Don’t write off the DUP just yet
Northern Ireland's elections were not a death knell for unionism
On the face of it, the results from last week’s local elections should provide a wake-up call for the Democratic Unionist Party and all those who wish to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. For the first time ever, more people in Northern Ireland voted for nationalist political parties than unionist alternatives, a watershed moment in the history of the province. Sinn Féin secured one of its best ever results, cementing its position as Northern Ireland’s most popular party. A terrible outcome for unionism, then.
Yet the results were very much not a disaster for the DUP, which did not lose a single seat, apparently vindicating its decision to continue blocking a return to Stormont until further concessions are made to the post-Brexit Irish sea border. As one leading unionist figure put it to me, the results have made Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, king of all he surveys in Northern Irish unionism. Donaldson’s problem is that this no longer amounts to as much as it did.
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As ever with Northern Ireland, the results are confounding — particularly for that class of respectable commentators who never tire of predicting electoral disaster for the DUP unless it moderates its position and accepts whatever London says is best. In these elections, the first since Rishi Sunak’s “Windsor Framework” was unveiled, it was the moderate Ulster Unionist Party which suffered the most, losing more seats than any other party despite apparently representing the silent majority of unionists who want a return to power sharing at Stormont.
Similarly, on the nationalist side of the ledger it was the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which suffered most, while the constitutionally neutral Alliance Party only managed marginal gains.
So what does it all mean? Primarily, that unionism is in a very bad place with no obvious way out. The truth is that unionist voters largely backed the DUP and therefore, presumably, its decision to continue holding out against Sunak’s Windsor Agreement even if that means no return to power sharing with Sinn Féin (or, indeed, for some, because that means no power sharing with Sinn Féin).
Yet this stance is not so much a strategy as a temporary holding tactic with ever-diminishing returns. While the DUP’s strategy managed to prop up its own support, it also seems to have rallied nationalist support behind Sinn Féin to such an extent that the unionist party has fallen ever further behind its bitter rival in the polls. This is the essential DUP dilemma.
The optimistic reading of the election results is that Donaldson now has the authority to take the party back into Stormont in the autumn as soon as he is given enough cover to do so — potentially with some kind of flimsy concession from Downing Street. The problem with this reading is that while politics might be cynical, it cannot be too cynical. Given that the DUP’s intransigence has just been partially vindicated, there are plenty of risks associated with suddenly becoming more conciliatory.
It will not be easy for Donaldson to change tack unless there is a meaningful concession over the Irish Sea border — and very few people think such an outcome is diplomatically possible. Remember: we are now a year or so away from the next general election. Unless Donaldson moves quickly, there will be many in the party worried about losing votes to the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
But here’s the rub. The total support for the DUP and TUV now stands at around 27%. This is not a sustainable position from which to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. The DUP might currently feel as though it has successfully circled the wagons, but it needs to break out of this position soon. “It can’t be the ‘it’s not fair’ party forever,” a second influential unionist told me. “It might not be fair, but life’s not fair. We are where we are. The question is what are we going to do about it.”
Unionism is stuck, and the decisions it makes over the next few months will define its position for years to come. The Northern Irish problem is not going away.
TUV actually went backwards from last year’s assembly elections (when it won just 1 seat out of 90). The TUV is the dog which never barks – the DUP should be much more worried about younger voters from a Unionist background drifting to Alliance, which is super Woke and effectively anti-Union. It’s amongst those voters that Unionist parties need to be competitive if the Union is to survive. A few policies to revive NI’s stagnant economy and underperforming public services would be in order.
Alliance is certainly woke but it is, and always has been, unionist. They oppose loyalist hot issues to burnish their ‘neutral’ claims but their stance is like asking someone if they were vegetarian. “Well I take no position on the vegetarianism question but I eat meat every single day and see no reason or point in changing”
All things considered, Tom, I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head with this analysis. One issue I can’t help thinking about is that the English Conservative Party now sees Ulster Unionism and Ulster Unionists of all hues in a very different light to a generation ago. Enoch Powell in South Down seems eons ago but that’s just how quickly the electoral and demographic plates shift in a world which has rapidly globalised since then. The Alliance Party have been jockeying for their position and are making big electoral moves.
Why is it that Catholics and Protestants live side by side in every other part of Britain, and in The Republic of Ireland, except where there are Presbyterians… NOT Protestants from The Church of Ireland ( that has NO border) or The Church of England? Answer me that Mr Orangeman?
Because its not really a Catholic vs Protestant problem. Its ultimately an Irish vs Scots problem. Hence not so much a problem in rest of UK – but in Glasgow (see Celtic vs Rangers) may show things in that light.
Hear hear, thank you!
no response? There never is… That just says it all!
Actually Presbyterians, Anglicans and Catholics get along swimmingly well in Dublin, where one of the most pluralist fee-paying schools, St. Andrews, is under the auspices of the Presbyterian church. Relationships between the different denominations on the island have waxed and waned over the years.
As has been said, much of the division in Northern Ireland has to do with national identity rather than religion. After Elizabeth I’s scorched earth campaign that left 100,000 dead in the 1590s, Ulster was “completely unmanured”. At a time when European rulers were trying to disentangle sectarian conflicts during the Wars of Religion, some bright civil servant at the court of James I came up with the wheeze of establishing a Protestant colony of Scots and English settlers in what is now Northern Ireland “to extirpe the very heart of rebellion”, Presbyterians tended to settle along the northeast coast of the island, where the ancient Scottish kingdom of Dal Riada had been, while Border Reivers discovered respectability and Anglicanism further inland. The locals revolted thirty years later, and one in four of the colonists died, mostly from starvation and hypothermia when they were kicked off their lands in the bleak mid-winter of 1641. 200,000 more Irish would starve to death in the 1650s as Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, mounted a punitive campaign.
Catholics and Presbyterians found common cause over the following centuries, as many of the Penal Laws that denied basic civil rights to non-Anglicans applied to both groups. The first Catholic church in Belfast, St. Mary’s, was built and financed mostly by Presbyterians. Many of the earliest Irish republicans in the United Irishmen came from within Ulster Presbyterianism. The Orange Order was founded in the 1790s, mostly by Anglicans in the Linen Triangle outside Belfast, who were resentful of Catholic smallholders who they felt were undercutting them for work.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that these sectarian fights among linen workers were brought into the slums of a rapidly industrializing Belfast. After the United Kingdom was created in 1800 it would take nearly 30 years before a Catholic or Dissenter was allowed to sit in Parliament, but from that point on sectarian fears were whipped up that Home Rule for Ireland, with a massive Catholic majority, would mean Rome Rule. Presbyterians whose forebears had fought side by side with Catholic United Irishmen became staunch unionists, with evangelical fervor whipped up by preachers such as Roaring Hugh Hanna, the Ian Paisley of his day. By the 1860s, when Belfast City cemetery was being planned, it was deemed necessary to build a subterranean wall, lest the remains of Protestants and Catholics should accidentally come together…..
The ritual of the Orange Order is also of obviously Anglican rather than Presbyterian origin, and the Orange Lodges opposed the Union of 1801. They said that the uncomprehending English would take one look at Ireland and let Catholics sit in Parliament to keep the peace. It took 28 years, but they were proved right. The Orange Order exists to maintain, not the Union, which is purely a means, but the Protestant supremacy. Look out for that in the rapidly approaching new order.
Thank you so much for this fascinating and erudite missive, that has taught me some interesting missing pieces of my historical knowledge.
A good analysis: the DUP had to hold its position on the WF until the election was over, but the next move (or moves) will be interesting.
Over here, we are weeping at the impending loss of the Democratic Unionist Party, which would lose its deposit in any seat in Great Britain. In fact, it is hard to imagine its securing the 10 nominations to put it on the ballot paper almost anywhere in England, Scotland or Wales. That has always been the case. The DUP would never have been remotely mainstream on “the Mainland”.
The DUP wants the rest of us to pay for it to have walled cities in which to teach Young Earth Creationism, using them as a base from which to stage what were guaranteed to be violent parades through neighbouring areas. Ulster Resistance has never even declared a ceasefire, so that party maintains a paramilitary organisation to bring about that state of affairs. Oh, well, it will soon be Dublin’s problem.
That said, Sinn Féin believes the Provisional Army Council to be the sovereign body throughout Ireland as the legitimate successor of the Second Dáil, although that Parliament’s only surviving member in 1986, Tom Maguire, conferred legitimacy on the Continuity Army Council, so that it was the Continuity IRA that provided a firing squad at his funeral in, almost unbelievably, 1993, and so that it has been Republican Sinn Féin that has held commemorations at his graveside.
Anyway, that is what Sinn Féin believes. That the Provisional Army Council is the sovereign body throughout Ireland as the legitimate successor of the Second Dáil. For all practical purposes, it has functioned as such since 1998 in the Six Counties, whence hail most its members. Anyone doubting that need look no further than the funeral of Bobby Storey, followed by the decision of the Police that no Covid-19 regulations has been breached.
Storey’s coffin was borne to its rest by Gerry Adams, Martin Ferris, Sean Hughes, Gerry Kelly, Martin “Duckster” Lynch, and Sean “Spike” Murray. At any given time, there are seven members of the Army Council. Of the deceased and his six pallbearers, only Ferris was from the 26 Counties. There, however, Sinn Féin might have entered government if it had fielded enough candidates at the last General Election to the Dáil. It will certainly field enough next time.
Handpicked for Leadership by an Army Council that was based almost entirely in what it never called “Northern Ireland”, Michelle O’Neill as First Minister would be a detail, since that Council has effectively been in charge there for 25 years, regardless of how many votes its partisans, who had sometimes included its members, had obtained.
But handpicked for Leadership by an Army Council that was based almost entirely in what it never called “Northern Ireland”, Mary Lou McDonald as Taoiseach of what that Council did not regard as the real Republic of Ireland would be a seismic event, effectively extending the exercise of the IRA’s claim to sovereignty across the entire territory claimed, and to the means of a sovereign state’s participation in international affairs.
Who would need a border poll? Why would the IRA want one? No referendum would ever endorse rule by the Army Council. Once that were established across the whole of Ireland, then the beneficiaries would never wish to give it up, and everyone else would find it practically impossible to make them. That day is now well within sight.
The reality is that emotion aside, the last thing that The Republic want is the weight and burden of an economically dead and moribund chunk of Terylene suited, corfam shod £2 bowler hat wearing Presbyteria beholden to a bunch of Pooters stuck in 1953, addicted to subsidy: the obvious solution is to unite Scotland and Ulster and give them independence, and that will be a useful training ground for The British Army when the “Troubles” kick of in Glasgow and we have a re-run of 1969…. or flog both to the other moribund land, Canada.
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