It should come as no surprise that beleaguered identity appears to have once again trumped economic well-being in Northern Ireland (for the moment, anyway), as inter-party talks meant to agree a return to power-sharing missed their British government-imposed deadline this week.
To the outsider it must seem inexplicable that the chance to spend the £1 billion (£1.5 billion if one includes flexibility in already allocated spending) package for the North won by the DUP from the Tories earlier in the week in return for propping them up at Westminster, should be squandered because of deadlock over a small number of non-economic issues, notably an Irish language act. But as one senior SDLP negotiator told the Irish Times: “It is about more than an Irish language act, it is about an Irish respect act”. A fundamental problem is that the DUP, like so many unionists, are “terrified of Irishness,” in the words of the poet Michael Longley – and this manifests itself, among other things, in a fear of and scorn for the Irish language (and those who speak it). It doesn’t help that the loudest champions of the language are Sinn Fein, for whom everything is turned into a political weapon to beat the unionists with.
However whether we like it or not, it is an inescapable fact that the Democratic Unionist Party is now central to a solution of Northern Ireland’s problems – and by extension and because of Brexit – Ireland’s problems. This month’s general election saw the effective demise of the once all-powerful Ulster Unionist Party.
The DUP are not easy to love. The vilification of this socially conservative and pro-union party that followed Theresa May’s decision to seek their support – particularly in the British press – was shockingly savage (to our credit, the level of vitriol in the Republic was far lower, with commentators as different as Fergal Keane, Bertie Ahern, Eoghan Harris and Martin Mansergh speaking in the DUP’s defence). There is nothing a left liberal journalist likes more – and I speak as one of them – than to have a righteous blast at a right wing monster raving loony party which is against liberal totems such as abortion, equal marriage for gay people, and tackling climate change. And it is all too easy to reach back into the DUP’s past and dig up examples of the most extraordinary sectarianism and near-racism (as I did in my January blog: ‘The DUP’s bigotry and incompetence bring the house down’).
The truth, as usual, is a bit more complicated. Firstly, Arlene Foster and her colleagues were at pains to stress that issues like abortion were matters to be decided for a more conservative society like Northern Ireland by its devolved assembly alone and would not be raised in the talks with the Tories. Secondly, this was a simplistic picture since the DUP, like any party, contains a range of views on these issues: for example, the party contains strong environmentalists alongside climate change sceptics.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the DUP in 2017, like the rest of the world, is changing. It may seem glacially slow at times but it is happening. “We’re a few years behind the curve compared to the average British or Irish person on issues like marriage equality, but at some point we’ll catch up. And anyway you could say that the liberal elite is a bit ahead of the man or woman in the street on such issues,” was the view of one senior DUP person (admittedly on the more open-minded wing of the party) whom I spoke to recently. He guessed that around half the nearly 300,000 people who had voted DUP in this month’s Westminster election were probably in favour of marriage equality. The party’s voting base is thus “much more liberal” than 40 years ago, when Ian Paisley was leading his ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. This man estimates that only 20% of the party’s MLAs are now from the fundamentalist, anti-Catholic wing of the party that used be almost totally dominant in the 1970s and 1980s.
It goes without saying that the one thing the DUP is not for turning on is its fierce attachment to British sovereignty. That was why after Sinn Fein came within 1,200 votes of the party in the March Assembly elections, the unionist electorate rallied round so that its vote surged by more than 10% (roughly the same as Labour’s in Britain) compared to its 2015 general election tally. That’s what happens when Ulster unionists feel particularly threatened by Irish republicanism: they move to the hardest, most uncompromising wing of unionism. Surprisingly, after nearly a century of living side by side with it, Northern nationalists – and Sinn Fein in particular – tend to totally underestimate the huge strength of this bedrock allegiance.
Let’s not lose the run of ourselves. The DUP are extremely hard work, particularly when they have to deal with those – whether in Dublin or the North – who believe the ultimate destination of Irish politics is some form of unity. But they are not totally deaf to reasoned argument. And many of them realise that a hard Brexit would be particularly damaging to Northern’s Ireland fragile and subsidy-dependent economy. “An open, frictionless border is now as much DUP policy as Sinn Fein policy”, says the DUP man quoted above. “And remember that 20 years ago we were still talking about building walls along the border.”
He says Leo Varadkar – “modern, metropolitan, more sympathetic to the UK than many other Southern politicians” – would have been the DUP’s preferred candidate as Taoiseach. Similarly the party feels comfortable in dealing with the technocratic Simon Coveney, who as Minister for Agriculture was the first Southern politician to address a DUP conference meeting, when it comes to Brexit and North-South matters.
“The DUP are a lot more open to good North-South relations now as long as there is zero movement on sovereignty”, says my source. “The way for Southern leaders to deal with the DUP is to befriend them. Anything perceived as hostile – particularly on the sovereignty issue – will lead to them reacting badly. However if Southern leaders show generosity, the DUP will be embarrassed into reciprocity.”
He believes that if there is “an alignment of goodwill and political interest” in London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast to devise a “tailored solution” to keep the border “as porous as possible, there is no reason why they can’t find one.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster, for all her often forbidding self-presentation, is an example of this pragmatic new breed: a former Ulster Unionist who is genuinely open to a return of power-sharing with Sinn Féin; a Church of Ireland member (not a fundamentalist Free Presbyterian) who has a friendly relationship with the new gay Taoiseach of the Republic; and a border region person who realises that a hard Brexit, and therefore a hard Irish border, will affect her Fermanagh neighbours in a far more damaging way than any other group in the UK.
There are opportunities for a Fine Gael-led government here. Unionists will compare the threatening language of Sinn Fein leaders like Mary Lou McDonald about the “endgame of partition” with Leo Varadkar’s charge that Sinn Fein are using Brexit “to make a land-grab for Northern Ireland.” If Varadkar and Coveney can build bridges to Arlene Foster and the DUP and work closely with them to create as harmless a post-Brexit border as possible, then I believe new practical North-South cooperation opportunities may open up. And not only between governments – my DUP friend, in a very Irish way, sees a future frictionless border as being “part technology, part turning a blind eye to low-level smuggling”!
In the words of one veteran Belfast commentator, the DUP is now “younger, happier and more open to outside influences” than at any time in its history. Just as Paisley did the unimaginable and went into government with unionism’s bitterest enemy, the party of the IRA, and Peter Robinson worked hard to broaden the party’s appeal and tone down its more obnoxious characteristics, I believe Arlene Foster has the capacity to open the party for the first time to a genuinely friendly relationship – a relationship of equals – with the Republic.
The DUP may be paranoid about all things Irish. But whether we like it or not and whether they want it or not (and clearly it is their worst nightmare), they are Irish, they belong to this island, they are part of us. In the longer term we in the rest of the island face a very difficult choice: we either force the followers of the DUP into a situation where their fervent and fearful Britishness leads to large numbers of them leaving the island, or we reach out the hand of friendship, we embrace them in their Britishness and we learn to share Ireland with them in some form.