Just over a century ago, at the end of the Great War, Britain bestrode the world. Its rivals in the colonial stakes were either humbled, like Germany, or war-torn, like France. Great chunks of the globe, like Namibia and Tanganyika, were new colonies and others, like Palestine and Iraq, were Protectorates that could be exploited much like colonies.
But it was a shell, a Potemkin Village of brave frontages with little substance behind. Britain was exhausted by four years of war and the financial edge that had led to Victorian and Edwardian prosperity lost to a more dynamic USA. Worse than that, the increasing level of education throughout the empire had triggered a sense of awareness among its citizens that they were not masters of their own fate. The colony displaying the most unrest was the one closest to home: Ireland.
Although Ireland was technically not a colony but an integral part of the United Kingdom since 1801, it stll operated very much like one, with an Anglo-Irish ruling class operating in a manner similar to the nabobs of India and the bulk of the Irish population resenting such treatment, with resentful memories stretching back through the handling of the Easter Rising, the Potato Famine and Elizabethan repression, back to a conquest by the Normans.
Still, it was unexpected when, after civil war, the nearest colony followed the USA in leaving the Empire exactly a century ago. The retention of the six counties that form Northern Ireland to assuage strongly unionist Protestants and their domination of all instruments of the state there lit the fuse on a social time bomb that exploded into the Troubles 45 years later, only being partly defused by the Good Friday Agreement in 1999.
The devolved Assembly at Stormont forged out of that has had a fractious history, not least because it presumed Unionists and Nationalists must sharre leadership. This made for ritual confrontation and frequent dislocation. But, more importantly, it left politicians who wanted to end tribal confrontation out in the cold as “Others”.
This May, things changed. Not because, as the media incessantly banged on about, Sinn Fein won an Assembly election for the first time, but because the non-sectarian Alliance party actually made the greatest advance by far. Even though Sinn Fein has renounced violence and mellowed with time, the DUP has continued as the awkward squad by demanding that the Northern Ireland Protocol;, cobbled together by Boris to “get Brexit done” be scrapped.
But insisting there be not as much as a nominal border between Northern Ireland and Britain means it cannot simultaneously remain in the EU, which means that the “invisible” border with the Republic, an essential element of the Good Friday Agreement cannot continue if the EU’s border integrity is to be retained.
With the most residents of all loyalties keen to have an Assembly address a plethora of concerns from health to inflation, intransigence by the DUP over paperwork is no longer likely to receive much sympathy, even among their supporters. This explains why the party has slid from pole position, losing a quarter of its 28% vote share. Their 25 remaining seats are overshadowed not just by Sinn Fein’s 27, but outflanked by the Alliance’s solid new block of 17, with a further 21 scattered across small parties, including the once dominant Ulster Unionists (UU) and the SDLP.
In other words, things have changed and a log-jammed Stormont is not likely to be tolerated as before. Westminster is perfectly capable of scrapping the NI Protocol unilaterally, but that would trigger a legal battle and even more bad blood with the EU. With “Unionist” being part of the Conservative’s party name, neither Brandon Lewis, nor the PM will be minded to do anything beyond sitting tight on the status quo, and hoping for the best. But that approach has brought them serious decline in Scotland, where they lost a quarter of all their councillors there this month against an SNP government in power for 15 years. They did almost as badly in Wales, where Labour has been running the show.
Boris Johnson and his party may call themselves “unionist”. But their understanding of other nations on these islands is proving to be no more profound than the Colonial Office of yore. Indeed, as any ability to address the “Red Wall” issues of Northern England, the chances of them talking the more remote nations round seem slim. Burying their political heads in the sand in the face of seismic shifts in the “provinces” is no answer in the long term.
There is unlikely to be any “Border Poll” in Northern Ireland in the short term. But not revamping Stormont to discourage adversarial stances and encourage the less partisan approach of the Alliance will weaken the DUP—the only friends Westminster has left in Ireland—even further and raise the clamour for a poll.
It does not take a visionary to see that the 21st century has seen components of the “United” Kingdom outside England feel themselves more and more like colonies as Conservative governments, steeped in Home Counties culture , have increasingly treated them s if they were.
Clinging on to unwilling possessions long after they should have been released is a trait Westminster has habituated down the years, from the Angevin Empire to the USA to Mau-Mau in Kenya, Communists in Malaya, EOKA in Cyprus and the Troubles in Ulster. The fact that current movements are peaceable does not mean they are not permanent and must not be under-rated.
Digging in with their diminishing local unionist rearguard is likely to repeat the humiliation of losing Ireland a century ago and the diminution of England’s standing in the world comparable to another Suez 1956.