“It is no coincidence that [the DUP’s] refusal to implement the results of the May election came when Sinn Féin won that contest, and thus became entitled to the political leadership of King Charles Irish domain. That is an anathema to unionists.”
By Geoff Bell
On 9 November in the House of Common the Tory Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, briefly explained the difficulties he was facing in Northern Ireland. Or rather, he did not.
The circumstances can be recapped. In May this year Sinn Féin topped the poll for the first time in an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Democratic Unionists (DUP) were well beaten into second place. They then did a Trump and refused to accept the results of the election, saying they would not agree to form a power-sharing executive.
They said this was in protest against Boris Johnson signing the Irish Protocol with the European Community, as it created a semi-border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That this arrangement was outside the remit of the Northern Ireland executive and Assembly, whose majority of members supported the Protocol, was brushed aside by the DUP, but it remains the case that their protest was against the actions of the UK government not the Assembly or Sinn Féin.
The Tories then promised to change the Protocol, and negotiations with the EC have proceeded, but the DUP still continue its boycott of power-sharing. They have been joined by the loyalist paramilitaries who a couple of weeks ago hinted at a new campaign of violence if things did not go as they wanted. – they even warned against any member of the southern Irish government visiting Northern Ireland
The British government was obliged to call another election if no executive was formed within six months of the May one. When the DUP opted out of this process, the Tories threatened to call an immediate vote. The DUP and threats of violence by loyalist paramilitaries called this bluff and secured a government climbdown. They now say an election will take place sometime in the new year.
This is kicking the can down the road. When speaking in parliament neither Heaton-Harris nor the Labour spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Peter Kyle, mentioned the DUP’s boycott of power-sharing or the loyalists’ threats, even those these were the reasons for the impasse. They did not want to name the DUP as responsible for the postponement of democracy as they hope the party will eventually accept a deal on the Protocol. Nobody in Ireland is betting their house on that.
There are important back-stories here. The way Brexiteers in England disregarded the consequences to Northern Ireland of their fantasies and fanaticism is one. That the leading unionists in Northern Ireland, the DUP, have never come to terms with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is another.
It should always be remembered that they became leaders of the unionist pack by opposing the GFA and fighting against implementation of some of its key provisions from 1998 onwards. That attitude is still there. It is no coincidence that their refusal to implement the results of the May election came when Sinn Féin won that contest, and thus became entitled to the political leadership of King Charles Irish domain. That is an anathema to unionists.
Indeed, when Northern Ireland’s was formed in the first place, in 1921, its borders were drawn in such a way so as to guarantee a permanent unionist majority. Today that guarantee is worthless: both the demographics and Sinn Féin’s ascendency point in the opposite direction.
The rise in Sinn Féin and the rebirth of anti- partitionism in the rest of Ireland is another cause for unionist concern. That the British state is becoming increasingly unattractive is another. The south of Ireland has today a higher proportion nurse and doctors and offers higher pensions and unemployment benefits than the UK. Unionism is running short of motivation.
So where does unionism go from here? The recent tendency of the DUP has been to revert to its fundamentalist hype – to say no to change, no to reforms, no to compromise with those who they perceive as the enemy at any given time – be it the rest of Ireland, Europe, even the British.
But that cannot be sustained forever. There are some in their ranks who will opt for direct rule from Westminster as an alternative to becoming a minority in a power-sharing executive. Others believe that British governments, including Tories, have “betrayed” them so often that they cannot be trusted. And certainly, while the present bunch of Tories will continue to try and keep them sweet with this and that short-term concession and compromise, few Tories now wax lyrical about the “Precious Union” as Theresa May did when she was depending on them for a parliamentary majority. The precious union is now becoming a precarious one.
- The Twilight of Unionism by Geoff Bell is now available from Verso, you can order your copy here.
- Geoff Bel is the Author of “Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution & the British Labour Movement,” and an activist for Labour for Irish Unity.