I should start by welcoming Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as the new leader of the DUP, following Edwin Poots’ brief and inglorious reign. Donaldson is the nearest that ultra-dogmatic party gets to a pragmatist: a courteous man from a modest County Down background who has spent a lifetime in politics, a skilled and practiced Westminster parliamentarian, and a supporter of north-south cooperation.
However he has some huge problems on his plate. As the excellent Belfast News Letter political editor Sam McBride pointed out earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Protocol will dominate next May’s Assembly election, when the DUP will seek a mandate to vote down the Irish Sea trade border when they get a say on it in 2024.1 In line with this hard-line policy, in Donaldson’s first speech he said the Protocol was “a threat to the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland and to the constitutional integrity of the UK.”
But when he was asked by a journalist whether he was prepared to “pull down Stormont if the Northern Ireland Protocol is not removed”, he replied: “I would not use those words.”
McBride says that the EU has privately communicated to the DUP that it should be realistic in its demands. “Brussels has essentially said ‘Ask for how we can make the Protocol less obtrusive but don’t ask for it to be ditched because that won’t happen.” This EU policy of limited relaxation of the Irish Sea border saw Brussels u-turning to alter its own legislation in order to get around provisions in the Protocol which would have otherwise disrupted the flow of medicines from Britain to Northern Ireland.
The DUP leader’s dilemma is whether to play the only real card he has – collapsing Stormont to protest against the Protocol – or to calculate that it can only be mitigated rather than removed. If the latter, in McBride’s words: “Does he want his leadership to be defined by defeat in pressing for the unachievable or does he seek to quietly push this out of sight and focus on other issues? Unionist history suggests that he will either go in a hardline direction or lose his party.” And this is at a point when, following the resignation of North Down MLA Alex Easton (who said that within the DUP “there is no respect, discipline or decency”), we have now reached a hugely significant moment, with Sinn Fein as the largest party in the NI Assembly.
Because the deeper, demographic trends remain firmly against unionism. In a thoughtful essay in last month’s Dublin Review of Books2 my friend, the Belfast-based social researcher Paul Nolan, pointed out that in the 2011 Northern Ireland census, for the first time since the foundation of the state, the Protestant population fell below 50% (coming in at 48%). That census showed that above the age of 40 Protestants were in a majority; below 40 the majority was Catholic. The 2011 school census was even starker: 50.8% of school students then were from a Catholic background, 37% from a Protestant background. “Those cultural identifications are likely to stay with these children as they move up the age ladder and join the electorate. This is the essential fact that has to be grasped when considering the future of politics in Northern Ireland.”
Other unpalatable facts for unionism are that only two out of Northern Ireland’s six counties (Antrim and Down) now have unionist majorities. Only one of the province’s four cities (Lisburn) has a unionist majority. The student populations of both the North’s universities have Catholic majorities.
However Nolan also points to two reasons why a Catholic majority is unlikely to emerge from this year’s census. “The first is that the Catholic birth rate has slowed and is now very close to that of the Protestant community. The second is that more and more people from both the Catholic and Protestant gene pools are moving beyond the two communal identities and self-designating as ‘neither/nor’ or as ‘Others’.” That “will keep the Catholic population below 50%.”
He then cites an obscure document called the Labour Force Religion Study, issued by the NI Executive Office. The latest 2019 study showed that of the numbers aged 16-64 (i.e. those in the workforce), Catholics were 43%, Protestants 38% and Others 18%.
He warns that the relatively new four way split among the communities in the North – Catholic, Protestant, Others and minority ethnic groups – makes predicting the arithmetic of future censuses much more complicated than the simple Protestant/Catholic split that has traditionally dominated public discourse on the subject. “If we are going to simplify, then the 40/40/20 formulation best captures the movement away from a simple binary…The core reality is that no one community is going to be in the majority, if the term majority is taken to mean more than 50%. We are moving to a situation of three communities: Protestants, Catholics and Others. The exact percentage shares of the pie are anyone’s guess, but 40/40/20 is likely to be too neat: the Protestant community is likely to be shown to be smaller in size than the Catholic community. When that realisation sinks in, there is likely to be a sense of existential threat to the community that, one hundred years ago, had a state created that was designed to make it a majority forever.”
Nolan then traces the demographic changes through to the political arithmetic. After the May 2017 Assembly election unionism became a minority in that regional parliament for the first time, with the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice winning only 45.7% of the vote and 40 out of 90 Assembly seats. In the two elections in 2019 – European and Westminister – unionism’s vote flatlined around 43%. The most recent Lucid Talk opinion poll in January 2021 showed it dropping further to 41%.
A century ago Edward Carson set out a path for unionism at the birth of the Northern Ireland state when he advised the new government in Belfast to show that “the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.” Wise words, says Nolan, which were completely ignored. “An historic opportunity for a reset came after the Good Friday Agreement, when the Catholic middle class embraced the new dispensation, one which would see them accepting UK governmental structures in exchange for the right to fully express their sense of Irish identity. They were never going to embrace Orange culture, but they were content to live as British citizens. Peter Robinson grasped that if there was never again going to be a unionist majority, there could still be a pro-Union majority. The strategically wise thing to do was to keep middle class Catholics on board; instead members of the DUP seemed to go out of their way to antagonise them with mockery of the Irish language, funding of loyalist paramilitaries, refusal to enact an Irish Language Act and, when in government, a display of majoritarian swagger reminiscent of the Brookeborough era.”
And then came Brexit, and they simply didn’t understand the implications for little Northern Ireland of being hard-line Brexiteers. Theresa May’s attempts to keep the whole of the UK inside the same arrangements were rejected in favour of “striking an uber-British pose” alongside the Tory Party’s Brexit-obsessed European Research Group.
The Protocol isn’t about trading concerns or access to markets, which the rest of the people in Britain and Ireland think it is. For the unionists it is, rather, “an existential issue about identity, about being fully British.”
This branding of the problem of the Protocol as a unionist constitutional concern has had the “entirely predictable effect of uniting all non-unionists in a single block. This has been the pattern with all issues in recent years, particularly those to do with the cultural wars – abortion, same sex marriage, the Irish language – and a form of polarisation has evolved which leaves unionism at one pole and everyone else at the opposite one. It is an unwise approach. The opinions of your opponents can perhaps be disregarded when you are a majority, but not when you are a minority. And actually the problem for unionism is worse than that. If it appears to be standing on an ice floe that is shrinking beneath its feet, that’s because there is a growing number of post-unionist Protestants, particularly in the younger age groups, who have a broad identification with Britain as a liberal, secular state, but are alienated by the ethnic forms and rituals of loyalist culture and no longer identify with the unionist parties.”
Nolan ends with a stern warning. “The onus of proof has always been on unionists to prove Northern Ireland is not a ‘failed state’. Unionism has to show that Northern Ireland can work. Tearing down the institutions will not help. Tearing down the institutions when the whole future of the UK is under discussion, and when unionism is on its way to becoming a minority culture, is suicidal.
“The crisis of unionism at present may be fixed on the narrow issue of the Protocol. The argument of this essay is that it must be recognised that this problem has roots that go much deeper and implications that go much wider. One hundred years ago a new state was created because of the fears that unionists in the north-east of Ireland had about becoming a minority in an independent state. At this point, with a census under way, unionists will have to contend with becoming a minority in the state that was created for them. That will require deeper thinking and wiser leadership than we have seen so far.”
1 ‘Sir Jeffrey Donaldson may want compromise on the Irish Sea border, but the DUP might not’, News Letter, 3 July 2021
2 ‘Running out of Road’, Dublin Review of Books, June 2021