To be fair, it’s a common sentiment on this island, or most of it, anyway. It’s a less common sentiment coming from…. The former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer?
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne believes the majority of the English public “will not care” if Northern Ireland leaves the UK for a united Ireland.
Mr Osborne – a former Conservative MP – said that by “unleashing” English nationalism, Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade.
He also lambasted Northern Ireland’s unionists for scuppering Theresa May’s Brexit deal which would have avoided introducing separate trading arrangements for the country.
Writing in the London Evening Standard, where he is now editor-in-chief, Mr Osborne said that Northern Ireland is “heading for the exit door” from the UK.
Before you get too excited, and start humming “a nation once again” to yourself, there are a few things to note here.
First, George Osbourne is a convinced political enemy of Boris Johnson, even though they are both, nominally, members of the Conservative Party. Telling people that Boris has smashed the Union might be true, or it might be an act of political provocation. Indeed, the reference to Theresa May’s deal being better than the one secured by Johnson is a bit of a hint in that direction.
Two, “we won’t care if Northern Ireland leaves” isn’t either a new position, or one of any political consequence. The position of the UK Government, ever since the Good Friday Agreement, has been that the Northerners can stay, or leave, as they wish, and its down to them, and them alone. By definition, the UK Government’s position has been the one he’s just articulated, and for coming up on a quarter of a century, at that.
But those are technicalities. What he’s saying is a little more subtle than that, which is that the English public don’t care any more about the Union. Is that true? Probably it is, in the strict sense that most of them don’t know where Larne or Bangor or Newry are, let alone that they’re in the same country as Solihull and Kingston-upon-Thames. But it probably ignores how feelings would run in the event of an actual referendum on the matter – if losing Northern Ireland was seen as a potential blow to English prestige, then one imagines that they might start caring very much. It’s much the same as the way most of us don’t care that much about the Olympics, most of the time, but if some Irish lad has a chance at winning bronze in the shooting, then we’re all massively engaged in the art of marksmanship.
What’s more, the truth of the matter is that the opinion of the English public really doesn’t matter, at all, in all of this. They don’t get a say, except on the off-chance that one of the two major parties runs on a platform of Irish unity, which is unlikely.
No, the matter rests solely with the Northern Irish secretary of state, who’s the sole person who can call a referendum. That remains highly unlikely, at least until Boris Johnson is out of office.
And after that, it rests with the voters of Northern Ireland. Handicapping how that vote would go is a fools errand: Those convinced that unity would prevail simply won’t believe that any other outcome is likely, and those convinced that the union is safe suffer the same ailment.
Here’s an interesting question, though: Given that a United Ireland can only happen in the event of a referendum passing in the North, is it a good idea to elect a Sinn Fein government in the South, any time soon, if unity is something that motivates you? What better recruiting tool would the “no” campaign have than the argument that a vote for Unity is a vote for Sinn Fein Government – without power sharing – in Northern Ireland? That might just be enough to swing it, you know.
“The English might not want us, but at least they’re not shinners” is a much better argument, in Northern Ireland, than many of you might think.