The Protestant politicians of the 1970s and the Tory Brexiteers of today have a common denominator: their fear of ‘betrayal’ and their constant assurance that they are speaking for ‘the people of Britain’
Watching the Brexit vaudeville show from far away, I can’t but remember my days as Belfast correspondent of The Times. The early 1970s were among the nastiest, violent and most dangerous of years in Northern Ireland. But what struck me most was not so much the battles between the British army and the IRA, and all the innocents that both killed, but the dark, brown-shirted presence of the Protestant paramilitaries.
It wasn’t the uniforms of the so-called Ulster Defence Association that worried me so much – not even the sadistic massacres of Catholics, with or without the assistance of the so-called British “security” forces. No, it was the creepy, outrageous way in which the educated, constitutional unionist politicians of Northern Ireland co-existed with these thugs, supporting them with talk of sectarian warfare, disowning their violence with pious horror yet all the while relying upon the fear they created to maintain their own support among the Protestant community.
I’m not making immediate parallels with the present-day Democratic Unionist Party, although their current sectarianism and greed might make comparisons all too relevant. It is, rather, to point up the way in which elected Northern Ireland politicians were prepared, almost half a century ago, to piggyback on racist bigotry; and of how today, at Westminster, our legally elected – and often profoundly well-educated – pro-Brexit MPs ride the waves of the racist, anti-immigrant elements of the hard right.