The column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday April 4th. Though the DUP’s support is faltering and has been on a steady decline over the past few years, it is still too early to write the party’s political obituary. It may run Sinn Féin close in the race to emerge as the single biggest party. The DUP decline in the polls, past the Robinson era, is due to internal faction fights that are based partly on personality, but primarily due to the inability of a sizeable cohort in the party to grasp the fact that Northern Ireland has changed over the past decade or more, despite the DUP’s political preeminence, and is continuing to change.
With the Northern Ireland Assembly election exactly one month away, a great deal of the commentary has focused – naturally enough – on the damage that unionism continues to inflict on itself.
I cannot recall a time when unionism seemed in greater disarray. All due to the ill-judged decisions and actions of hard line, irridentist unionists.
This is not to deny that there is a strong and growing seam of moderate, indeed progressive, unionism. A modern unionism that is more focused on facing the challenges of the future than re-waging the tribal battles of the past. A unionism that sees the grave dangers in the rallies against the Northern Protocol being foisted on many small towns across the six counties.
For this reason, and for the purposes of this article, I will use the phrase traditional unionism to describe the type of dominant and domineering unionism still advocated by Jim Allister’s TUV, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s DUP and such fellow travellers and carpet baggers as Kate Hoey, Jamie Bryson, and Ben Habib.
I explored the serial causes of the problems besetting traditional unionism some weeks ago here when I discussed how the narrow-minded push by the DUP and TUV for the most ultra-purist Brexit only succeeded in alienating the growing group of “others” in Northern Ireland. “Others” being the almost 40% of the Northern Irish population who self-identify in surveys as neither unionist nor nationalist, but who were content for the North to remain part of the UK for the foreseeable future.
It is not that the DUP and TUV do not recognise the existence of this large group, but rather that they have concluded that it will not vote coherently and in sufficient numbers to challenge them. Thus the DUP and TUV play to the hardline gallery. They know that their brand of traditional unionism is on the decline, but they also believe they have one last chance to forestall the inevitable – even if only to save their own political skins.
They have adapted the Rove-ian and Trump-ist strategies for the worst of the North’s sectarian politics. They go to the fringes. They stir up fears. They tell their people that they are in a fight for survival. They get their minority so enthused that they turn out in disproportionately high numbers.
To make it even more depressing, the same strategy is being played out on the other side, though with a lot less desperation. As is often the case in Northern politics, the fringes are mirror images of each other. Not alone that, what is good for the DUP is often also good for Sinn Féin, especially when they share a common political foe – the moderate centre.
One very visible manifestation of a real crisis of identity now besetting the DUP can be found in the curious interview Ian Paisley Jr., M.P., gave to GB News – a channel later dissed by one of its founders, Andrew Neil, as a UKIP tribute band.
Expanding on his vivid description and dismissal some weeks ago of Boris Johnson’s Tory Party as an “English nationalist party” Paisley Jr told GB News presenter (and former British Labour MP) Gloria Del Piero that he no longer viewed the Conservative and Unionist Party as (traditional) unionism’s greatest friend. That, Paisley claimed, was now the British Labour Party.
When you find senior DUP figures reduced to such absurdist revisionism, then you know that the DUP and traditional domineering unionism is in trouble. To be fair, there have been some spectacularly awful and nasty Labour party Northern Irish secretaries. Roy Mason’s name immediately springs.
In her 2015 obituary of Mason, the Guardian’s former Ireland correspondent, Anne McHardy recalls the late West Belfast MP, Gerry Fitt spotting Mason entering the House of Lords bar and angrily saying to her: “That wee fucker’s here. He put things for us back 10 years. Fifteen.”
It was a conservative estimate. Peter Mandelson’s brief stint in the post, following Mo Mowlem, was not a great deal better. Though he came to the job telling nationalism, specifically the SDLP, that he would put them first. I was at the SDLP conference where he said it from the platform. Indeed, the only person in the room that day who acted as if he believed what he was saying, was Mandelson… though we all knew he knew it wasn’t true.
Of course, Paisley’s GB News comments were not born of a deep-seated need to unburden himself of some truths he had suppressed for too long. Paisley was using the interview to signal to the Tories, and especially Boris Johnson, that the DUP had other options, and that are other games in town.
But there aren’t.
Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has nothing to gain from offering the DUP either refuge or succour. Is it a mark of the DUP’s desperation and disconnection that it imagines that anyone at the top of the Conservative Party is even the tiniest bit bothered by such an empty threat.
When Starmer became leader of the Labour Party he appointed the excellent Louise Haigh MP as his Northern Ireland spokesperson. A position she continued to hold up to her recent promotion to be the party’s transport spokesperson.
One of Haigh’s first actions as Labour Party’s Northern Ireland spokesperson was to reconnect the Labour Party with one of its great achievements in government the Good Friday Agreement.
She ran a number of in person and online briefing sessions with labour party members across Britain to remind them of what they had achieved and remind them of the work and understanding of such huge Labour figures as Tony Blair and the late Mo Mowlam and the key parts played by others, most notably the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and US President Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement videos and materials that Louise Haigh put together should be required viewing for Fianna Fáil’s backbench TDs (and some ministers and HQ staff) to remind them of how hard won the agreement was.
It may also remind them that agreement reached in 1998 was not the completion of a process, but rather the start of a slow, often grinding, political process. A process which is now in jeopardy and in need of a great deal more attention from Dublin, in particular from the Taoiseach’s office.
This is not intended as a criticism of the current occupant. I am sure that Taoiseach Micheál Martin is genuinely focused on driving progress. I am further convinced that he tried hard in the years between 2016 and 2019 to begin to lay the foundations for a political rapprochement with the DUP that he could deliver when he eventually achieved high office.
He was not the only one who thought so. Recall the positive mood music around his very public meeting with the then DUP leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, at the 2018 Killarney economic conference. Back then Mr Martin told the DUP leader that politicians in the Republic had a right to express the “aspiration for a single State for all on this island without this being presented as a threat to anyone”.
These are not words we hear from him too often today. That is regrettable. Just as regrettable as the impression he gives that his strategy has not matured to reflect the reality that things have changed significantly since 2018. The traditional unionists who now rule the DUP do not interpret his soft and positive talk of a shared island and shared spaces in the way he hopes.
When the likes of Jamie Bryson hear the Taoiseach, the man they rightly see as both the leader of, and the centre of gravity for, mainstream Irish Republicanism, talk about a shared island, they think it’s just a new code for Unity.
Nuance and subtlety is lost when fears are being stoked – especially by the very ones who are stoking those fears.
This does not mean the Taoiseach should abandon his hopes and ambitions for his shared island unit… just that he must recognise that there is another audience. A larger, ever growing, audience of “others” and moderate nationalists/republicans who need (and want) to hear the Taoiseach speak to their hopes and ambitions.