In 1921, Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Irish unionists, uttered words anyone tempted to fall for the charms of English Tories should learn by heart. “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.”
The Liberal Democrats have been saying much the same for five years. Working-class voters in red wall constituencies will be saying much the same in five years’ time. Today’s puppets, however, are Carson’s heirs in the Democratic Unionist party. Couldn’t they see what would happen? Did they not read the polls that showed English Tories would rather accept a united Ireland and independent Scotland than give up on Brexit? Boris Johnson’s wives, mistresses and colleagues all learned he would rat on them in the end. What made East Belfast Protestants think they would be different? Johnson duly ratted on them and dealt Ulster unionism a historic and perhaps terminal blow by partitioning the United Kingdom with a border in the Irish Sea.
I am searching my bookshelves to find an example to compare with their bottomless stupidity. The Trojans and the horse: at least they thought the war was over. Napoleon and Moscow: at least he had grounds for thinking himself invincible. Their motives were comprehensible. The DUP’s reasons for first supporting Brexit, and then allying with the Tory right in wrecking Theresa May’s deal, which aimed to preserve the territorial integrity of the UK, are beyond ordinary comprehension. They lie in the irrational urge to destroy.
Johnson’s Conservative party of the early 21st century imitates Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative party of the early 20th. Before the First World War, the Tories incited the army to mutiny rather than accept home rule for Ireland. They wanted to use the fury of the Ulster Protestants Carson led as a weapon against the Liberal government.
In the early 21st as in the early 20th century extreme nationalism worked at the ballot box for the Tories
As George Dangerfield wrote in his Strange Death of Liberal England, Tories became sick of caution and respectability. They no longer could bear to hold on to “that attitude of critical and grumbling respect for government”. They no more cared that rejecting home rule would lead to war in Ireland than today’s Tories care that Brexit will lead to dole queues, borders within the UK and the revival of Scottish nationalism.
“Move fast and break things” is the authentic slogan of the Conservative party then and now. Own the libs. Don’t be a cuck. Crush the saboteurs, the mutineers, the enemies of the people. To ask what will be left of the UK, whether there even will be a UK, when everything is broken is to miss the point spectacularly. In the early 21st as in the early 20th century extreme nationalism worked at the ballot box for the Tories because now, as then, the Nietzschean mood was the spirit of the age.
The DUP could not resist it. With Donald Trump rising in the US and Nigel Farage and Johnson rising in the UK, could they really be expected to be left behind muttering timid cliches about “being careful what you wish for”? The voters of Northern Ireland tried to warn the DUP by voting 56% to 44% to stay in the EU.
Everyone who understood international relations said that, if loyalists and Protestant fundamentalists imagined Brexit would lead to the restoration of the border with the Republic, the United States and the EU would soon put them straight. The only way to avoid a border within the UK was to agree to a soft Brexit. It was their last chance. And the DUP used the power it had in the hung 2017 parliament to rule it out.
How they loved the attention. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a proper English toff, or close enough to Belfast eyes, told them: “I won’t abandon the DUP because I think they are the guardians of the union of the United Kingdom” and they believed him. Sammy Wilson rolled around the radio studios praising Boris Johnson’s “shock tactics” without it ever occurring to him that Ulster unionists would end up being the most shocked of all.
They think of themselves as tough political operators. “This is a battle of who blinks first and we’ve cut off our eyelids,” the DUP declared in the Brexit negotiations. In truth, the Good Friday agreement had made them marks waiting to be conned. By guaranteeing the DUP and Sinn Fein would always be in control, power sharing in Northern Ireland had atrophied their political skills. They didn’t see the threat coming.
Carson cried out his despair in 1921 because he wanted the whole of Ireland to stay in the British empire. After the Easter uprising and the Irish war of independence, London was no longer prepared to fight to retain control of the south. The Tories were back in power and would stay in power pretty much continuously until 1945. They could safely dump Carson and his friends.
The DUP’s stupidity is truly bottomless because no Irish republican war forced them to embrace Brexit and partition the union. Democratic Unionists weren’t, like so many settlers of the British empire, abandoned by the Tory metropolis when the price of maintaining colonial rule grew too high. Rather, they egged Tory England on as it went berserk. They hope now that the EU’s brief threat to impose a vaccine border in Ireland will save them.
But there’s no way out. Now, as always, the choice is a soft Brexit or no Brexit, which they ruled out; a border on the island of Ireland, which the world will not accept; or a border in the Irish Sea, which cuts unionists off from the rest of the UK and forces them to integrate with the Republic and the EU.
Last month, Ian Paisley Jr pointed at Conservative MPs in the Commons and said: “What did we do to members on those benches over there to be screwed over by this protocol? Ask your hearts, every single one, what did we do?”
I’ll tell you what you did, Paisley, you betrayed the best interests of your cause and country by allowing yourself to become a puppet in the political game to keep the Conservative party in power.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist
Source by www.theguardian.com