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Beyond the Catholic–Protestant Cliché: what is the future of the Union?

Beyond the Catholic–Protestant Cliché: what is the future of the Union?

Hannah Eves considers one of the general election’s key outcomes. 17/12/2019

While the Conservative (and Unionist Party) won a majority in Westminster, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for Nationalist majorities in the 2019 General Election. Despite a prevailing narrative that Northern Ireland’s electoral system is structured only around Catholic–Protestant tribal divides, this result indicates that it is in fact a lack of solidarity within the Union, fractures between the devolved nations and the central power of Westminster, that dominate this new political landscape.


Why was the union such an important issue for this election?

The structural integrity of the United Kingdom came to the fore in this election in a big way. Since their landslide in Scotland in the 2015 general election the SNP have become a formidable presence in Westminster, and in 2019 we saw 48 out of the 59 seats in Scotland go to the Scottish Nationalist Party. Their agenda secured them an Independence Referendum in 2014 and according to leader Nicola Sturgeon, this election hands them a mandate to campaign for another one.

The Democratic Unionist Party became kingmakers in the 2017 election by propping up Theresa May’s government with a Confidence and Supply deal, and the complexity of the Irish border and the peace process have been huge stumbling blocks in Brexit process. They will not be so influential in the incoming parliament. The results for NI were significant. The DUP went from 10 seats to 8 and the nationalist parties of Sinn Fein and the SDLP now hold 9 of the seats in Northern Ireland which makes it a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland for a Westminster election.

While politicians from the devolved powers are appearing more and more regularly on our TV sets, the actual influence they can exert over the Brexit process has always been incredibly limited. Despite two of the three devolved nations voting to remain in 2016, the government in Westminster can technically take the entirety of the UK out of the EU without their consent. The feeling that there is not a capacity to bring devolved nations into these conversations as equal partners has deepened fractures between the four nations and left a vacuum of trust.

Therefore, when a member of the audience at the first ITV Johnson v. Corbyn debate asked this question it was indicative of a wider constitutional crisis about the state of the union of which Brexit was a catalyst: “is the union worth sacrificing for Brexit?”

The results of the election push this question even further to the top of the political agenda. While the Conservative and Unionist Party, to use their official name, won a majority overall, it’s very telling that within two of the three devolved powers nationalist parties won significant majorities. The question of sacrifice pointed to a deeper relational question that needs to be addressed in the new parliament: what is the path to rebuilding solidarity and trust between the four nations?

In a brilliant article on These Islands Baroness Onora O’Neill quoted Robert Frost:

‘Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.’

Instead of accepting the false wisdom that ‘good fences make good neighbours’ instead ask who the fences between the nations are walling in or out. Baroness O’Neill writes: ‘peacebuilding is a slow matter. It is not a matter of trust miraculously arising between those who have been in conflict, but of managing little by little to convince others with whom one has been in profound disagreement that despite disagreement one is trustworthy.’ There’s a lesson here for this incoming parliament, rebuilding trust between these parts of the United Kingdom will be challenging, difficult and uncomfortable. It will be hard won.


The particular question of Northern Ireland

The nations of union face different challenges within the context of Brexit. For Northern Ireland, the complexity of this is compounded by the sharing of the land border, the lack of cultural literacy about Northern Ireland in Westminster, and questions of peace and identity which are impossible to disentangle from the constitutional question of partnership with the EU. Ask a person to define Britishness across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and you’ll certainly get a myriad of answers. For the electorate in Northern Ireland the question of sacrifice was, and still is, a significant one. It begs questions of Irish and British identity, the peace process, economic implications of the border question and the sustainability of the Stormont Assembly.

The Northern Irish political landscape is often painted as one of bitter, tribal, and sectarian divides between Protestants and Catholics, between Unionists and Nationalists, but it’s a much more complex picture than that. The context of Brexit has brought the possibility of a border poll into the constitutional arrangement of the Island of Ireland back onto the table. If this were to occur, it would put the question of whether to remain part of the union or to unite with Ireland into the hands of the Northern Irish people.

This is significant as a there is a growing part of the electorate in NI who would probably identify as soft unionists or don’t feel a strong affinity to either side, who feel unrepresented by the DUP or Sinn Fein in Westminster, and who would be open to rethinking the constitutional relationship with the UK in the event of a No Deal Brexit. These are the people whose identities aren’t tied up so intimately with the union or even with Irish identity, and who might see economic sense in stepping away from Great Britain post–Brexit. With pro–Remain parties of Northern Ireland dominating the 2019 Westminster election the issue of a border poll on a United Ireland will surely be on the table soon enough. This will be especially significant if there isn’t a compelling reason to stay in the Union; if there aren’t bonds of trust and solidarity.

Speaking in the Commons on the 3rd October 2019 Lady Hermon (former Independent MP for North Down) passionately denounced Boris Johnson’s deal:

‘The Prime Minister’s proposals prove quite clearly that he does not understand Northern Ireland. While he seems to be perfectly happy to dance to the tune of his friends in the Democratic Unionist party, he forgets, or chooses to ignore, the fact—and it is a fact—that the DUP does not represent the majority of people in Northern Ireland. The DUP campaigned for leave, along with the right hon. Gentleman, but the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted remain. The majority of people in Northern Ireland will be extremely concerned by the proposals that he tabled yesterday and has spoken about today, which introduce two borders in Northern Ireland.

I remind the Prime Minister that the people in Northern Ireland certainly do not want the UK to leave the EU without a deal. What people in Northern Ireland really want, all of them, is to continue to enjoy the peace and stability delivered by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I want the Prime Minister to go through the statement that he has delivered, and pinpoint for the House and the people of Northern Ireland the aspects of his proposals that guarantee peace and stability in Northern Ireland’.

The question of the backstop has improved understanding of NI politics in the mainland but there still seems to be a wide gap in cultural literacy. Lady Hermon was right in saying that the DUP did not represent the majority of the Northern Irish electorate, and that’s become even more the case since the 2019 election results came in. On the other side of the aisle, Sinn Fein quite literally don’t represent the people of Northern Ireland in Westminster because they don’t take their seats in the House of Commons. There’s a representation problem there. In Northern Ireland there isn’t much of a history in voting any way other than along unionist/nationalist lines, Lady Hermon’s independent stance was an outlier and North Down has continued this tradition by choosing alliance’s deputy leader Stephen Farry to succeed Hermon as MP. But this is changing.

A peculiar silver lining of the Brexit process has been a growth of support for the middle ground in NI politics compounded by a surge of support for the Alliance Party, which seeks to see politics in Northern Ireland step away from Catholic and Protestant labels, in the 2019 General Election. There was even an informal coalition between the remain parties across Northern Ireland in November 2018 including a delegation from Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and Green Party NI. This is interesting not for the platform they represent but for the action of cooperation between parties from different regions and backgrounds.

It’s also important that Lady Hermon emphasised the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland. While the DUP talk about the importance of defending the union, for many people in NI it’s more vital to protect the peace, safety and prosperity of their home. The question of Northern Ireland, like many in this election, seemed to be easily sacrificed to political point scoring. There simply isn’t trust that Westminster will act with the best interests of Northern Ireland in consideration, it’s no wonder that the integrity of NI seems sacrificed to the bigger goal of achieving Brexit. It’s no wonder that both Scotland and Northern Ireland have selected so many nationalist candidates to represent them.


Should reforming devolution therefore be higher on the political agenda?

Rebuilding bonds of trust and solidarity between the nations is important if the union is to remain an intact whole. Devolution is a relatively new system for the United Kingdom, it was only in the late nineties that it was put in place. It therefore shouldn’t be all that surprising that there are some teething problems and the major change in the relationship prompted by Brexit has thrown the fractures and problems into sharp relief.

It’s far from a perfect system. As mentioned above the principle of parliamentary sovereignty means that Westminster can legislate for the entirety of the UK including in relation to devolved policy areas. The Sewel Convention states that the UK parliament “will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent” of the devolved legislatures (emphasis added). This is where it gets a bit sticky. The problem is that just because it’s a convention to not normally do something doesn’t mean the UK parliament will not do it. Since Brexit inherently affects devolved matters it has been argued that the UK parliament has broken this convention by passing the EU Withdrawal Act without the consent of the Scottish parliament in July 2018.

While it is all legally sound, the optics of it are not good. It has only served to exacerbate feelings of distrust between Westminster and the devolved assemblies. Without a formal way to balance power and bring representatives from the devolved nations to the table, not just as a rubber stamp but as equals with tangible influence, the UK will simply continue to swim against the tide on this matter and the devolved nations will continue to drift away.

The question of devolution featured in the manifestos of the mainland parties. This is a good step forward in recognising the need for reform in this area, but in my opinion does not go far enough or propose radical enough policies.

The Conservative Party pledged to strengthen the union and throughout the campaign process they reclaimed their title as the Unionist party in Britain. What is lacking is any practical suggestions for how they actually intend to strengthen the union. Labour’s manifesto promised a ‘constitutional convention’ focusing on the future of devolution but it is not yet clear what this would have looked like. Finally, the Liberal Democrats advocated for a federalist system to replace the devolution model, yet, there is a significant question around that about representation of England in a federal model. The question of the next steps remains an unresolved one.


So how do we have this conversation?

A lack of sensitivity and thoughtful rhetoric has been a significant problem throughout the Brexit process and from the beginning of the election. It is not just prevalent in the issue of devolution and in the political arena, it’s also happening around the dinner table, on the street, in newspapers and online forums, it’s a part of how we have national conservations and it’s causing a lot of pain and mistrust. These are things that have played into the rhetoric around Northern Ireland for a long time – tribalism is no new trend for the people there. By assuming the divisions are as straight forward as Catholic–Protestant in Northern Ireland a deeper lack of enthusiasm for the Union is missed.

According to research into devolution from the Institute for Government: ‘if the union is to survive and prosper, people in all parts of the country need to be persuaded of the value of remaining in the UK.’ Recovering from the implications of the election will be a difficult process no matter which tribe you belong to. In the relationship between Westminster and the devolved powers, more sensitivity and respect for the conventions which enshrine consent as a key mechanism in devolution is imperative to rebuilding trust and solidarity between the nations, and will go a long way in improving intergovernmental relations. Without a forum to speak with parity on these issues there can be no holistic United Kingdom. There cannot be a shared British identity without recognition of the complexity of British identity in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. We need to move beyond the simple, tribal narrative that Northern Irish politics revolves solely around religion.

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 Image: SevenMaps/

Hannah Eves

Hannah Eves

Hannah joined Theos in August 2019 and is working on the Social Cohesion and the Religious London projects. Hannah has a MA in Governance and Political Development and prior to her role at Theos she worked with the Jubilee Centre on a research project looking at food and the environment. She is the co–author of the new book ‘Thoughtful Eating’ and the co–host of the podcast series ‘Eating Thoughtfully’.

Posted 17 December 2019

Catholicism, EU, Politics


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