There are two red lines holding sway over Northern Ireland’s politics. One is the Democratic Unionist Party’s vow to protect “the integrity of the UK” using its parliamentary influence over the Westminster government. The other dominates Stormont, where the DUP is resisting introducing an Irish language act – Sinn Féin’s top demand for re-establishing Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.
There are political connections between these red lines. Brexit has worsened local rifts. But there is another, deeper relationship. Both entrenched positions arise from a particular vision of unionist identity – one which may soon self-destruct.
The Kielty question
Earlier this year, in an interview with the comedian Patrick Kielty, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, said that if Ireland was united she would probably leave the country.
The remark was widely discussed. But it shouldn’t have been surprising. The state of being a unionist without the union would be, for many unionists, unfathomable. Being British in Ireland is not, and cannot be, a mere cultural thing. It requires the privilege of living under British institutions.
But if some unionists can’t envisage “home” in a united Ireland, even a welcoming one, what does this say about their relationship with the soil they are standing on?
Some Irish republicans might view Foster’s attitude – and the DUP’s fixation on preserving the link with Britain after Brexit – as proof of what they’ve always believed: that Irish Protestants are plantation blow-ins with a shallow, artificial identity. That, however, would do little justice to history, or the full range of self-understandings within the broader Protestant community.
Shortly after Kielty’s documentary was broadcast, his question was put to Sylvia Hermon, the independent (and, incidentally, the only pro-Remain unionist) MP. She replied with some emotion that whatever happened, she was going nowhere. Like her family, “I’ll be buried in the land that I love”.
There is, she seemed to be saying, an inescapable rootedness – an Irishness maybe – which Ulster Protestants possess by the simple virtue of inhabiting the island for generation after generation. They may feel British, and there is much shared experience to link them to the rest of the UK. But they are still shaped by a landscape, a climate, and a cultural and political experience which are distinct from those in Britain.
Language and identity
The desire to express this rootedness partly explains the current revival of interest in the Irish language among Protestants, right in the DUP’s back yard. Less than a mile from the party headquarters in East Belfast is the Turas Irish language centre. Last month, more than 200 people enrolled for the new term, most from a Protestant background.
For these learners, Irish reconnects them with the land (nearly all place names in Northern Ireland are derived from Irish), with forgotten Protestant Irish-speaking ancestors, and with Irish nationalist neighbours. For some, it is even an act of defiance against a unionist political class which has long profited from maximising the difference between “British” and “Irish”.
Divergent images of Ulster Protestant identity are nothing new. But critical moments bring them to the fore. They were evident in the bitter splits over the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago. The DUP was opposed, but some Protestants found the agreement liberating, permitting shades of identity – Irish, European, cosmopolitan –- that had been lost in the harsh light of violence.
The state of the union
Now, those freedoms are under threat. Red lines, EU or UK, orange or green – these stark simplicities belie the messy interconnectedness of identities, relationships and histories in the north of Ireland. The hyper-Britishnesss of the DUP is even out of step with the actuality of the UK, an evolving multi-cultural, multi-national state with strong regional identities.
In a July speech, Foster celebrated these British qualities. But as the red line on the Irish language shows, unionists have long-struggled to find the self-confidence and generosity to make that inclusivity real within Northern Ireland.
What does it mean to be British in Ireland? It’s an old question, newly posed. With its red lines, the DUP has given its answer. It shares with the “mainland” Leavers the desire to amplify British identity by purifying British sovereignty. But time will reveal Brexiteer Tories, motivated by English, not British, nationalism, to be far less interested in preserving the UK than the unionists in Ireland.
So if the union does break under the weight of Brexit, much of the responsibility will lie with the DUP. It will look back on its years in power from 2007-17 as a golden age. And its followers will have no choice but to find a new vision of who they are as a people.