Neuws and opinion from elsewhere

Johnson the creator of a United Ireland?

The PM’s criminal determination to flout international law has caused anger, particularly in Ireland, the UK’s closest neighbour, but some commentators also see it as an opportunity. Speaking in the Free State Seanad in 1924, the poet WB Yeats predicted he would not see a united Ireland in his lifetime. But the South would win Ulster eventually, he believed, through enlightened government, and in particular by the creation of ‘a system of culture which will represent the whole of this country and which will draw the imagination of the young’. And perhaps the Remainers in the North will feel a closer affinity with the Remaining South rather than with the wrecking Brits.

But, writing in the Irish Times on 11 September, Frank McNally asks ‘Do the “Nordies” and “Free Staters” even like each other and what does it mean for Irish unity?’ We take for granted, he says, the hostility of unionists towards the Republic. But even northern nationalists are not always as enamoured of the ‘Free State’ – the description many still use – as they might be. Northern nationalists have on occasion shared more of the unionist outlook towards their cross-Border neighbours than they might like to admit. Even today, they can still exalt the NHS over the Republic’s health system or young people’s ability to buy a house in Belfast as opposed to in Dublin as reasons to paraphrase St Augustine: ‘Lord make me a citizen of an all-Ireland republic, but not yet.’ The difference in costs of living generally, North and South, is another reason not to rush into the Republic’s arms. If there is one thing that unites northern unionists and nationalists, it’s a feeling that southerners must be soft in the head to pay the prices they do for basic things. After the recent referendums in the Republic, northern Protestants can hardly raise the spectre of ‘Rome Rule’ any more. On the contrary, liberalisation of the Republic has forced a small but odd realignment north of the Border between the DUP and some conservative Catholics, while a younger generation born in the North since the Troubles now looks South for an example of what it wants Northern Ireland to become.

Gerry Moriarty, also in the Irish Times (5 September) speculates ‘Wouldn’t it be a rich irony if in next year’s Northern Ireland census coming on the centenary of the founding of the Northern state, the result illustrated that Catholics for the first time outnumbered Protestants?’

Under the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland Secretary may call a border poll if he or she believes it would be carried. But even were the first poll lost, polls could be held every seven years thereafter – a form of constant constitutional tension and argument that could overload a still-troubled society. In the 2011 census, 864,000 people (48 per cent) of the North’s population came from Protestant households. Those from Catholic households accounted for 810,000 people (45 per cent) – a gap of just 54,000. It will take the 2021 census to determine if, for the first time, Catholics form the largest bloc of the population in Northern Ireland. It seems likely that will be the case.

It could be argued reasonably that Northern Ireland is heading towards a 40-40-20 split, with unionists and nationalists at 40 per cent each and the less constitutionally motivated parties, such as Alliance and the Greens, at 20 per cent. The contest, therefore, will be for unionists and nationalists to persuade a sufficient number of that 20 per cent to vote for the union or a united Ireland. Much of that vote belongs to centre-ground Alliance, many of whose members are wary of the nationalist discussions. But equally there are some Alliance voters who could be described as ‘soft’ unionists, and who lament Northern Ireland’s exit from the European Union. If Brexit is a disaster, this is an unpredictable group that could be persuaded to prefer, a ‘federal’ Ireland, with the Northern Executive and Assembly still in existence and the North, with the Republic, back in the EU.

Migrants continue to suffer

Le Monde (5 September) focused on far-right extremists’ attempt to block Dover in protest at illegal immigrants. Natalie Elphicke (Conservative MP for Dover) egged them on by tweeting ‘People are righty  annoyed given the number of people arriving in boats… they are completely unacceptable’ (Wrong type of boats, Natalie?). Just the sort of thing, Hope not Hate said, to galvanise the loony fringe of neo-nazis and xenophobes.

There was a counter-demo in support of migrants. Spokesman Joseph Burman, Labour member of the council, said ‘It’s the Conservatives with their policy of austerity who are most responsible’ for the rise of the far right. ‘This is the government trying to divert attention,’ insisted Steve Hedley of the RMT: ‘The “threat” has been exaggerated out of all proportion. The government are simply trying to frighten people’.

Meanwhile, French Morning London (the voice of francophone expats) announced in its 11 September edition that a man called Simon Harris is trying to crowdfund £10,000 to build a wall in the Channel. Describing himself as ‘British and proud of it’, his aim is to ‘protect the UK from illegal immigrants’ because ‘the government isn’t doing anything’ (Come, come, Simon: Priti Patel is doing her best to create a poisonous atmosphere). He wants a sort of floating barrier (think of a municipal swimming pool divided into separate areas) but ‘made of top-quality plastic covered with a special adhesive’. Having got stuck fast on the glue the boatloads of illegal immigrants would simply have to wait for the French to tow them back to Calais. But what about ‘legit’ shipping? ‘Simples!’ cries Simon. There would be ‘a special area which could be opened and closed by frontier guards’ to let them through. If you think Harris is deranged, remember a recent tweet from Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative MP for Gainsborough) whose solution to the ‘problem’ is ‘We should never have lost Calais in 1558. Why not take it back?’

Back in the real world, Juurd Eijsvoogel, writing in the Dutch Handelsblad (11 September) says that Chancellor Merkel is looking for a European solution to resettling the refugees currently on Lesbos. Even after the massive fire at the Moria camp she is determined that rehousing the homeless refugees should be part of a ‘European act of solidarity’. Merkel acknowledges that the situation in the Greek camps is ‘intolerable’ and she is full of praise for local authorities in Germany which have volunteered to take in refugees. ‘But if it becomes common knowledge that all the refugees are being accommodated in Germany we will never achieve a European solution’. Or, in other words, there would be no pressure on other EU countries to do their duty.

The Greek paper Ekatherimini reported (also on 11 September ) that Greek officials believe  the fires were deliberately stated by some of the camp’s residents angered by isolation orders issued to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after 35 residents were found to have been infected. Freddy Musamba, a former camp resident from Gambia, called on the EU ‘to come and support us, to not leave us. We are like abandoned children. We have endured things we didn’t know could happen.’ ‘Moria is a sharp reminder to all of us of what we need to change in Europe,’ European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, who also handles migration for the 27-nation bloc, said. ‘The clock has run out on how long Europe can live without a migration policy’. The Commission plans to present a new ‘pact for migration and asylum’ on 30 September, involving agreements with migrants’ countries of origin and transit to persuade people not to embark for Europe, as well a ‘robust’ system to manage the EU’s external borders, including a new European border and coast guard.