In last month’s blog I wrote that Northern Ireland was now “a modern region with a power-sharing government in which nationalists enjoy a new equality and confidence.” I was wrong. A fortnight later the Stormont Executive collapsed when Martin McGuinness resigned after failing to persuade Arlene Foster to step aside temporarily as First Minister to allow a full inquiry into the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) fiasco.
I don’t always – or even often – believe Sinn Fein: they are usually playing a machiavellian long game aimed at weakening the North’s links with Britain. But on this issue I’m with them. It was clear from McGuinness’s resignation statement that this was not only – or even mainly – about RHI. The Deputy First Minister accused Foster of “deep seated arrogance” and the DUP of rejecting his attempts to reach out to unionists, “shameful disrespect” to women, gay people and ethnic minorities and “crude and crass bigotry” to Irish language speakers. In a follow-up RTE interview he said there were many people in the DUP who “hate anything to do with Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism.”
As somebody who began studying the DUP over 30 years ago – in the course of researching a biography of Rev. Ian Paisley – I recognise the truth in all these charges. I had hoped that the ugly, antiquated prejudices they describe would have started to diminish as the realisation that they had to share their divided little society with their nationalist neighbours started to dawn on unionists in a new century.
Maybe I was being naive. But it is disappointing that the deep anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry of so many DUP-supporting unionists appears still to play a significant role in Northern life and politics. Back in 1986 I wrote about the people who followed Paisley half-a-century ago as follows: “They believed they were inherently superior to their Roman Catholic neighbours because of their religion. They were ‘born again’ Christians, living in the ‘light’ of pure Protestantism, free men who communed with God without the interference of priests or man-made rituals. Catholics, on the other hand, were benighted and ignorant souls who were enslaved by the ‘darkness’ of Roman superstition, the idolatry of the Mass, and the rule of the papal antichrist. Such a view tallied perfectly with the superiority they felt anyway as the descendants of the people who had ‘civilised’ Ulster…Thus the underprivileged position of Northern Catholics was nothing to do with injustice: quite the opposite – it was living proof of God’s justice in rewarding those who followed the true religion.”¹ I wonder how many Northern unionists of the DUP persuasion still hold such appalling, near-racist views. Too many, I suspect – although friends tell me that thankfully such bigotry is far less prevalent among younger DUP members (and I have at least one young DUP councillor acquaintance who bears that out).
Then there is their anti-Irishness. This sometimes borders on the pathological. Some may recall Gregory Campbell’s nasty mocking of the Irish language (and Peter Robinson’s defence of his colleague) at the 2014 DUP annual conference and the amused response of the delegates. Andrew Crawford, the former special adviser to Arlene Foster who was forced to resign after the top civil servant in the Department of the Economy ‘outed’ him for his dubious role in the Renewable Heat Initiative, used to go through reports from one North-South body removing the phrase ‘all-Ireland.’ Communities Minister Paul Givan’s scrapping two days before Christmas of a tiny grant scheme to allow Northern Irish language students to study in the Donegal Gaeltacht seems to have been the final insult for many ordinary nationalists.
I worked to promote practical, non-threatening North-South cooperation for 14 years. In a chapter on this topic in a new book on Irish politics published this month² I quoted a senior Northern Ireland civil servant observing: “The DUP’s default setting is that all North-South structures are a bad thing – it takes very little for the DUP to kick them into the long grass.” He said there had been no softening of DUP attitudes towards these institutions, with organising meetings of the largely powerless North South Ministerial Council sometimes “like pulling hen’s teeth.”
However there has also been evidence of some striking and welcome changes in unionist attitudes during this controversy. Anybody who heard Ian Paisley Junior generously offering “humble and honest thanks” to Martin McGuinness both on BBC and RTE would have been astonished. “I think it is important that we actually do reflect on the fact that we would not be where we are in Northern Ireland in terms of having stability, peace and the opportunity to rebuild our country if it hadn’t been for the work that he put in,” he said.
Similarly it was notable that the province’s leading unionist-minded commentators did not mince their words when placing the responsibility for the RHI controversy and the collapse of the Executive firmly at Arlene Foster’s door. Alex Kane, the North’s most widely-read columnist, writing in the Belfast News Letter, called her behaviour “imperious, petulant, personal and petty – at a time when leadership and humility was required, she opted for hubris and provocation.” He said the public perception had grown that “she is incapable of owning up to the fact fact that the story involves monumental ineptitude, serial stupidity, administrative blindness and gold-plated recklessness when it comes to the public purse.” While stressing there was not a shred of evidence of corruption on her part, he called on her to resign permanently as First Minister.
In the Irish Times, Newton Emerson paid tribute to McGuinness and listed the putdowns he had suffered in his efforts to safeguard power-sharing and reach out to the DUP. He noted that after the May 2016 Stormont election the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition, freed of the encumbrance of the three smaller parties, seemed to promise a period of “unprecedented stability” for the North. That’s certainly how senior civil servants I spoke to at the time saw it. However what followed was “a relentless DUP pushback on just about every issue imaginable.”
Maybe the DUP, always at risk of arrogance and sectarian condescension, believed after they had maintained their number of seats in that election (while Sinn Fein had lost two) and then seen the UK follow the Brexit route which they as ‘little Britishers’ so passionately advocated, that they were untouchable. For despite their intense provincialism they were not immune from the feeling that events elsewhere were moving in their hard-right direction, with Brexit followed by the Trump victory in the US.
More perceptive commentators might point out that with the departure of Scotland and the break-up of the UK a real possibility in the wake of a ‘hard’ Brexit, other currents may be moving against them and in favour of those who argue for Irish unity. As Newton Emerson concluded: “Once again, unionists are about to be taught the lesson they never learn: deal with nationalism now, or get a worse deal later.”³
¹ Paisley, Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak, pp. 219-220
² Dynamics of Political Change in Ireland: Making and Breaking a Divided Island, Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Katy Hayward and Elizabeth Meehan (eds.)
³ News Letter, 9 January 2017; Irish Times, 10 January 2017