Sun 20 September 2020

MEP and leader of Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party says the DUP were fools for trusting Boris Johnson who was always going to betray unionism.

The Democratic Unionist Party was foolish to trust Boris Johnson and the Conservatives over the “English nationalist project” of Brexit because they are “not defenders of Northern Ireland” and “don’t care one way or another” if it leaves the Union, according to the leader of Northern Ireland’s cross-community party Alliance.

Naomi Long believes Brexit has done “immeasurable damage” to the United Kingdom’s Union as it has reignited Scottish nationalism and raised the prospect of a border poll in Northern Ireland on whether to remain in the UK or join the Republic – a shift which has ironically been encouraged by the DUP and its propping-up of the Conservatives in the last Parliament. 

“Brexit has, as an English nationalist project, really pulled apart the four parts of the UK,” she told Byline Times. “Irish nationalists don’t want to see a border on the island of Ireland. Unionists don’t want to see a border in the Irish sea. But Brexit requires a border in one of those two places.”

She said she has “never understood why any unionist in their right mind” would support Brexit because of the strain it puts “on those very finely balanced relationships in the Good Friday Agreement” between unionists and nationalists.

“Everything indicates that the harder the Brexit, the more likely people are to shift their views to support for a united Ireland. The softer the Brexit, the more likely people are to be happy with the status quo,” she added.

Long has led the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland – which was formed in 1970 to “bring people together across the sectarian divide” – since 2016. She said its voters tend to be internationalist, liberal and proud of their European identity. “They want to be part of something bigger”.

MP for Belfast East from 2010 to 2015, she stood again in the 2019 General Election, but the DUP snatched the seat back by 1,800 votes.

For Long, who is also a Member of the European Parliament for Northern Ireland, the way the Conservatives dealt with the DUP over Brexit symbolises how the Tories are primarily concerned with the restoration of an English identity.

While the Prime Minister insists that his Brexit deal will not result in a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, he has not explained how the new arrangements with Ireland, an EU member state, will work. On the likelihood that his deal will result in a border being imposed in the Irish Sea, Long believes it was inevitable “that Johnson would throw the DUP under the bus in favour of what doing what suited the Conservatives in England”.

“Everyone was saying for months that Boris Johnson will use the DUP for as long as they’re useful, as will the ERG (European Research Group) and the hard Brexiteers, but they are not defenders of Northern Ireland, they are not Northern Ireland unionists, they don’t care one way or another what happens to us,” she said. “I would never trust a Conservative government to defend Northern Ireland’s best interests.

“There is a tendency, particularly in the more nationalistic part of the Conservative Party, to see something of their own values reflected in the DUP – they’re socially more conservative, they love the pomp and circumstance, the flag-waving and they think it’s the same. But, they don’t understand what it is to live in a contested space. They don’t really understand Northern Ireland.”

Despite officially being members of the Conservative and Unionist Party, it seems many of the Tory rank-and-file would agree. In a 2019 YouGov poll, 59% of Conservative Party members surveyed said they would prefer Northern Ireland to leave the Union than Brexit not happen (63% said the same of Scotland). 54% of them also said they wanted Brexit even if the Conservative Party itself was destroyed in the process.

“Boris Johnson may not want to be the Prime Minister who oversees the break-up of the UK but ultimately he’s more worried about delivering Brexit because that’s what his backers want,” Long said. “It’s the history of Irish politics that this is what the Conservatives Party does. What surprises me is that unionism never learned that lesson.”

Changing Identities

Long grew up during The Troubles in a working-class, unionist community. While the “period since partition and The Troubles did polarise society into a Protestant-Unionist dynamic and then a Catholic-Nationalist dynamic”, times are changing.

“The Good Friday Agreement, whilst it wasn’t perfect and in some ways it entrenched some of those divisions in terms of the structures, did create a peaceful society in which, for a lot of young people, identifying as unionist or nationalist doesn’t seem that relevant,” she said. “The heat was taken out of the situation and increasingly people like me were able to find a voice to articulate something different.”

She considers herself to be British, Irish and “uniquely Northern Irish” and believes acknowledging “that your identity is more complicated than just one thing, allowing people to express it in a different way” is key. The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, conducted in 2018, reflected changing attitudes towards identity, with 50% of those surveyed saying they did not think of themselves as either unionist or nationalist. 

What’s changed?

According to Long, Northern Irish society is not only now more secular and concerned with social liberalism, but more diverse because of immigration and enriched through the development of a European identity (Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU by 56% in the 2016 Referendum).

“Younger people, particularly those born in the post-Troubles era, are more likely to be motivated in politics by ideas and issues than they are by the border question,” Long told Byline Times. “They want us to deal with issues like climate change, social injustice, migration and poverty and that has driven a lot of people out of the trenches and allowed them to find different expressions… Things like the campaign for equal marriage and the campaign on abortion rights brought people together from right across the community.”

Immigration has helped people to see “that our differences are so tiny, we have so much shared experienced, there’s so much we have which binds us together”.

“Suddenly we have people here who are not charting they’re family back 300 years and saying what side of the divide they were on at partition,” she said. “They’re people who have come and made their lives here in the last 20, 30 years who are every bit as committed to the success of this place as anyone who was born here and belong here just as much. If we can integrate people from all around the globe into our community, how can we not integrate with each other?”

Stuck in Tribes

What can England learn from the identity wars fought on the streets of Northern Ireland?

“Be wary of going down this road because you can create division very speedily, you can use the politics of fear and division to marshal people to vote for you, it’s lazy and it’s easy, but it has long-term consequences for how society functions,” Long said.

“When you divide people, when you create these huge schisms in society where people will see each other, not primarily as human beings with shared aspirations, with shared concerns, with common values, not even as opponents, but as enemies first and foremost, you create a really toxic mix in society.”

The “febrile atmosphere” around politics in Westminster reminds her of the days of street protests in Northern Ireland.

“The language of ‘no surrender’, ‘surrender bill’, ‘traitors’, ‘enemy of the people’ – that has a real potency here in Northern Ireland,” she said. “It’s hugely dangerous.”

The biggest degradation of politics comes, according to Long, when politicians make a calculated move to “start only appealing to one section of the community because it stops the normal common decency of wanting the best for everybody”.

“If you divide people, you only ever need to speak to your own tribe,” she said. “So whatever you say about the others – those who you’re not trying to appeal to – doesn’t matter… You’re not trying to reach them, you’re not trying to represent them, you’re not trying to include them. You are talking to galvanise your own constituency and you do that by othering people and that kind of politics is absolutely toxic.”

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