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Brexit is Ulsterising British politics

April 20th, 2019

One issue has become so important as to define the entire system

Most people would regard the Good Friday Agreement as a Very Good Thing. Certainly, it was so at the time and 21 years later, that broadly remains so. Despite the continuing background presence of dissident political violence – sadly this week coming into the foreground – the Agreement brought peace and an agreed political structure to the province.

As with much else in Irish politics, the GFA has generated a good deal of myth-making, to the extent that the Agreement is now more conceptual than written; more founded on belief than law. We know that because, for example, the debates over the UK-RoI land border never reference the actual clauses a hard border is claimed to break. The breach is not so much in the text as in what the text represents.

In truth, the Northern Ireland structures and processes that came out of the GFA have never worked particularly well, needed to be re-written and are currently in abeyance: inconvenient facts ignored by those who want to believe in its abiding Goodness, for want of anything better. Turning a blind eye is an essential skill in N Irish politics, and sometimes one that brings a public benefit too.

However, at the heart of those processes is an insuperable barrier to long-term normalisation: the Assembly is built on the concepts of unionist and nationalist communities. Given that the political parties are themselves built on unionist and nationalist programmes, that might seem sensible but the effect is to ensure that that division acquires a reinforcing dynamic and makes any long-term normalisation even more difficult. The GFA does not seek to create one nation; it seeks to manage the relations between two.

As such, a voter more concerned about school standards, economic growth, provision of libraries and parks, or public freedoms has to filter what would usually be social and economic left/right debates through the unnatural prism of unionism/nationalism. If you want to vote Conservative, you might be able to but it won’t get you anywhere; if you want to vote Labour or Lib Dem, you can’t do that at all: you have to vote for ‘sister parties’, which in essence means having to sign up to, respectively, a nationalist or overtly non-aligned agenda. Note that the Alliance Party, while nominally eschewing Northern Ireland’s divisions, still ends up being bound and defined by them.

One unfortunate aspect of Brexit (of many) is an Ulsterising of Britain’s politics at large, in two ways.

The first, and more immediately obvious, is the prominence of the RoI-NI border within the arguments over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which has brought the issues in and around Northern Ireland back to the top of the agenda for both government and parliament. This is, of course, compounded by the Con-DUP Confidence and Supply deal and the mathematics within the Commons. British politics is dominated by Brexit (albeit that both are on a necessary, if hardly well-earned, holiday at the moment), and Ireland is central to Brexit.

There is another way in which Britain’s politics is Ulsterising though: public political identity is more attuned to Brexit than to the traditional political parties, and those parties – and the voters backing them – are realigning to reflect that fact.

The Conservative Party is transforming into the Leave Party. That it’s failed to deliver any form of Leave (other than an unratified Agreement no-one much likes and many hate) is at the core of the Tories’ collapse in support over the last 4-6 weeks and what are likely to be May election results that come in somewhere between very poor and disastrous. FPTP will help protect the Tories to some degree in Westminster elections but not in the Euros. The probability is that Theresa May will step down or be forced out this summer and will be replaced by a hard Leaver. It’s possible that such a candidate won’t always have been a hard Leaver but if not, ERG MPs and party members will demand assurances in blood of their conversion to the cause.

As an aside, I’d think about backing the Brexit Party candidate to win any Peterborough by-election at anything over 3/1, given the likely timing of that election, the likely result of the EP elections, and that public realignment.

By contrast, Labour is transforming into a Remain party. Jeremy Corbyn might not be very happy about that but it’s happening all the same and Conference will be difficult for him on this point unless he’s either accepted the need to go along with members or unless he’s greatly enhanced his authority in the interim.

Corbyn, unlike May and her successor, does at least have the advantage that the challenger Remain-Revoke parties are not very good at politics. TIG, or Change, or whatever have completely missed the open goal in making the public case, while rebel Labour and Tory MPs led the parliamentary battle. The Lib Dems are even further out of the game – when did anyone last hear from any of them on or in the media? By contrast, Nigel Farage has once again captured the attention and support of his target audience.

However, Corbyn won’t be around for ever, even if he wins an election and becomes PM. He’s 70 next month and one of the last relics of first-generation Bennism and the Euroscepticism that came with it. His successor will be (and will have to be) far more openly pro-EU.

Sometimes slowly, sometimes much more rapidly, the party system has realigned from class and social/economic policy preferences to Brexit identity. For those primarily interested in domestic policy, this presents the same problems facing the public in Ulster: domestic policies come as part-and-parcel of the overall package but very much secondary. This is going to leave a lot of voters homeless and struggling to find someone to support, whether they be traditional floating voters or those who were previously aligned but have seen their former party unwelcomingly transformed.

For now though, politics is Brexit, and Brexit is Ireland, and politics is Ulsterised.

David Herdson