So runs the tide
Will the DUP be able to restore its former dominance under its new leader? Derek James is doubtful
Even by the bizarre standards of recent Northern Irish politics, the events of the last week at Stormont take some beating:
- The crisis over the Irish Language Act.
- The midnight press conferences by Sinn Féin and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, announcing a deal on new language legislation.
- The hurried nomination of the Democratic Unionist Party’s Paul Givan and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as first and deputy-first minister respectively.
- The frenzied DUP meeting which resulted in the resignation of party leader, Edwin Poots, followed by calls within the party for Givan to stand down as first minister.
- The leadership ‘election’ that in the end became a coronation.
All this marked a truly chaotic pattern of events - which, as it unfolded at super-speed in the full glare of the media, only served to highlight the fundamental crisis now facing both unionism and the institutions established by the Good Friday agreement.
The DUP leadership must be hoping that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Westminster MP and defeated leadership contender, having secured the crown without challenge, can now rally the divided ranks of the DUP to his standard and rescue the party from meltdown. However, behind all the warm words of welcome, his task as DUP leader and first minister designate is a daunting one. The DUP has plummeted in the polls and faces challengers both to its right and left.1 So is he the person for the job?
It is true that in comparison with the rather wooden and maladroit Poots, Sir Jeffrey appears more tactically aware and even politically astute - although that is not saying much in a party dominated by rather colourless apparatchiks and narrow Protestant fundamentalists. However, the solution to the political bind in which the DUP currently finds itself goes far beyond simply the leadership.
Readers will know that, as part of Boris Johnson’s final Brexit agreement with the European Union, Northern Ireland was to remain within the single market and be subject to the EU’s customs and other regulatory arrangements in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Instead, there would be an ‘economic border’ down the middle of the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. From the beginning, the political symbolism and implications of this Irish Sea border were not lost on unionists, and the DUP strongly opposed the protocol at Westminster and during the 2019 general election campaign. Despite Johnson’s frequent promises that there would be an “Irish Sea trade border over my dead body”, he remains very much alive, and, despite protracted negotiations between his government and the EU, the economic border established by the protocol remains very much in place and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future - further extended grace periods and sausage wars notwithstanding. To the impartial observer it is clear that Boris Johnson will continue to sacrifice Northern Ireland and the political interests of the DUP and other unionists to ‘get Brexit done’.
Having opposed the May government’s Brexit deal, which obviated the need for an Irish Sea border, and then apparently been taken in by Johnson’s promises and protestations of undying commitment to the union, the DUP have been blamed by many unionist and loyalist critics for their political ineptitude and their half-hearted opposition to the protocol. Publicly expressed disquiet by loyalist paramilitaries organised in the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), some small-scale riots in April and over 40 demonstrations against the protocol have added to the pressure on the DUP.2 The defenestration of Arlene Foster and the similarly brutal deposition of Edwin Poots both point to the difficulties the party faces, and the somewhat limited options open to its leadership.
To lose two leaders in such rapid succession looks more than carelessness - it suggests a seemingly terminal crisis for the DUP. This, at least, is the hope of Jim Allister, former DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and now leader of a party to the right of the DUP, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), which is making the running in the rallies against the protocol and gaining electoral ground at the expense of the DUP in opinion polls. There is a certain historical justice that a party that built its electoral base from the 1970s onwards by attacking ‘establishment’ unionists as traitors and Lundies3 is now being attacked by the TUV from its right with the self-same accusations of betrayal and backsliding!
However, the dynamics shaping politics in Northern Ireland have changed and Allister’s hopes that the TUV can replace the DUP and go on to overthrow both the Good Friday agreement and the protocol are illusory. Last week’s furore over the proposed Irish language legislation shows both why this is so, and how the new dispensation operates to manage and contain the fundamental divisions and contradictions at the heart of the Six Counties. One of the criticisms levelled at Edwin Poots by his DUP (and other loyalist) opponents was that in order to secure support for the DUP’s nominee for first minister, Paul Givan, the DUP leader had made far too many concessions to Sinn Féin over an Irish Language Act.4 Given the symbolic significance of the Irish language in the perennial culture wars and identity disputes that now constitute much of what passes for politics in Northern Ireland, two other aspects of this particular spat need to be remembered.
The DUP had agreed to Irish language legislation in the New decade, new approach document, which was the basis for the resumption of power-sharing in January 2020, so, despite the sham fight and outrage of the DUP hardliners directed at Poots, the principle of the legislation was not the real casus belli at all. Rather it was anger at the way Sinn Féin had outmanoeuvred the DUP by going to the British government and securing a promise that Irish language legislation would be passed through Westminster if the DUP dragged its heels at Stormont. The irony of all this - supposed Irish republicans, who abstain from taking their seats in a UK parliament, asking Westminster to pass laws to secure their policy objectives, whilst ‘loyal’ unionists complain about London interference in the internal affairs and devolved government of Northern Ireland - was not lost on too many people!5
The Johnson government’s willingness to do a deal over the Irish language to keep the Stormont executive up and running shows who really calls the shots in Northern Ireland - and it is neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP, but No10 Downing Street and the British state. Sinn Féin’s leadership pulled some smart strokes and showed some fancy footwork during last week’s crisis, although, to be honest, with opponents as poor as Edwin Poots and the DUP, it would be hard for them to appear otherwise. Despite dire warnings of growing unionist alienation and threats of large protests and violence, the unionist and loyalist campaign against the protocol has not really taken off. Recent protests are nothing like the mass mobilisations of the 1980s against the Anglo-Irish agreement or over Drumcree in the 1990s. Loyalist paramilitaries may threaten that ‘It’s peace or the protocol’ and talk of regarding the Dublin government as ‘the enemy’, but unionists are no longer in the powerful position they once were.
Long-term deindustrialisation and the waning of local unionist-owned business, combined with the conscious strategy of the British state under direct rule since 1972, has fundamentally weakened unionist power and its ability to impose its own political solution in the Six Counties. So behind these threats lies a growing feeling of impotence and a sense that history is leaving unionism behind - a feeling given added weight by the shifting demographic balance in favour of the Catholic population. This has been reflected in the shifts in electoral politics, which have put the DUP’s once dominant position amongst unionist voters at risk. The continuing controversy over the protocol and the manner in which Boris Johnson stitched up the DUP over the deal has revealed both the DUP’s real impotence at Westminster and the true relationship between the British state and unionism.
This is the difficult situation facing the bold Sir Jeffrey, as he takes over the DUP leadership. He has promised to overturn the protocol and has even obliquely threatened to collapse the executive and provoke fresh elections in pursuit of his strategy. A risky approach for the DUP to take, given its current opinion poll rating. Even Donaldson must realise the weak hand he has been dealt.
The decisive factor in the months ahead will not be the unionist campaign against the protocol. As ever, the fate of the unionists lies in hands other than their own. It will be for the Johnson government to decide how far it wants to continue to use Northern Irish unionists, and their threats, as a bargaining counter in British negotiations with the EU.
As the ‘traditional’ unionist marching season draws near, what we may be seeing this summer is not the triumphant parade of strength, but rather the ragged stragglers of an army in disarray. Faced with the historical cul-de sac in which they now find themselves, Donaldson would seem an unlikely saviour. The tide appears to have turned decisively against them and it seems it will take much more than Sir Jeffrey’s tilting at windmills to restore their old ascendancy.
‘Lundy’ is a traditional unionist term for a traitor and turncoat. The original Lundy was the governor of Derry, who wanted to open the gates of the city to the forces of the Catholic king, James II, in 1689.↩︎