The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg is as good week as any to examine the power of sectarianism. Here in Britain we do not need to look far.
Northern Ireland ought to be in crisis because a hard Brexit will wreck its economy. The Republic exported €18bn-worth of services to the UK in 2014, and €11.4bn went back. In 2015, it exported €15.6bn of goods. Britain exported €18bn in return. Meanwhile millions from both countries crossed borders we fondly thought were now just lines on the map to see the sights as holidaymakers, or visit their friends, families and business partners.
If materialists from Marxists through to free-market conservatives were right, if economics did trump politics, the threat to the Northern Irish economy would have caused the current crisis in Northern Irish politics. Party leaders in Belfast would be rushing to save jobs and protect living standards. Northern Irish MPs in Westminster would be using their strength in a hung parliament and insisting that whatever form of Brexit we had, Britain did not leave the EU’s Custom Union and bring the border back.
As everybody knows, the EU made peace in Ireland easier to achieve. Rival nationalisms did not vanish, but which side of the border you were born on mattered less within a framework of common European citizenship.
Except that everybody does not know it. Or perhaps they did know it but have forgotten. Or maybe they still know it but don’t care. They certainly don’t seem to care. The political and economic crises in Belfast are wholly out of kilter. Direct rule is coming back to Stormont, but not because politicians fear Brexit could bring violence and poverty. Politics has broken down for reasons the sectarians of the 16th century would have understood.
Sinn Fein is insisting the Irish language receive official status before it will agree to a return to power sharing. As only 10 per cent of the population told the 2011 census takers they had any familiarity with the language, and as only 0.2 per cent of the population (some 4130 people) spoke it at home, Sinn Fein appears to be obsessed with trivia. There is much to be said for preserving and reviving traditions, of course. But ever since the Gaelic League entwined itself with the Republican movement at the turn of the 20th century, the least important thing about the Irish language argument has been the Irish language. Promoting it is an assertion of Irish nationalism, not linguistic preservation, that has the added bonus of infuriating Ulster Protestants.
Although Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, the Democratic Unionist Party is pro-leave. You do not have to highlight the protestant fundamentalists among its ranks, who see Brussels as the Babylon of the Book of Revelation, which will fall when ‘all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication’, to guess the appeal. Brexit fans British nationalism or rather particular varieties of nationalism and sectarianism within Britain. By pushing the Republic away, it helps Protestant variety of British nationalism in Ulster rebuild its fortress.
Even the DUP recognises that Brexit will hurt the economic interests of Northern Ireland’s Protestants (and Catholics) so it has constructed a policy every bit as dishonest as Boris Johnson’s ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it’ promises. The DUP’s stated position is that Britain should leave the Customs Union and Single Market but there should be no hard border in the island and no new de facto border between the island of Ireland and the rest of the UK.
When I was a boozer, I wanted to get smashed every night but not have a hangover in the morning. If only I had joined the DUP, I would have greeted each dawn like a lark.
Sinn Fein seems a pro-European party. Yet its seven MPs will not take their seats in Westminster and vote against Brexit, even though their votes could be decisive. Abestentionism goes back to Sinn Fein’s foundation in 1905. Republicans do not recognise British rule in Ireland and therefore refuse to sit in British institutions. One could pick holes and say that, if Sinn Fein meant what it said, it would refuse to sit in Stormont, which legitimises rule of the six counties by the hated British.
There is a deeper reason for Sinn Fein to clinging abstentionism. As with Corbyn and the far left, Irish Republicans see Brexit as an opportunity not a curse. Republicans can dream that support for a united Ireland will rise in the north as the pain of Brexit builds. Whatever impression it gives, therefore, Sinn Fein is not opposing Brexit. Instead, it wants the ‘north to be designated special status within the EU and for the whole island of Ireland to remain within the EU together’. Brexit will then be a step towards unification.
Alex Massie and other Scottish Unionists have written well in these pages about the shock they felt when Tories they took to be allies made it embarrassingly clear they would rather threaten the union than abandon Brexit. The case of Ireland strikes me as more shocking still. A filthy little war settled into a kind of peace in 1999, in part because the EU made the border irrelevant. The lack of concern in Britain, and not just on the Tory right, about rebuilding the customs’ posts and recreating the conditions for conflict show that sectarianism and parochialism are not confined to Ulster.
The London Film Festival saw the premiere of Sinéad O’Shea’s documentary A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot. O’Shea spent five years persuading people in Derry to talk about how Majella O’Donnell had to submit her son to a punishment shooting ordered by Republican paramilitaries. I hope Channel 4 or BBC 4 show it because the film is a terrific piece of work in its own right.
But as I watched her account of life beyond the rule of law in Catholic Derry, and of the mass unemployment, suicides, and drug and alcohol addiction among the young, I noticed two wider themes. It wouldn’t take much to turn them into volunteers for a new war, and the DUP, Sinn Fein and Westminster Parliament do not give a damn whether Brexit bring fresh violence closer.