- Brexit and Ireland
Has Brexit triggered the dissolution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Many Scottish and Irish nationalists believe and hope that this might be so; it is also possible that increasing numbers of English people will not be greatly concerned either way.
The Irish aspect of the possible process hinges on opinions in and about Northern Ireland, and one of the unintended blessings of the Brexit crisis has been to prompt wonderful books such as Glenn Patterson's Backstop Land, an entertaining exploration of Northern Ireland and its 1.87 million people amid Brexit-generated attention to the place from many (often baffled) observers.1 The book is very readable and in places extremely funny. In relation to people's lack of familiarity with Northern Ireland, for example, Patterson recalls being on the phone "to an Apple Tech guy—Australian—trying to find me an appointment with a Genius. 'Does North Ireland fall under the UK?' he asks. Fall under? Well, when you put it like that …"
Those who already do know plenty about the North will find much of value and interest in the book, while those less familiar with Northern Ireland will certainly find Patterson's account informative. The book carries the bloodstained melody of Ulster violence through many of its pages, and rightly so. Brexit has reinforced polarization and anxiety in the North, and in the past communal polarization and anxiety have been capable of generating the kind of political violence that made Northern Ireland for years depressingly famous. The current risks should not be overstated. Patterson correctly points out, for example, that Brexit did not cause dissident Irish republican violence: that phenomenon had already existed for years. But the prospect of some intensified violence from republicans and loyalists does now exist, and this book fittingly pays much attention to Ulster's violent past and present. It deals thoughtfully with the murder in 2019 of Lyra McKee by dissident republicans, and Patterson is admirably honest elsewhere too about some of what needs to be criticized. Of the Irish Republican Army's 1987 Enniskillen bombing, for instance, he notes bleakly that the IRA carried on "with their campaign to unite the people of Ireland by killing eleven Protestants gathering for a Remembrance Day service." [End Page 135]
The book is equally critical of some pro–UK actors, and deservedly so. Some of these were violent, such as the loyalist paramilitaries who for decades killed mercilessly. Other people were divisive in different ways. Ian Paisley is described here as "the anti-Zelig: whatever the occasion … he was always there, and always visible, and audibly protesting, and always unmistakably himself."
The historical roots of Brexit are lengthy, and they include an inheritance of British political attitudes that is far more complex than is sometimes assumed. Winston Churchill (often utilized as an emblem of Brexit orientation) in the mid-1940s actually called for the creation of a form of United States of Europe; Tony Blair (loudly pro–EU now) was in the early 1980s promising withdrawal from Europe. Other ironies abound. The Democratic Unionist Party's support for Brexit has helped to turn large numbers of northern nationalists away from acceptance of Northern Ireland and toward a greater enthusiasm for a united and independent Ireland. The most important foundation on which the endurance of Northern Ireland rests is nationalist support for it to remain in the UK; the unionist DUP, of all people, have now helped to erode that support.
This raises a complex point. Despite what is lazily suggested by some, Brexit is not just about English nationalism. Had those who voted Leave in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland instead voted Remain, then Brexit would have been thumpingly defeated in 2016. But the English (supported by Northern Irish unionist) enthusiasm for Brexit does have understandably significant consequences for Ireland. Irish nationalists in the North, reasonably enough, feel angered at being dragged out of the European Union against their wishes, dragged out primarily because of English opinion that is backed by many Northern Irish unionists, and in a way that reintroduces the prospect of a harder border between north and south in...