Unionist betrayal, nationalist alienation: ghosts from the past that stalk the Brexit talks

The Union flag flying over Parliament Buildings at Stormont

The Union flag flying over Parliament Buildings at Stormont

London-based commentator Matthew O'Toole looks back to Margaret Thatcher's famous Bruges speech 30 years ago and how she continues to haunt the Tory party today.

At the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham last week, one of the most popular events was the fringe meeting of the Bruges Group, the Eurosceptic caucus named in honour of Margaret Thatcher’s oft-quoted lecture to the College of Europe in September 1988.

The Bruges speech is commonly depicted as a foundation text in the development of Euroscepticism, helping create the atmosphere of right-wing hostility to perceived Brussels interference that ultimately birthed Brexit.

But while Thatcher’s speech is remembered for its dark warnings about “a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”, she also spoke of a Europe “more united and with a greater sense of common purpose”. And she stressed the importance of the reduction of barriers to commerce between member states: a project also known as the Single Market. Eurosceptic the speech may be; pro-Brexit it certainly is not.

Two other bits of Thatcher-era history are worth calling to mind in the climactic weeks of Brexit talks. First, the run-up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, when unionist politicians were apparently repeatedly privately assured that no deal would be agreed that gave Dublin a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Of course, precisely such a deal was agreed, and the sense of betrayal was raw and deep. All unionist MPs – which at that time was every Northern Ireland MP but two – resigned in protest.

That was when Ian Paisley gave his most iconic performance of bellicosity in front of Belfast City Hall, insisting that the assembled masses of unionists would “never, never, never” accept the Government of the Republic having a say in the administration of Northern Ireland. But of course that is exactly what happened, and is in part why the Irish government is now in a position to insist on a backstop insurance policy designed to inoculate the open Irish border from Brexit. The Anglo-Irish Agreement formalised a role that was solidified and put into a treaty on Good Friday in 1998.

Several years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and just a few weeks before the Conservative Party booted out Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister – in part because of her growing hostility to Europe – her Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke gave a remarkable speech. He said the British government had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in remaining in Northern Ireland, other than upholding the expressed will of the majority of citizens who live there. The statement was intended to signal to republicanism (then considering how to end its campaign of violence) that Westminster would not seek to retain sovereignty in Northern Ireland if a majority there wanted Irish unity. But it was also a signal to nationalism more broadly that the obstacle to unity was not an imperially minded British Government, but the majority of the population in their part of Ireland.

Since the status of Northern Ireland is the alpha and omega of the withdrawal talks, these fragments of history are useful guides – but little understood in London. Unionists have internalised the narrative of London betrayal so cruelly demonstrated (in their eyes) when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. Though stronger today in the sense of holding the balance of power at Westminster, unionists are a smaller voting block than three decades ago – and the intensity of the DUP’s warnings is a reflection of this weaker position.

Likewise nationalists, or non-unionists, had grown used to British policy being underpinned by the principle of “no selfish strategic or economic interest”. But can that be said to be operative any longer? This is the most explicitly unionist Prime Minister in several decades. A year before she partnered with the DUP, virtually her first statement outside Downing Street was to stress the importance of the “precious union”. But at a more hard-nosed diplomatic level, it is arguable that the British state now does have an increased strategic reason to retain Northern Ireland. The near-loss of Scotland to independence, and the reduction in status imposed by Brexit, probably means the loss of population and territory that would come from Irish unity would be damaging to the British state in a way that it would not have been in decades past.

Nationalists – and non-unionists generally – seem to have perceived this shift in British policy in relation to Northern Ireland. Unionist betrayal, nationalist alienation: ghosts from Northern Ireland’s past that stalk the Brexit talks. But the Tory Party is more interested in the ghost of Thatcher, and their tortured memories of her.

  • Matthew is a former No. 10 Downing Street Brexit spokesperson. He now works for communications agency Powerscourt and is a political commentator. He can be found on Twitter @MatthewOToole2

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