus indifference towards Ulster. The Island would get rid of Ulster if it could."

The great paradox that these elections show us is that the Irish nationalists win with a post-nationalist discourse (focused on welfare policies) and end up exclusively taking the field of moderation (with a candidate far removed from the old hard stereotypes of the party that was the political arm of the IRA). Meanwhile, the unionists – fragmented and obsessed with Brexit – lose support and are seen as the old politics. If we add to this that birth figures favor Catholics, we have an unprecedented scenario.

In the leading newspaper of the republic, The Irish Times, I read an article whose main thesis is that the old Northern Ireland is dead, but the new one cannot be born. Something changes, but subtly, slowly. Michelle O'Neill has connected with many voters, more concerned about unemployment, school and transportation than about borders. And not a minor fact: for a large majority (of all affiliations), social progress is linked to the fact of being part of the EU. Sinn Féin's Europeanism is a guarantee.

Gone are those verses by Bobby Sands, an IRA militant who died in 1981 on a hunger strike, written in Maze prison: "On others' wounds we do not sleep / For all men's blood is red". Life is better today in Ulster than when violence reigned in its streets. However, any connoisseur of Irish nationalism knows that its inalienable historical objective is the unification of the island. The issue was not mentioned in the campaign, but it is on the table, although it is not easy or immediately addressed. The optimistic scenario sees the EU's back door as the only way to reconfigure – at the right pace – the complex landscape of identities and sovereignties that Northern Ireland is today.


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