From Brexit to a potential border poll, Unionism is in crisis. In the first of two articles, Jim Larmour analyses the roots of some of its current difficulties.
It has now been over two decades since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of the Stormont Assembly. And for over fifteen of those years the northern institutions have been characterised by a dysfunctional attempt at power-sharing between the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin.
It is a set-up that has stumbled from crisis to crisis, sometimes running, sometimes (as in the recent period of suspension Jan 2017 – Jan 2020) at a standstill. All the while tens of thousands of working-class people from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds articulate a range of emotions, from bemusement and frustration to downright disbelief and anger as the pace of any real change, change that actually benefits working-class communities, is painfully slow.
All this should come as no surprise to socialists. In 1998, upon the signing of the GFA and the setting up of power sharing at Stormont, we argued that the institution itself further entrenched and gave legitimacy to sectarian division and the idea that the two biggest parties of Unionism and Nationalism could share power represented little more than a sectarian carve up where each would seek to represent “their” communities in the battle for the meagre resources available.
Since 1998, the building of ‘peace’ walls dividing working class communities has actually increased, from 18 in the early 1990’s to at least 59 in 2017.1
In the most deprived communities, currently only 7% of children are taught in officially integrated education, and in a race to the bottom where working class people face job losses, poverty and unemployment, sectarian arguments like “the other side get it all” can make sense to people whose material conditions reflect that they really are worse off.
Working-class people, both Protestant and Catholic, deserve so much better than what’s on offer. It’s no wonder people are frustrated, disillusioned and in desperate need of alternatives that offer hope and not further division.
Seán Mitchell has written previously on the historical crisis of Unionism. This piece is an attempt to put in context the latest crisis facing unionists since the DUP decided to prop up the British Tory party at Westminster after the 2017 election, as well their further disastrous gambit of throwing their hat in with the hard right ‘little Englanders’ for a no-deal Brexit.
The latter, of course, has now led to a ‘border’ in the Irish Sea for future trade between the UK and the NI – hardly what the DUP, in their fantasy world of having real influence within English nationalism, set out to achieve.
After the UK general election of 2017, in which Theresa May was run close by a resurgent Labour Party under Corbyn, the Tories were left short of a majority in parliament. Step forward the 10 MP’s of the DUP to enter into a “confidence and supply” agreement, in return for a reported £1bn.
The DUP would go on prop up a Tory government committed to austerity and cuts, a role they embraced with full enthusiasm. Witness the vomit-inducing spectacle of DUP ministers raising to their feet to cheer at Westminster as their 10 votes helped secure a public sector 1% pay freeze, including nurses pay, or an animated ruddy-faced Sammy Wilson gleefully appearing on BBC News to stress the need to implement welfare reform and the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. This would allow them, in Sammy’s wordes, to move on to the real business of cutting corporation tax, thus piling more misery on the most impoverished whilst championing tax cuts for business.
At the time most commentators pointed to two things. Firstly, that Theresa May’s leadership was massively on the rocks having lost 13 seats, and given that a hard-right Brexiteers, led by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, were constantly pushing a no-deal Brexit. Secondly, it was claimed that the Tory/DUP alliance would end in tears for the latter.
Whilst keen to implement austerity and cuts, the DUP were less keen on Theresa May’s attempts to bring about a ‘compromise’ soft-Brexit, consistently voting to frustrate her efforts. When Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservatives, it appeared they had found a kindred spirit; he had previously been guest of honour at the 2018 DUP Conference where an excited membership whooped and hollered as the old serial opportunist spoke of the importance of the union.
Meanwhile a cocky DUP, intoxicated on their sudden sense of importance and feeling untouchable with the backing of their newfound friends, jumped from scandal to scandal.
Ian Paisley Junior had managed to get himself caught, not once but twice, taking ‘backhanders’ in the form of all-expenses paid holidays for his family to Sri Lanka and The Maldives in return for promoting those regimes, with their questionable records on human rights, in Parliament.
At the same time, the DUP were mired in the RHI, Nama and Red Sky controversies. The pressure and anger generated by these disgraces, as well as their lack of respect towards Sinn Féin (who incidentally were aware of the RHI scandal from the beginning) and the wider Nationalist community, finally pushed the then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to withdraw from the Stormont Assembly in January 2017. Foster’s comments that Sinn Féin were like a crocodile that if fed would “keep coming back for more”, as well as referring to McGuinness’s successor Michelle O’Neill as “a typical blonde”, were a bridge too far for Sinn Féin’s base of activists.
The DUP also played fast and loose with the rules during the Brexit campaign. Indeed, it was revealed in 2017 that they had been secretly bankrolled by hard-line Brexiteers to the tune of £435,000, with £282,000 alone for newspaper advert that tellingly ran in England but not in NI. And who could forget the blatant lies on the billboards that claimed £350 million would be freed up to spend on the NHS or Nigel Farage’s bogus pictures of queues of refugees wating to enter the UK?
To put total faith in Boris Johnson, a blatant careerist who famously wrote two articles both pro EU and anti-EU at the same time – a man who’s own brother had famously warned could not be trusted – was a massive miscalculation on the part of the DUP. The honeymoon period came crashing down after the 2019 election when the Tories increased majority meant the DUP were no longer needed. Johnson’s quickness to throw the DUP under the bus in negotiations with the EU around post-Brexit trade has resulted in a trading ‘border’ in the Irish Sea; hardly what the DUP set out to achieve.
But it’s hard to believe they could be so blind-sighted by simple geography.
In reality, the DUP has always held a rather ambiguous position in relation to the UK. On one hand they demand to be treated as British citizens, yet at the same time they demand to be treated differently if British laws don’t fit their narrow bigoted agenda. They oppose the a woman’s right to control her own body, marriage equality and LGBT+ rights, and they demand to teach creationist theory in segregated schooling, massively out-of-step with mainstream opinion in the UK or Ireland.
The wider picture of the growing demand for a referendum on Scottish Independence, which now seems irreversible in the long-term, added to the increased clamour for a border poll in Ireland, has led to people like former leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, urging unionists to urgently debate the ‘real possibilities’. Rather than taking the moderate route, the DUP have reverted to the default position of sectarian division, ramping up the tensions around an Irish Sea border and meeting the Combined Loyalist Command – in reality the leadership of the UVF, Red Hand Commandos and UDA – for discussions.
When push comes to shove, The DUP has always had only the one card to play: to exploit the fears of unionists and to ramp up division and sectarianism when they perceive their position to be under threat. From the bile of Edwin Poots hysterically claiming that Covid-19 rates are five times higher in nationalist areas, quickly refuted by the chair of the British Medical Association; to Gregory Campbell, not content with being a sectarian, finding “offense” that black people might indeed be seen on Songs of Praise singing gospel music; to Sammy Wilson’s almost daily incoherent ramblings against science and common sense; these are not merely rogue individuals but representatives of the core beliefs of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Recently, the Belfast Telegraph quoted a DUP ‘insider’ claiming the party was in disarray without a clear strategy or vision. It is without doubt struggling in the polls and has been haemorrhaging potential supporters to both Jim Allister’s hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice and the liberal Alliance Party.
Of course, the important point to understand here is that the DUP don’t represent all people of a Protestant background in the north. Unionism has always meant many different things to different people, often depending on their class background.
We have had the big house unionism of the past, with Unionism pitched as an all-class alliance. We’ve seen working class loyalism, both as opposition and as foot soldiers, as well as softer, more liberal unionists. And more and more we’re witnessing people, particularly younger generations, identifying with no tradition at all.
Tens of thousands who typically might not vote are opposed to the DUP’s positions on social issues and who express themselves not through mainstream politics. Combined with Stormont’s repeated scandals and its disastrous handling of Covid, the possibility of winning people to a clearer alternative has never been greater.
But possibility is not inevitability. In part two we will examine the challenge of building a genuine socialist alternative that can win sizeable numbers of Protestants, Catholics and dissenters alike.