I have a great deal of sympathy with Loyalists who are frustrated with the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Over the last twenty years they have seen their police service disbanded and denounced as institutionally sectarian, their culture ridiculed by wider society, those who terrorised their community released from prison and the political party closely aligned with these terrorists sat in government with nice, cushy jobs.
This understanding of their perspective did not temper my excitement, however, when the DUP announced their support for ‘New Decade, New Approach’ on 9th January. I have been encouraged by many within the DUP arguing for this new and inclusive unionism. Jonny Mearns wrote a piece for Challenges NI making the case for it earlier this week.
One of the great benefits of our United Kingdom is that it allows for the existence of multiple identities within a single sovereign state. As someone who was born and raised in England with Irish Catholic heritage, I identify as British, English and Irish – in that order. The recognition by the Good Friday Agreement of the ability of people in Northern Ireland to identify as British or Irish, both or neither, is incredibly beneficial to the long-term preservation of the Union.
Northern Ireland only remains as part of the United Kingdom with the consent of the majority of the people who live here. The group who have traditionally been relied upon to provide that consent – Ulster Protestants – are a declining percentage of the population and those who identify as neither Protestant nor Catholic are growing. Whoever can win over the ‘Others’ will determine the prospects for the Union in the long-term.
Thankfully, from the point of view of a unionist, the establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland has convinced nearly a third of Catholics and over half of the ‘Others’ to support the status quo over reunification. The worst possible situation for the Union would have been for the political stalemate of the last three years to continue and for Northern Ireland to be seen as an inherently dysfunctional state.
Last year, I made a similar argument on the need for compromise following the publication of Boris Johnson’s new Withdrawal Agreement. My view on the effect of the Brexit deal for the Union is the very antithesis of the argument made by Olcan McSparron in his excellent piece earlier this week.
The Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement offers us a unique and advantageous position. We will still be part of the UK’s customs territory and benefit from the UK’s independent trade deals when we leave the EU, but will maintain unparalleled access to EU markets. This deal offers benefits that neither full alignment with the UK, nor a United Ireland can compete with.
It does not matter, from my point of view, whether there are light-touch checks on some goods coming from Great Britain that are at risk of entering the Republic. The economic benefits of giving Northern Irish businesses friction-less access to UK, EU and non-EU markets will be a powerful argument for maintaining the status quo.
Most people in Northern Ireland do not care about the constitutional implications of post-Brexit customs arrangements. For those who do, however, there is good news and another reason to welcome the restoration of devolved government. Negotiations on the next phase of the Brexit process will determine how the customs arrangements will work in practice, and the newly established Executive can play an important role in mitigating the risks and accentuating the opportunities.
After three years, the Northern Irish business community is starting to be vocal about the importance of East-West trade. The statistics Olcan used in his piece show that our trade with Great Britain is more than with the Republic of Ireland, the European Union and the rest of the world put together. We now have a situation in which even Alliance and the SDLP are talking about how vital it is to maintain unfettered access to the rest of the UK. New Decade, New Approach commits the UK government to enshrine this commitment in law and confirms that all future arrangement for Northern Ireland post-Brexit will be subject to the consent of the Assembly.
It also gives Stormont Ministers a seat at the table in discussions with the EU on the implementation of the NI Protocol. The new Executive can, therefore, be a powerful voice for protecting East-West trade, whilst grasping the opportunities in the Brexit deal to boost trade with new and emerging markets.
We unionists must remember that over half of the population do not view themselves as ideologically ‘Unionist’ or ‘Nationalist.’ Therefore, the best way to convince the majority of the public to support the maintenance of the Union is to create a Northern Ireland that is inclusive of all identities and economically prosperous. While the hardliners may shout no from the sidelines, compromise is ultimately in their best interests.
Ryan Hoey is a Politics Student at Queen’s University Belfast. He campaigned for Leave in the EU referendum, and stood as a candidate for the Conservative and Unionist Party in the 2018 Local Elections in England.