A NEW Ireland?

“What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”

Edward Carson, 1921.

Nigel Dodds has plenty in common with Edward Carson. Like the man who effectively founded Northern Ireland, Dodds is a barrister and an intransigent Unionist. And, just like Carson, the Democratic Unionist Party’s Westminster leader was sold out by a Tory government in London whose fragrant talk of “the precious union” belies its flagrant disregard for life beyond England’s green and pleasant land.

If anything, however, Dodds’s betrayal by his erstwhile Tory allies has been even more ignominious than Carson’s. In the early hours of Friday morning, Dodds lost his North Belfast seat to Sinn Fein’s John Finucane. The son of a solicitor murdered by loyalist gunmen had beaten one of the recognisable faces in a party that long existed on the fringes of paramilitarism.

For the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland almost a century ago, more Irish nationalists than Ulster Unionists have been returned to Westminster. What this seismic shift means for the future of Ireland is deeply uncertain, but it’s immediate cause can be summed up in one word. Brexit.

A Brexit vote that Northern Ireland opposed and the DUP played handmaiden to has fundamentally undermined what should be Unionism’s core selling point: the Union. In a bruising night, the DUP also lost in South Belfast as Claire Hanna, on the social democratic wing of the SDLP, took more than half the vote to easily defenestrate the divisive Emma Little-Pengelly.

The DUP’s failings sparked immediate talk of a nationalist surge in Northern Ireland to accompany the SNP’s tsunami mark two on the other side of the Sea of Moyle. In one of the most remarkable interventions of a fevered election night, former Conservative chancellor turned lobbyist turned newspaper editor George Osborne declared live on TV that the election results would lead to a “United Federated Ireland” in the next five to 10 years.

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Certainly, it is tempting – especially for a constitutional interloper such as Gideon Osborne – to take a quick glance at the headlines from and assume that swift constitutional change will follow. A “United Federated Ireland” might be a figment of the Evening Standard’s editorial conference – it’s a phrase I’ve never heard in a decade and a half of writing about Northern Ireland – but the status quo is looking increasingly shaky.

For some, like John Finucane, slayer of Nigel Dodds, this makes a border poll on Irish unity a foregone conclusion. And brings the prospect of Irish unity far closer than ever before.

But beneath the surface, something else is stirring, too. The only certainties of Northern Irish politics, of Orange and Green, are starting to shift.

Possibly the biggest electoral upset was the seats the DUP failed to win. North Down in almost any other recent election would have been nailed on Democratic Unionist. The sitting Unionist, Lady Sylvia Hermon, was standing down having sat as an independent for almost a decade after leaving the Ulster Unionists in prescient opposition to their disastrous, short-lived tie-up with the Conservatives. Hermon’s was the only Unionist seat in Northern Ireland not held by the DUP.

Instead, North Down voted for the cross-community Alliance – all the sweeter given the dirty campaign run by Arlene Foster’s party. Anonymous posters claimed that Alliance voters were supporting Sinn Fein and the IRA. The old, belligerent message failed. It is hardly a coincidence that North Down – which backed Remain in 2016 – voted for Alliance’s articulate chief Brexit spokesman Stephen Farry.

The swing to Alliance was the big story Naomi Long’ party won some 17%, double their vote share in 2017. Despite their victory in North Belfast – a bellwether if ever there was one – Sinn Fein’s vote was down 6%, almost as much as the DUP’s. The republicans lost Foyle to a rejuvenated SDLP.

Even the SDLP’s successes were as much a product of Brexit as a newfound desire for Irish unity. The DUP’s Brexit inflexibility – which even extended to support for a No-Deal Brexit among sections of the party – allowed nationalists to form de facto pacts without being accused of overt sectarianism. Sinn Fein standing aside in South Belfast paved the way for Hanna’s ballot-box-breaking vote in what had been the tightest seat in the UK; without the SDLP’s decision not to run a candidate in North Belfast, Nigel Dodds would still be an MP.

The National: Nigel Dodds lost his seat at Thursday's General Election

The DUP blamed their bad night on voters’ frustration with the failure to reinstate Stormont. There is some truth in this. But not that much. More than stalled devolution, many are fed up with tribal politics altogether.

READ MORE: Fresh talks to resurrect Stormont to begin on December 16

A significant chunk of the population does not split along sectarian lines. This in itself is not news. But where their number have been over-stated in the past, there are signs that the constitutionally fluid are becoming more numerous – and more vocal.

Many come from what would be traditionally Unionist backgrounds. Middle-class Protestants who want to live in a modern UK but might well choose to live in a still-to-be-defined new Ireland rather than an antediluvian Northern Irish statelet ruled by a fundamentalist, kleptocratic political class.

These are the voters that will decide the future of Northern Ireland, and of the whole island.

WHETHER Ulster Unionism has the intellectual breath to re-imagine itself is deeply uncertain. Signs are not great. Unionism has bunkered down. Loyalists meet in draughty church halls to decry Westminster’s betrayal. They find little succour from the Conservatives. Despite the endless talk of “one nation”, Johnson’s readiness to throw the DUP under the bus to get a withdrawal agreement says far for the Prime Minister’s true intentions.

So, is Northern Ireland headed for the exit door? Maybe Many non-sectarian voters look enviously across the border at the most prosperous, more open Republic. But the most vocal proponents of unification – Sinn Fein – often repel even the most ambivalent Alliance voter.

As in Scotland, the mechanics of even holding a border poll on Irish unity are fraught. It is not hard to see Johnson channelling his inner Iain Paisley to rebuff one. (And being handsomely rewarded by his electorate for “no surrender to the IRA”.) In the Irish Republic, too, there is a wariness of becoming enmeshed in the vicissitudes of the “black North”. The 26 counties have little wish to change themselves to accommodate the unruly six. The thought of accommodating hundreds of thousands of restive Ulster loyalists in a newly expanded Irish state gives many a serious dose of the vapours. Across the Irish political spectrum, concrete plans for unification are conspicuous by their absence.

Maybe the new Ireland begins not at the ballot box but on the ground. Not with border polls on grand schemes dreamed up live on an election broadcast by George Osborne, but by north and south engaging with each other, not as they would want each other to be but as they actually are.

Last month, I was in the stunning town of Dingle in county Kerry for a book festival. I was speaking on a panel about the Irish border. The only rule was we couldn’t talk about politics. Within 10 minutes we were all floundering. It soon became apparent how limited many Irish people’s lived cross-border experience was. Before a new Ireland is to be born, this needs to change.

As Carson learned first-hand, Northern Ireland will always be an afterthought for the Conservatives. Like any egotist, Boris Johnson breaks fragile things without care. He could yet shatter Northern Ireland’s uneasy peace, with disastrous consequences.

But how Ireland decides to put itself back together will take time, thought and engagement. Anything less could be just as damaging as any Tory betrayal.