Ulster unionism in crisis
Brexit, together with shifts in both population and political allegiances, means that something now has to give, reckons Derek James
The resignation of the leaders of Northern Ireland’s two main unionist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the announcement of their successors has focused attention on the current state of unionist politics in the Six Counties. The departure of Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP and first minister, along with the resignation of Steve Aikin, UUP leader, shortly after, points to a serious crisis within unionism.1 Whilst Aikin was replaced somewhat quietly by self-styled ‘moderate unionist’ Doug Beattie, Arlene Foster’s successor was the rather more high-profile Edwin Poots, minister for agriculture, the environment and rural affairs in the Stormont executive - a vocal opponent of the Northern Ireland Protocol and a Christian fundamentalist who believes the earth is only 6,000 years old.2
Steve Aikin’s stated reasons for his resignation as leader of the smaller of the two main unionist parties was his failure to halt the steady erosion of UUP support: he had, he told his membership, taken the party as far as he could, and it was now time for a fresh leadership.3 For Arlene Foster, the process of transition to the back benches was less smooth: she was forced out by a whispering campaign and a round robin critical of her leadership circulating amongst the DUP’s Westminster MPs and its members of the legislative assembly at Stormont.4 Despite accusations of misogyny and rumours of hostility to Foster’s relative (in DUP terms, at least) liberalism on social issues, it is clear that the main cause of discontent with her leadership was the Northern Ireland Protocol and her failure to prevent an ‘economic border’ being drawn in the Irish Sea.5
The Northern Ireland Protocol is, of course, part of the withdrawal agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which came into force in January this year. Under the protocol Northern Ireland remains, for many purposes, within the EU’s single market and customs regime.6 Whilst the implementation of the protocol has proved disruptive to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, it is the political and symbolic implications of any form of border - customs or otherwise - in the Irish Sea separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK that has proven to be so politically disastrous for the DUP and Arlene Foster’s leadership.
Throughout the twists and turns of the whole Brexit saga, the DUP lined up with the hardest of hard-line Brexiteers, giving Theresa May’s government a majority in the House of Commons after the 2017 election and lining up behind Boris Johnson’s parliamentary manoeuvres to undermine the May government’s attempts at compromise on the ‘Irish backstop’.7 In turn, Johnson and his followers, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, assiduously courted the DUP, attending its party conference and solemnly pledging that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK would not be threatened in any way by the withdrawal agreement: above all, Johnson pledged that “there will be a trade border down the Irish Sea over my dead body”.8 However, when a very much alive Boris Johnson became prime minister, he quickly reneged on his promises and signed up to an agreement that did indeed establish an economic border between the Six Counties and Great Britain.9 The DUP leadership and its supporters were outraged by this betrayal, but after his 2019 election triumph Johnson no longer needed DUP votes and could safely ignore their howls of rage.10
Opposition to the protocol grew within the unionist population, when its impact on trade and economic life became apparent in the early months of 2021.11 More significant was the reaction of unionist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries to what they saw as a threat to the union. Various ‘grassroots’ loyalist groups organised demonstrations and warned that the ‘peace process’ was under threat if the protocol remained in place, whilst DUP leaders like Edwin Poots (before he took over from Arlene Foster) sounded the alarm about rising anger within the “Protestant, unionist, loyalist community” and a possible return to violence.12
It seemed just like old times: as loyalists threatened violence and organised some small demonstrations that produced localised rioting by working class youth, unionist politicians further raised the temperature - partly in an attempt to maintain some control over their base and partly to exert pressure on the British government13: ‘Didn’t we tell you there would be trouble? Now look what’s happening!’14 Aided by the pictures of burning vehicles and petrol-bomb-throwing youths, they hoped that tension would continue to be ratcheted up just in time for the summer loyalist marching season.
In this new peace-process version of the old ‘playing the orange card’ game everyone has the opportunity to gain some form of advantage: whilst DUP leader like Edwin Poots and shadowy figures from the Loyalist Communities Council were ramping up the pressure on the British government, the government in turn was using the same threats of ‘turbulence’ - as the cabinet minister responsible for implementing the Brexit deal, Lord Frost, so delicately put it - in his negotiations with the EU.15 Thus, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, Brexit seems to be the crisis that just never ends.
While this crisis over the protocol and the Johnson government’s abandonment of its DUP allies has given Edwin Poots his chance to topple Foster as party leader, by revealing the real relationship between the British state and the Six Counties, it also presents him and unionism more generally with serious strategic problems in the future. Throughout the century since partition, unionist leaders have always understood the harsh realities of power and how they really stand in relation to British interests in the Six Counties.
In the last analysis unionism is dependent on the British state and unionist politicians can only exercise a ‘veto’ over the policies of British governments if the latter allows them to do so. The DUP was not like some innocent in a Victorian novel - betrayed, tossed aside and heartlessly abandoned by some aristocratic cad when he no longer needed her votes: behind all the conference photo-opportunities and the smiles for the cameras, the DUP leaders were not really fooled at all by Boris Johnson; they understood their essential weakness and simply hoped that they could gain some crumbs from the parliamentary and political situation that had accidentally opened up to them between 2017-19. Admittedly, they did not play their hand very well when they had the chance, and now the DUP is desperately looking to Edwin Poots to salvage something from the wreckage. Electing Poots to save the day for the party? It really is a case of desperate times calling forth an absolutely implausible solution - even for a creationist who presumably believes in miracles.
Let us look at the fundamental problems facing unionist politicians. The proximate causes of the defenestration of Foster and the voluntary departure of Aikin can clearly be found in the continuing fall-out from Brexit and the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on the region. However, alongside the resulting shifts in electoral politics and growing discontent amongst the unionist population, the crisis facing the unionist parties and their electorate goes much deeper than that. It is a product of partition, and the fundamental instabilities and contradictions built into the state that emerged in the Six Counties after 1920.
British imperialism partitioned Ireland in such a way as to ensure that unionists controlled a viable territory and had a secure majority - hence a six-county rather a nine-county ‘Ulster’.16 Britain had clear political, economic and strategic interests in partitioning Ireland and maintaining the Six County statelet throughout the 20th century.17 Although British imperialism’s control ultimately rested on its relationship with the unionists, when faced with a mass movement and insurgency for the reunification of the whole island led by the Provisional republican movement, the British state used a variety of military, political and economic instruments to contain the insurrection. In particular, after the introduction of direct rule in 1972, successive British governments attempted to reconfigure the political, institutional, economic and social structures within the Six Counties.18
After that date power-sharing and the Irish dimension joined ‘consent’ as the key themes of British strategy, with a particular focus on drawing nationalists into government and administration in Northern Ireland, alongside close cooperation with Dublin, to contain the war and stabilise partition. Beginning with Sunningdale in 1974 and culminating in the 1998 Good Friday agreement and the peace process, British strategic and state interests remained constant, as the institutional and political forms changed to meet the new circumstances and challenges faced by imperialism. However, far from transforming the conflict, the peace process has simply reproduced the divisions and the communal politics - the carnival of reaction, as Connolly described it - that have sustained partition.
As a result of British strategy, along with wider social and economic changes during this period, the institutions and economic structures that upheld unionist power and the relative privilege enjoyed in comparison with nationalists declined. Unionists no longer enjoyed the same political and social power they had before direct rule. The unionist bloc was still powerful enough to bring down Sunningdale in 1974, but its protests against the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 or the trial of strength over the disputed Orange march at Drumcree in the 1990s were to no avail.
Unionists were still ‘the majority’, but could no longer impose unalloyed ‘majority rule’. Deindustrialisation, including the loss of traditional industries, combined with conscious state strategies of ‘fair employment’ and the expansion of the public sector, all acted to lessen unionist advantage and relatively improve the position of the nationalist population - especially a new Catholic middle class, which benefited from the concessions wrung from the British state as a result of the Provisionals’ insurgency.19
In the communalised politics which were strengthened after 1998, the DUP grew to become the dominant unionist party at the expense of the UUP, basing its appeal on opposition to the new dispensation and asserting unionist interests in the face of nationalist advance. In a parallel development within the nationalist electorate, Sinn Féin achieved a similar dominance at the expense of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).20
Within the zero-sum politics of the peace process the DUP was seen as the best defender of the union and by 2006 had sufficiently consolidated its political position to enable it to negotiate with Sinn Féin to form a government at Stormont with Ian Paisley as first minster, joined by Martin McGuinness as his deputy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the almost regular crises and suspensions of the assembly that occurred after 2007, the DUP saw off any challenges from the unionist right, such as Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), and so appeared to remain the hegemonic representative of the unionist electorate.
However, from 2017 the DUP’s dominance came under threat, both from within and without the unionist electorate. In the 2017 assembly elections the party received 28.1% of first-preference votes - narrowly ahead of Sinn Féin, which stood at 27.9%. In subsequent local government and Westminster elections the overall patterns were contradictory, but it was clear that the nationalist vote was growing and that more unionists were voting for the essentially ‘liberal unionist’ Alliance Party. In what was widely seen as a verdict on Brexit, the 2019 Westminster election saw the DUP lose two seats and a fall in its vote of 5.2%, whilst Alliance’s share increased by 8.9%.21 Sinn Féin’s vote share also fell by 6.6%, but the story for the DUP and its unionist base was that nationalists now held nine out of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats - their best ever showing since partition.22
These electoral shifts and the Brexit crisis provide the immediate background to the removal of Foster and the election of Poots as DUP leader. Recent opinion polls show a further decline in the potential DUP vote, with the party losing supporters to the TUV, which now stands at 10%, amongst unionists on the right. This was combined with an increasing number of ‘moderate’ unionists moving from the UUP towards the Alliance Party, which in January was only one percent behind the DUP (19%-18%). Sinn Féin’s support has also fallen, but at 24% it now has the potential to become the largest party in the assembly. The nightmare scenario for unionists is that on these figures Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin could become first minister with Naomi Long of Alliance as deputy first minister, relegating both the DUP and UUP to the also-rans!23
Although it is likely that, when faced with such a horrific possibility, many unionist voters might respond positively to Edwin Poots’ hard line on the protocol and calls for unionist unity by returning to the DUP fold, it could well be a damn close-run thing in the next scheduled assembly elections in 2022. For the DUP MPs and MLAs who threw the hapless Arlene Foster overboard and brought in Edwin Poots to steady the ship, it seems that the options are narrowing in other ways too.
Partition was designed to create a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ in perpetuity, but, as the growth in the national representation at Westminster and in the assembly shows, that political project is being undermined by demographic change. In 2011 the religious balance was 48% Protestant, as against 45% Catholic, and when this year’s census data is released many believe that it could show that Catholics now make up a narrow majority of the Six Counties’ population.24 This demographic determinism and the crude equation of sectarian description with political allegiance has both added momentum to Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll and increased the sense of pessimism amongst unionists about their place in the UK.
Furthermore, given that a majority within Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in 2016, some have argued that Brexit has made reunification in some form an attractive option for those sections of the unionist middle class who want to retain EU membership, along with all its perceived economic advantages.25 Whether such a body of small-u, pro-EU unionist opinion exists remains to be seen and will probably only be really tested by any future border poll itself.26
Likewise, there are similar arguments about the political impact of those sections of the Six Counties’ population which identify in opinion polls and censuses as ‘Northern Irish’ - either in combination with or in opposition to the identity options of ‘Irish’ and/or ‘British’. The dominant political cliché here is that these voters are predominantly young, reject ‘sectarian’ communal politics and so back either Alliance or the Greens. It seems, we are told, that they will opt for the Good Friday agreement status quo of cultural pluralism and power-sharing, thus putting the issue of reunification very much on the long finger.27 Despite the growth of the ‘centre ground’ vote in recent elections, it too remains to be tested in the highly charged political atmosphere of a referendum on reunification.
If Brexit and the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol has presented unionists in general and the DUP in particular with a serious political crisis, other political forces, such as Sinn Féin with its border poll campaign, have either sought to gain from the situation or, like London, Dublin and the EU, have attempted to stabilise the political status quo and reach a new post-Brexit modus vivendi. One voice that has been missing from the debate so far has been that of the working class and demands for an independent politics advancing the interests of that class.
The approach of the Irish left has either been to completely ignore the question of national democracy and reunification, and concentre instead on the economist politics of Catholic and Protestant unity around wages and austerity, or simply tail meekly behind Sinn Féin and its cross-class alliance for a border poll. Partition is the political prison that traps both Catholic and Protestant workers: it sustains and reproduces communal divisions and sectarian politics, and only by ending it can those differences even begin to be overcome by the workers’ movement.
A border poll carried out under the aegis of the British secretary of state will be framed within the partitionist constitutional framework of the 1998 status quo: along with an equivalent poll south of the border, this will not be a genuine exercise in democratic national self-determination: it will merely be a recipe for reinforcing existing divisions within the working class, which leave the political initiative in the hands of the capitalist class in both London and Dublin. They do not want and will not permit a real, democratic resolution of the Irish national question: their aim is simply to continue their hitherto successful partnership and preserve the stability of their states and their system by maintaining partition and a divided working class.
Our demands must be for the ending of partition and the democratic reunification of Ireland as a 32-county republic. This requires the political agency and the independent class politics of the workers’ movement across Ireland, acting in its own interests and with its own politics, to advance a democratic position on reunification - not a border poll carried by two capitalist states. As a genuinely democratic working class stance, the demand for reunification also recognises the position of the unionist or British-Irish population within the Six Counties. Whilst they do not constitute a nation in any democratic or Marxist sense, the historical position of the British-Irish should be recognised by linking reunification and self-determination to the demand for a federal Irish republic.
theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/30/arlene-foster-urges-boris-johnson-to-replace-covid-ni-protocol. See also ‘End of the beginning’ Weekly Worker January 7 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1329/end-of-the-beginning.↩︎
‘Ghost dancers of loyalism’ Weekly Worker April 15: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1343/ghost-dancers-of-loyalism.↩︎
In this centenary year a number of books have appeared outlining the events leading up to partition from a variety of political perspectives. For a good bibliography of recent accounts see C Townshend The partition: Ireland divided 1885-1925 London 2021.↩︎
K Allen 32 Counties: the failure of partition and the case for a united Ireland London 2021.↩︎
K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007.↩︎
L Ó Ruairc Peace or pacification: Northern Ireland after the defeat of the IRA London 2019.↩︎
‘Northing inevitable’ Weekly Worker December 19 2019: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1280/northing-inevitable.↩︎
nisra.gov.uk/statistics/2011-census/results; irishnews.com/paywall/tsb/irishnews/irishnews/irishnews//news/northernirelandnews/2019/02/01/news/almost-equal-numbers-of-catholics-and-protestants-in-northern-ireland-of-working-age-for-the-first-time-1541284/content.html; irishtimes.com/news/politics/new-light-shed-on-prospect-of-catholic-majority-in-north-1.3891032.↩︎