It is fitting that Ian Paisley helped to bring the Anglo-Irish air defence agreement to light with a question in the House of Commons last November.
By accident or design the North Antrim MP adds a tone of mischief to the issue that probably reflects unionist attitudes overall. The agreement is an opportunity for some teasing, perhaps, but not grounds for serious rudeness or complaint. In truth, in these demoralising times for unionism British defence of Irish airspace is a source of quiet pride, or smug satisfaction, which should be kept even quieter.
The existence of some form of air defence agreement has been known since reports in 2016 by those who cared to notice. The previous year the UK and Ireland signed what they claimed was their first memorandum of understanding on defence co-operation. There was barely a ripple of reaction.
Sadly, this lack of controversy cannot last. While sober voices in the Republic wonder whether and how to regularise the defence arrangement, the instinctive reaction of others is to dismiss it as cynical British self-interest – force majeure for RAF incursions over Ireland that are necessary to protect the UK and would happen regardless. If the agreement is not lauded as a partnership between allies, which the Government has no stomach to do, it will be viewed through the suspicion of Britain that caused it to be kept secret in the first place.
There is a parallel with London’s £7 billion (€8bn) loan to Ireland after the financial crisis in 2010. Seen at first as sensible assistance to a neighbour, parts of British society could not resist condescension and boasting until it caused Irish resentment. When the British public’s attention has been drawn to this they have taken it as ingratitude.
Northern unionists pay a little more attention to the Republic than people in the rest of the UK. They tend to be sensitive to signs of anti-British feeling, then doubly offended if assured such feelings do not apply to them. They partook in some of the gloating over the 2010 loan. All this history may be about to repeat itself over the air defence agreement, and while many people in the Republic may not care what unionists think that is hardly to be the end of the matter.
What would a Sinn Fein-led government’s position be on long-standing Anglo-Irish defence co-operation?
Sinn Féin is demanding “full disclosure” on the agreement and “clarity” from the Government, valid requests but a distraction from the question now facing Mary Lou McDonald’s party. What would a Sinn Féin-led government’s position be on long-standing Anglo-Irish defence co-operation?
Robust rejection might be expected, in a posture of neutrality with unmissable undertones of anglophobia and republican militancy. This would aggravate unionists and concern the UK in general.
However, Sinn Féin could surprise opponents by being pragmatic about current and future co-operation. In its statement on the air defence agreement this Monday the party avoided jibes at the UK or at co-operation with the UK, focusing all its criticism on successive Irish governments for secrecy and lack of investment in the Defence Forces.
Mischief-makers might point out Sinn Féin is no stranger to deals with the British military. A defence understanding with a Sinn Féin government would be deeply unnerving for many unionists. Some are clearly pondering all these possibilities.
In his Commons question Paisley asked the UK defence secretary to assess “national security interests ... given the likelihood of an anti-Nato government being elected in the Republic of Ireland”.
For a certain type of cynical unionist this prospect may be less of a fear than a hope; a scenario where Sinn Féin will disgrace itself before western allies and the Irish electorate.
Divisions can be carefully fostered by alien governments. What would be the Russian or Chinese view on the break-up of the UK if it could lead to a deeper British-Irish defence partnership?
The speed with which the party reportedly deleted two decades of statements, including some that were anti-Nato last year, following the invasion of Ukraine shows it is distancing itself from the anti-western left with all necessary haste. It is easy to imagine Sinn Féin promoting Irish unity to Nato as a security advantage to unionist consternation. Unsettling unionism by going over its head in this manner is an active policy of republican cynicism.
People in the South might ask why they should have the slightest concern about Northern rivalries, fears and jealousies when these are mere side effects of a profound question about the Irish State’s safety and place in the world. One reason to care is that tensions in Northern Ireland still have negative political and economic impacts on the whole island. Although they may be far less dangerous than a Russian attack, they are far more likely to happen.
Another reason is that divisions can be carefully fostered by alien governments. What would the Russian or Chinese view on the break-up of the UK be if it could lead to a deeper British-Irish defence partnership?
Not for the first time unionists and republicans might be unsure who is friend or foe.