There are often good, valid reasons to criticise the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland but they do not include occasions when they act consistently with basic principles of the Union. Unionists cannot possibly take part in an all-island ‘national conversation’ around Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The most fundamental tenet of unionism is that we’re part of the UK state, not an Irish ‘nation’.
In the Irish Times, Newton Emerson covers the practical reasons why neither the DUP nor Ulster Unionists can attend the southern government’s Brexit forum.
In short, this assembly has no authority and there are other, more appropriate avenues through which to discuss arrangements for the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. The Good Friday Agreement set up north-south and east-west bodies, so that matters of common interest can be discussed without ignoring Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, or offending nationalists. Meanwhile, the government is designing its own process to consult with devolved regions.
When it suits, the Brexit forum has been described as a ‘conversation’, because the word is innocuous and refusal to participate in a conversation is normally thought unreasonable. Unionists can therefore be cast as sectarian nitwits, who refuse to talk in case they’re “sprayed with holy water at the door”. At the same time, the SDLP, the party whose hysteria since the referendum has been shrillest, implies that it is irresponsible to boycott the forum, because its conclusions will shape Northern Ireland’s future.
Neither slur forms a decent case for unionists to take part. Either the forum is an irrelevant sideshow, or else it promotes a national interest that unionism rejects explicitly.
The DUP and the UUP took opposing sides during the referendum campaign, but both accept, without reservation, the government’s right to implement Brexit in Northern Ireland. Neither can consider seriously arrangements which diverge significantly from the rest of the UK. In contrast, the SDLP and other nationalists encourage the idea that Northern Ireland could have a special status, precisely because they wish to loosen our ties with the rest of Britain and bind us more closely to the Republic of Ireland.
They’re well within their rights to pursue those tactics, even if old-fashioned Irish nationalist aspirations lie beneath apparent new concerns for Northern Ireland’s electoral mandate and its economy. Unionists are within their rights to respond by ensuring that Brexit isn’t used as an excuse to lever the United Kingdom further apart culturally or politically.
The DUP and the UUP have often failed to strengthen the Union effectively. Insisting that the UK’s decision to leave the EU is extended in full to all its regions and refusing to participate in an ‘all-Ireland conversation’ about Northern Ireland’s future, in contrast, are perfectly sensible decisions.