“Unwanted and unloved, Unionists are unbowed…but Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is just the latest example of many in Britain kicking unionism and then being loved even more strongly in return”. That was the headline above a Belfast Telegraph column by Sam McBride earlier this month. If you want to know what it happening inside the imploding world of the DUP in particular and unionism in general these days you have to read McBride – for my money the best-informed reporter in Northern Ireland.
McBride recalled that when Johnson addressed the nation in December 2020 to announce his trade deal with the EU to “get Brexit done”, the prime minister effusively told the British public: “We have taken back control of laws and our destiny. We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation. In a way that is complete and unfettered. From January 1 we are outside the customs union and outside the single market. British laws will be made solely by the British Parliament. Interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts. And the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will come to an end.”
Every word of that was only true, McBride pointed out, if followed by an “excludes Northern Ireland” disclaimer — which it didn’t. “Whether mendaciously or thoughtlessly, the prime minister of the United Kingdom spoke of the country he leads in a way which was only accurate if he defines that country as excluding Northern Ireland.”
It is not surprising that there are Unionists — even passionate, traditional, longstanding Unionists — whose commitment to Britain has been shaken by the betrayals of recent years. But McBride believes they are the exception. “There is no evidence that hordes of Unionists are recanting. Unionists knew before Northern Ireland was created that they were unloved by London. It did not diminish their sense of Britishness. In fact, hundreds of thousands of them were willing to fight and die to stay British. History shows that when unionism feels forsaken, it more often goes in the direction of militancy than moderation.”
As Northern Ireland came into being in 1921, the father of Ulster Unionism, Edward Carson, railed against British double-dealing: “But why is all this attack made upon Ulster? What has Ulster done? I will tell you what Ulster has done. She has stuck too well to you, and you believe that because she is loyal you can kick her as you like.”
That fear of abandonment — and the determination to resist regardless of pressure — lies deep in the unionist psyche. But while history is a guide to the future, it does not determine what that future will be. Unionism now is weaker than it was in 1912, 1921, 1974 or 1985, says McBride. “It now might be at or close to the point where militancy is no longer feasible. Yet even if that is the case, it does not mean that compromise will replace confrontation. There is within a strain of unionism an atavistic preponderance towards lashing out, even when it seems pointless.”
“That unionism’s attachment to the UK is sustained through repeated humiliation shows the depth of the connection — and shows how hard it will be to persuade even a substantial minority of Unionists to change sides in a border poll,” McBride concluded.
The background to this article was, of course, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s decision, in a belated protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, to pull the plug on the Executive – or that major part of it which required the DUP First Minister Paul Givan and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to be in post. This means that certain key Executive actions – such as a budget for the next three years – will now not go ahead, and an Assembly election campaign which was due to start at the end of March (with polling day on 5th May) kicked off in early February.
The North’s two main opinion polls – LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph and University of Liverpool/Irish News – using different methodologies, agree on one thing: Sinn Fein are on course to become the largest party on 5th May and therefore the DUP will lose the First Minister’s post. On the BBC the day after Givan’s resignation Donaldson squirmed for eight minutes – an eternity on radio – to avoid Stephen Nolan’s repeated questioning about whether he would accept the outcome of such an election by agreeing to serve as Deputy First Minister.
At a Chatham House-rules gathering I attended last week in Belfast – along with a group of well-informed political and community activists of all stripes, addressed by leading journalists – the consensus was that, after some tortuous negotiations, a divided and weakened DUP would again go into government under Michelle O’Neill as First Minister (the alternative would be a return to Direct Rule, which most of them loathe). Under new legislation those negotiations could take up to six months, with the old, now headless Executive staying in office for that time. If you think the fractious 2020-2022 period was a recipe for inertia and deadlock, just wait for that unhappy vacuum.
This is going to involve highly complex stuff that may require some amendment of the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements’ strange ‘designation’ rules. If current opinion poll trends are proved right, under those rules Sinn Fein, as the party with the largest number of seats from the largest ‘tribal’ designation (i.e. nationalism) will automatically get the First Minister’s post. However, this may be contested by unionism – even if it is split three ways between the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice – if they are still in a position to claim that they are the largest designation.
This will be even more complicated if Alliance’s surge in the 2019 Westminster and European elections continues into May’s contest. A University of Liverpool poll in the Irish News earlier this month put Alliance (with 15.6%) in third place, after Sinn Fein (23.2%) and the DUP (19.4%). This compares with an Alliance vote of 3.7% in the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly elections and 9.1% in the 2017 Assembly elections. Not surprisingly, this rise in Alliance support is paralleled by a fall in the support for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.
If Alliance and other non-sectarian parties (e.g. the Greens, who registered 6.3% in the University of Liverpool poll) get over 20% of the seats, there will be pressure to change the whole ultra-complex D’Hondt voting system (and particularly its ‘designation’ element) brought in by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. For example, my understanding is that if Alliance does so well that it is returned with the second largest number of Assembly Members, it could find itself nonetheless not entitled to the Deputy First Minister’s post; this could go still to the DUP as the largest party in unionism, the second biggest ‘designation’.
The bizarre ‘designation’ rules were originally incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement as a way of ensuring that the four leading ‘tribal’ parties – the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Fein – would sit in government together. Will the British government – as it faces multiple problems of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the post-Brexit disruption of trade and internal rows over the prime minister’s character and behaviour – want to devote the huge time and effort needed to renegotiate this extraordinarily complex Agreement (which took 22 months under the Solomon-like chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell to put together in the first place)? I doubt it very much. We are, after all, in the era of Boris Johnson, who lied his way to an Irish Sea border with barely a thought for Northern Ireland, not Tony Blair, who for all his later faults genuinely believed he could make history by solving the interminable ‘Irish Question.’
I have been asking another question at conferences and gatherings on the North I have been attending in recent months. If the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance between them won enough seats after May’s election and wanted to form a centrist coalition government without the DUP and Sinn Fein, would the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements allow that? Both politicians and journalists who responded to my question believed the answer would be ‘no’.
Wouldn’t it be a big step forward if those agreements could be amended to allow such a democratic opening to take place? To quote the distinguished Queen’s University Belfast educationalist, Professor Tony Gallagher: “This would be a shift towards a voluntary coalition in which a Programme for Government becomes a collective enterprise, not a set of disparate and separate wish lists. Such a Programme for Government might even be worked out before the election, as a platform to put to the electorate. It should certainly be agreed before any new Executive gets under way. After all the outgoing Executive collapsed having never agreed a Programme for Government.” Is such a normal democratic process impossible ‘pie in the sky’ in Northern Irish circumstances?
POSTSCRIPT 1: I found it very moving the way that Assembly Members of all parties, including Sinn Fein, lined up to pay tribute to Christopher Stalford, the 39-year-old DUP MLA, Deputy Speaker, and father of four small children, who died suddenly nine days ago. By all accounts he was a warm, witty and highly intelligent man. This was the ‘new’ Northern Ireland at its most united, honourable and optimistic. Sinn Féin chief whip John O’Dowd recalled how the previous week “he gave us both barrels across the chamber”, but went on to say mournfully, “I will miss him. As has been said, this place will not be the same without him.” His Sinn Fein colleague Caoimhe Archibald said the South Belfast MLA was “decent; he had manners; he had class.” Linda Dillon said Stalford was “full of integrity and a pleasure to do business with… I genuinely felt sad yesterday when I heard the news, and I still feel that overwhelming sadness.”
POSTSCRIPT 2: It is difficult to write about the drearily familiar problems of little Northern Ireland when more than 75 years of relative peace in Europe (other than in the former Yugoslavia) was shattered by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s utterly unprovoked attack on Ukraine last week. I cannot do better than to repeat the extract from the Irish Times editorial on 26th February which it splashed across the top of its front page on that day.
“The immediate horror of the Russian invasion has been visited on the people of Ukraine. It is they who have been subjected to a murderous and flagrantly criminal assault that may plunge them into years of violent turmoil. Yet John Donne’s ominous words come to mind: ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’ Vladimir Putin has tolled the knell of an era of relative peace and stability in Europe. For all of us, the reverberations will linger in the air for many years to come.”