Bring Back O'Neill

The DUP must demand a hard political border with the Irish Republic as part of the Brexit negotiations to back Southern parties into a corner they cannot get out of. Controversial commentator, Dr John Coulter, uses his Fearless Flying Column to set out the economic case for a hard border – and the benefits for Unionism.

Bring back O’Neill! No, I don’t mean ensure Sinn Fein Stormont boss Michelle O’Neill is restored to the coveted post of Deputy First Minister. I mean that the ethos of former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill should now be given pride of place within the DUP.

It is somewhat ironic that the leading party in Unionism as we near 2018 began as a movement in 1968 under the Paisleyite war cry of ‘O’Neill Must Go!’

O’Neill may be viewed in fundamentalist Protestant history terms as a liberal, moderate, even traitor or Lundy because he dared to suggest a closer working relationship between the Unionist-dominated Stormont Government and the Irish Republic and especially Leinster House.

But as someone who grew up in O’Neill’s Bannside Stormont constituency and witnessed the launch of Paisleyism as a political movement under the then banner of the Protestant Unionist Party (before it became the DUP in 1971), I have come to view O’Neill as having the gift of political foresight.

O’Neill recognised that while the IRA’s 1956-62 terror campaign had been largely restricted to the border because of the intelligence activities of the B Specials, the IRA in the future would not make the same fundamental tactical blunder.

Next time, reckoned O’Neill, the IRA would try and extend a terror campaign across the whole of Northern Ireland, and even mainland Britain, rather than indulge in a number of amateurish raids across the border counties. Ironically, after O’Neill quit as Northern PM, the latter-day Provisional IRA did exactly what O’Neill had feared.

O’Neill, too, recognised that just as many working class Protestants were living as second class citizens in Northern Ireland as Catholics. Having a voice in the ruling Unionist Party for many years was almost the same as having a voice in Freemasonry – it was by invitation only.

The success of Paisley in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that he gave a political voice to two voiceless sections of the then Protestant community – the loyalist working class and fundamentalist Christians – in a political shotgun marriage.

Practically, across the North Antrim Westminster constituency in the late Sixties were quite a few council housing estates where the slop bucket still existed. Paisley’s success was that be got many of these homes their own inside toilets, confining decades of emptying the daily slop bucket to history.

So why should DUP2018 adopt the approach of UUP1968? With one Sinn Fein MP muttering about “a feeling of civil disobedience”, and with Brexit about to crash in during March 2019, Northern Ireland needs to radically address its relationship with the Irish Republic.

Okay, O’Neill wanted to negotiate a new relationship with ‘Ye Auld Foe’ in the South to fend off a future IRA blitz and to placate the needs of the Protestant and Catholic working classes in case Paris-style student uprisings sprung up in working class districts across Northern Ireland.

The DUP needs to bring the Republic into the Brexit equation to lay the foundations as to whether that relationship will become either a united Ireland or a united island – there is a major difference between the two and the implementation of a soft or hard border after March 2019 will eventually dictate the outcome.

Given the daily utterances from key ministers in the Irish Republic, it is very clear that a hard border will place the South in a dangerously isolationist position in the European Union; a position which could eventually force the Republic to adopt the unthinkable to avoid another Celtic Tiger meltdown – leave the EU, or Irexit!

Equally, there is the danger for Unionism that if the DUP ‘caves in’ to Sinn Fein’s clever spin on so-called “civil disobedience” as well as Fine Gael and Fianna Fail moaning about the financial implications for the Republic on Brexit, a situation will emerge on the island which is more akin to joint authority – particularly if it is not until late 2018 or even early 2019 when a devolved parliament returns to Stormont.

What sort of hard border should the DUP – and Unionism in general – push for? We are certainly not talking about the type of hard physical border which the DUP wanted during its trips to Israel to view that nation’s military borders; nor is it some kind of North Korean de-militarised zone.

The hard political border which the DUP must get implemented is one which forces the Irish Republic into an economic strait jacket so that its only options are firstly, to join the UK in exiting the EU, and secondly, negotiating a closer Union with the UK. This will be a case of political hard ball and the DUP must not blink first.

Economically, the UK Government – with the DUP as a central partner – must be prepared to squeeze the Republic’s lemon dry! There can be little doubting the fear of economic isolation which is gripping the corridors of Leinster House as the March 2019 deadline looms.

The more the DUP holds out for a hard political border, the greater will be the panic in Dublin … and the better the opportunity to ‘persuade’ the Republic that its time – like the UK – with the EU is over. During the 1979 European election campaign, then DUP leader Rev Ian Paisley often stated he wanted to milk the European cow dry. For the Irish Republic, that cow is now udderless!

Republicans love to push the ‘softly, softly’ spin of ‘persuading’ Unionists to embrace the concept of a United Ireland as envisaged in the 1916 Easter Rising Proclamation. Unionists, on the other hand, must use a similar strategy to ‘persuade’ the Irish Republic that its long-term financial future lies outside the EU and with a closer, formal partnership within the British Commonwealth of nations.

Southern republican parties – including Sinn Fein – have to swallow the bitter medicine that Brexit will mean the glory days of having a republic in Ireland are over. For Northern Ireland, a hard political border may initially be economically painful.

However, in the long term, it will force the Irish Republic to the negotiating table once again to draw up a new Anglo-Irish Treaty. Unlike 1920, this will not be a treaty whereby a sizeable chunk of Ireland will be leaving British influence; the potential 2020 treaty will see the Republic give a firm commitment to re-join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the first instance.

Like the UK, the treaty must provide for the people of the Republic to have a referendum on their EU membership. Irexit will now be firmly on the negotiating table. Southern politicians will then face the ultimate moral dilemma – do they stick dogmatically to the concept of an independent republic which, economically, will be nothing more than a third-rate African state as a post-Brexit UK puts the financial squeeze on the South, or will they put the people first, swallow their pride – and dump the EU and embrace the CPA?

The DUP as a movement has travelled a long journey since the days of throwing snowballs at Southern politicians, and disciplining its members for daring to venture south of the border. Demanding a hard political border under Brexit will leave the DUP holding the Republic “by the balls” to use a crude analogy. How hard the DUP leadership is prepared to squeeze “those balls” is another question.

O’Neill saw the value of closer ties with the Republic – will, or can, the DUP show the same vision in the weeks ahead?

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 

Follow John Coulter on Twitter  @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

1 comment to ''Bring Back O'Neill"

  1. Cut through the hyperbole from every corner and it comes down to commonsense.

    Far better to have friendly economic relationships with the south via soft borders than to antagonize everybody by reinstating custom controls at the border. All the players realise this. I would not raise a solitary eyebrow if some sort of compromise is reached and announced early in the New Year. The Shinners will retake their seats with the DUP and both sides will sell it as a "Victory".

    T'was ever thus.


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