22 years ago, in the months after the Good Friday Agreement, there was a real feeling of hope in Northern Ireland. Seamus Mallon had sensed it when he talked to people in the streets of Omagh, Ballymoney and Poyntzpass after particularly ugly atrocities in those places earlier in the year. “They felt that David Trimble and I working together meant a new and hopeful beginning to deal with all the historic enmity and deep distrust”, he wrote in his 2019 memoir A Shared Home Place.
Enmity and distrust were back with a bang in recent weeks as the Northern Ireland Executive tried to battle the latest surge of Covid-19, which has seen the region with one of the highest rates of the pandemic in the UK (and four times that in the Republic). In particular, the DUP’s deep tribalism and right-wing economic views seemed to be the main block to agreeing eminently sensible measures to deal with that crisis. Here was a unique opportunity for the DUP and Sinn Fein to show they could lay aside the ancient mutual loathing – however temporarily – and work together to protect the people of the North from this existential menace. As the eminent Newry-born head of epidemiology and public health in the Royal College of Medicine in London, Dr Gabriel Scally, said: “These are not constitutional issues – they are public health issues. They are not about sovereignty – they are about human lives and the preservation of jobs and a functioning economy. We can revert to tribal allegiances in due course if we really want to, but in the meantime let’s get the job done.”
Yet twice in a week in mid-November the DUP used the ‘petition of concern’ – the veto mechanism inserted into the Good Friday Agreement to protect minorities on contentious issues – to block measures (principally a two-week extension of the lockdown) that the medical experts had recommended and all the other parties in government (led by Ulster Unionist health minister Robin Swann) had agreed. Even more than the right of the Tory party, men like Edwin Poots, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley junior seemed to believe, Trump-like, that the most important thing was to re-open the economy because the cure was proving worse than the disease. To those who remember his father’s thundering denunciations of alcohol, there was a particular irony in hearing the Paisley son saying that to allow restaurants to open without being able to serve alcoholic drinks was like telling hairdressers to open “without their combs”!
Back in October Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Ian Young , had urged a six week lockdown, which would have brought Northern Ireland in line with the Republic for the first time since the pandemic started over nine months ago. This was resisted by the DUP and the agreed compromise was strict measures for four weeks. Almost immediately First Minister Arlene Foster took the extremely unwise step of ruling out any extension at the end of this period, and this was what led to the deadlock between the DUP and everyone else in mid-November.
In the end, after several days of chaotic negotiations, Foster was forced into another u-turn and the two-week extension recommended by Swann and the medical experts was reinstated. “She looked over the precipice and realised she didn’t want to be held responsible for what might happen if there was another surge before Christmas,” says one person familiar with the DUP’s thinking. “It was one of those TINA (There Is No Alternative) situations.”
The result was further weakening of Foster’s already weak position, both in the Executive and within her own party, and further reputational damage to the Executive, whose credibility among the ordinary people of the North has reached a new low. None of this means that the Executive is going to collapse in the near future, since neither big party wants another election, all too conscious of how well both Alliance and the SDLP did in the last Westminster election 12 months ago.
Sometimes it is difficult to credit just how appallingly the DUP has performed in recent years: both in its witless lining up with the hardest of hard-line Brexiteers to defeat Theresa May’s efforts to keep the whole of the UK in the EU Customs Union, which would have been by far the best post-referendum outcome for Northern Ireland; and in its incompetence in governing the North, highlighted by its recent cack-handed approach to the Corona virus crisis.
“Arlene is a leader at the mercy of her party”, says the well-informed Belfast News Letter political reporter Sam McBride. She had been rendered extremely weak by two factors: her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, and, more importantly, her leadership in the March 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election, which saw the party lose 10 seats and – with enormous symbolism – unionism lose its nearly 100-year-old majority in Stormont. Another knowledgeable commentator, Alex Kane, says she was within 72 hours of losing the leader’s job after that election. She was rescued three months later by a Westminster election result which saw the DUP holding the balance of power in that chamber, leading to a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Conservatives, an opportunity which they then proceeded to squander.
There is now a significant anti-Foster element in the DUP, led by Edwin Poots, who despite his ‘country bumpkin’ image, is a shrewd and ambitious politician who has made no secret of his desire to lead the party. These are the people who opposed the lockdown extension. They overlap with, but are not identical to, the minority of its MLAs (perhaps a quarter) who are still the kind of archaic religious fundamentalists who provided the party’s core in the 1970s and 1980s. They are hard-right in politics, economics and culture, people who would feel quite at home with Donald Trump’s conservative evangelical base. And they detest power-sharing with Sinn Fein or cooperation with Dublin. Any takeover of the DUP by this group would be a major blow to an already weakened peace process.
Meanwhile the picture in London is equally, if not more, depressing. There, as we count down the weeks to the UK leaving the EU, there is little or no understanding of or sympathy for the difficult situation of Northern Ireland and Ireland. I heard a former senior British diplomat say recently that the “altruism” of successive British governments towards Ireland over the past 30 years has been replaced by a politics of narrow self-interest and English nationalism. The relationship between Dublin and London has become so fraught that the Irish government finds it difficult to know who to engage with in the British government these days. The kind of “impartiality and fairness” which informed the Major, Blair and Brown administrations in dealing with Northern Ireland has gone. Shockingly, this man said that while Ireland and the Irish border was one of the three top items on the EU’s priority list during the Brexit negotiations, it probably did not feature among the UK’s top ten.
Does the DUP not realise that this spells real danger for unionist Northern Ireland? Boris Johnson has already shown his utter duplicity in trying to renege on the international treaty that is the Northern Ireland Protocol (and it should be scant comfort to them that he is using pro-unionist arguments to do so). The British Prime Minister is as untrustworthy on Northern Ireland as he is on everything else. It seems to me to be axiomatic that the DUP should be working night and day to ensure that a power-sharing Executive works for the whole people of Northern Ireland, in order to assure them – and particularly the non-unionist section of the population – that the best way of running the place remains, with all its difficulties, a power-sharing regional government within the United Kingdom with strong cooperative links to the Republic of Ireland. Given the demographic pressures and the growth of a centre ground that will be more open to arguments for some kind of Irish unity, that is simply the only way for them to save the Union. Astonishingly, there seems to be something in their DNA that prevents them from seeing this.
PS 30-40 years ago readers of Ireland’s foremost newspaper, the Irish Times, would have read a piece of analysis like the above (minus the opinions!) at least once a week. When I was working in the paper’s Belfast office in the 1980s, we had two weekly columns, ‘Northern Notebook’ and ‘Inside Belfast’: the first to analyse the week’s news and the second to explore aspects of Northern Ireland society other than politics and violence. In addition, we had a weekly opinion column from the peerless and hugely knowledgeable Mary Holland.
These days there is little such analysis. I would suggest this is not its Northern-based journalists’ fault, but is due to decisions by senior editors in Dublin that there is just not enough interest among its readers for such in-depth coverage. It is no wonder that people in the South have little idea about what makes the strange ‘place apart’ that is Northern Ireland tick. For analysis the paper has Newton Emerson, not a journalist versed in the disciplines of checking and double-checking with informed sources, but a satirist-turned-political commentator who seems to look no further than his own maverick unionist mind and imagination for many of his columns. Emerson has been in situ for the best part of five years. As we move into a period when the prospect of unity will become a subject of increasingly serious public discussion, is it not time to replace him with a writer with a real insight into mainstream unionist thinking: somebody like Alex Kane or Sam McBride?