Arlene Foster has said she is willing to reach out to her Catholic ‘neighbours’. Is this a new dawn for politics, or the first signs of the endgame for unionism?
On Sunday 24 June, DUP leader Arlene Foster boldly went where no unionist leader has been before—to a GAA match, at Clones in Monaghan, to attend the Ulster County final. Foster had finally decided, it would seem, that the time had arrived to reach-out the hand of friendship to “our neighbours”. Queue the predictable chorus of feigned liberal delight; ‘progress at last, progress at last.’
Foster’s stunt, then, was met by praise in some quarters. But are we really to believe something remarkable actually occurred at Clones, as the chattering classes would have it? After all, attendance at a Gaelic football game—over twenty years after Belfast Agreement no less—is hardly a dramatic event worth celebrating, especially from a unionist leader so entrenched in her party’s opposition to progressive demands. And this begs another question; why now, besides the DUP leader’s new found desire for cordial relations with her catholic ‘neighbours.’
Foster’s visit was striking, in my opinion—but not for its representation of progress, nor for its stage-managed ‘cross-community symbolism’ so beloved by Northern Irish officialdom. Instead, deeper processes are at work; that hint at a Unionist establishment ensnared by deeply entrenched contradictions, facing into a prolonged and potentially terminal political crisis.
The Ghost of Terence O’Neill
Foster’s Fermanagh excursion was designed to elicit an image of progress. What was plain from the visit, however, was just how little progress unionism has made in the last number of years. Consider this, for instance; in April 1964, Captain Terence O’Neill, then unionist Prime Minster, made a visit to the Lady of Lourdes Intermediate School. O’Neill’s aim, according to him, was to reach out the hand of friendship to his catholic neighbours—by being the first unionist Prime Minister to visit a catholic school since the formation of the state in 1921. And now, another fifty years later, unionism has taken another great leap forward with Foster’s GAA visit. One can only imagine what the next hundred years will bring. Progress indeed.
Unionism’s snail pace approach to historical development is galling, therefore. But the similarities between O’Neill and Foster do not end there. When Terence O’Neill decided to visit catholic schools and hospitals in the 1960s, he did so because he was confronting a profound crisis for Ulster Unionism—not unlike Foster and the DUP today. Faced with the necessity of modernising the North’s ailing economy—including the need to inveigle itself with a Southern capitalist class exiting a long era of protectionism—as well as the rise of an educated catholic middle class intent on claiming its rights, O’Neill sought to soften unionism’s sectarian image in an effort to accrue some stability in the years ahead.
O’Neillism, unfortunately, was largely superficial; sections of unionism were willing to countenance symbolic visits to catholic schools, but were not willing to actually challenge the sectarian pillars that underpinned their movement. And significant forces grew on the ground—grouped around Ian Paisley—who were willing to resist even the faintest hint of outreach to catholics, and who wanted an ever greater force of repression and discrimination meted upon them.
O’Neillism was a colossal failure, therefore. But is the DUP now attempting to conjure the ghost of O’Neill today? There is good reason to think they might have to; Stormont has collapsed, support for a united Ireland appears to be rising, and demographic shifts would suggest that a protestant majority in Northern Ireland is no longer unassailable. Hence the sudden desire to reach out.
Historic Crisis of Unionism
Foster, like O’Neill before her, is having to deal with an acute historic conundrum facing her movement—what Marxists call the historical crisis of unionism. The fault lines within this crisis are obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Faced with a declining material base, and an increasing catholic population, how can unionism maintain its political dominance in the North without reaching out to catholics? This is the question that befuddled Captain Terence O’Neill, and it’s the same question facing the DUP today.
Before considering whether unionism can win support from catholics, it’s worth examining the unstable manner it maintains protestant support in the modern era. Unionism is much weaker than it was even in the 1960s. Then, it could rely on the support of a reasonably stable capitalist class, grouped around heavy industry and exports. The Unionist government created the conditions for capital accumulation in the North, and ‘Orange Capital’ in turn provided the economic scope for a system of patronage and discrimination that gave unionism its support.
Today, this kind of industry no longer exists. But unionism has found other—and increasingly more unstable—means to maintain some degree of patronage to its supporters. This was revealed in a series of scandals around the DUP’s methodology at Stormont. The starkest, and most publicised, was the Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI)—whereby hundreds of millions of pounds of public money was handed out for free, to individuals and companies. The official answer to RHI was that it was a miscommunication, the mother of all cockups. The more popular answer is that it was all the result of personal greed—a case of money grubbing politicians doing what money grubbing politicians do; lining their own pockets.
But the real importance of RHI was in the way it illuminated the anatomy of 21st century unionism—whereby schemes like this were utilised by members of the DUP to hand out millions of pounds to companies or those that supported them. Family members and friends of DUP politicians, large farmers, Orange halls, and a string of private companies benefited from RHI. Moy Park Chicken—Northern Ireland’s second largest private sector employer—was one of the main beneficiaries of RHI. The inquiry into the scandal has revealed close contact between the firm and the DUP, with Moy Park encouraging hundreds of its producers to sign up to the scheme before it closed, after a tip off from a DUP advisor. When the scheme was set to be cancelled, company executives emailed each other to discuss what “influence we can exert to soften the blow of future plans?” It was clear from the documentation that this influence was the DUP.
Was RHI a one off? Other scandals would suggest that it was not, and instead part of a wider pattern of unionist patronage. In 2010, for example, the ‘Red Sky scandal’ erupted; after it was revealed that a “protestant-owned” company in Belfast—which was awarded an £8 million maintenance contract by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive—had its contract cancelled after allegations that it deliberately performed shoddy work in houses in the mainly nationalist west Belfast. A DUP minister personally intervened in an attempt to keep the firm’s contract in place, pressurising a Housing Executive board member to change her vote to support Red Sky—in an act she later described as “an effort to keep the sectarian card alive.”
Perhaps the largest example of this patronage was the North’s NAMA scandal. Like the South of Ireland, Northern capitalism benefited from a property bubble during the boom years. Consequently, much of the North’s richest people had their wealth (or at least speculative wealth) tied up in big construction projects. When the crash occurred, many of these property moguls lost hundreds of millions. According to journalistic accounts, efforts were made by senior figures involved with NAMA (the government-owned body who took over these bankrupt properties) in conjunction with the DUP to set up a system whereby these individuals could get their property back—at millions beneath its real value, and to the cost of hundreds of millions to the tax payer. Much of the coverage of the NAMA scandal revolved around allegations that former DUP leader Peter Robinson and his son were set to personally benefit from this. But it also revealed, like RHI and Red Sky, how unionism used its access to power to secure benefits for some of its most powerful supporters. Likely to the tune of billions of pounds.
It could be argued, therefore, that these schemes have replaced the old ‘Orange Capital’ method of patronage. The problem for unionism, however, it that this is a deeply risky and unstable means to accrue support. Rather than alleviating the crisis of unionism, therefore, it has continually exacerbated it; ultimately leading to the collapse of Stormont after the RHI revelations. Another problem is that the patronage involved in these scandals does not come anywhere near matching the kind of scope of things like the Shipyards of old. What benefit was there to ordinary protestants on the Shankill Road to RHI, or NAMA or to Red Sky? The answer is nothing; no jobs, no homes. For this reason, the DUP has had to combine this system with a recurring turn to sectarian agitation. When RHI blew up, the party immediately went after the Irish Language to deflect the headlines. But again, the net result is further instability in politics.
Unionism without Orangeism?
One way out of this impasse might be to fundamentally re-render unionism into a movement that is no-longer exclusively protestant. A string of commentators have suggested as much, and Foster’s outreach combined with other initiatives suggest that the DUP might be considering this as well. Is this kind of non-sectarian unionism—with a degree of catholic support—possible? Theoretically, it could be. Undoubtedly support for the union has been predominantly tied to the protestant community, but it is not out of the question that some catholics might support it. Indeed some do. And its also true that the politics of many right-wing catholics is more in tune with that of the DUP, particularly around abortion rights and equal marriage, than it is with other political forces.
The problem is that unionism has never simply been a movement of like-minded supporters of the link with Britain. Instead, unionism has historically been defined by a synthesis of support for the union with the politics of Orangeism; in other words, a specifically protestant movement, invariably leading to a sectarian and supremacist agenda.
Foster’s outreach is not the first time unionism has gone down this path. Certainly, Terence O’Neill never attempted anything as drastic as a break with Orangeism. But the minor concessions he made to nationalism saw him toppled by hard-liners linked to the Order. Later, David Trimble made another go of it. Under advice from Paul Bew—a former Workers Party member who later became bedazzled by Blair’s destruction of Labour’s links with socialism—Trimble sought to create his own ‘clause 4 moment’, by removing the Orange Order’s link with the Ulster Unionist Party. Trimble failed in this endeavour, with his party being superseded at the polls by the DUP who made much of their Orange credentials.
Some unionist commenters suggest that now is the time to win catholics to the union. The problem is to do so, would necessitate a break with Orangeism. And this is no small task. The DUP’s politics are firmly wedded to Orangeism—with the party frequently reverting to an openly sectarian stance in order to sure up its own support base, particularly when it comes under challenge. And a break with Orangeism, even a minor one, can cause schisms to its right; as was the case during the loyalist flag protests of 2012, when loyalist street protests emerged against a decision not to fly the Union Jack on a daily basis in Belfast. Any attempt to move unionism away from Orangeism, therefore, will likely be resisted.
The Orange Order—backed by millions of pounds from the Northern state—has made much of the fact that it is a religious and cultural institution. But it is, and always has been, an extremely political movement. According to a resolution passed by the Order, this year’s Twelfth of July will focus on opposition to an Irish language act, Christian (i.e. protestant) faith, loyalty to the Crown, and a pledge to resist the so-called “cultural war” being waged by republicans. On the Irish Language Act, the resolution states: “We reaffirm our opposition to the introduction of any form of legislation for the Irish language. Such a move would have far reaching detrimental consequences for our British identity and would rightly be acknowledged as a landmark victory for republicanism in their ongoing cultural war against our community.” The message to the DUP couldn’t be any clearer.
Foster’s outreach, in all likelihood, will remain in the sphere of symbolism—aside from minor concessions, possibly including some curtailed provisions for the Irish language. Not enough to attract large catholic support for unionism, perhaps just enough to entice the Sinn Féin leadership back into Stormont. They may even benefit from scattered votes from hard-right catholics supportive of the DUP’s anti-abortion stance. But none of the underlying contradictions of the historic crisis of unionism will have been solved.
In the long run, therefore, Unionism is more likely to bunker down than it is to reach out. Rather than convincing catholics to support the union, it will assert that it’s veto over partition is innate and unnegotiable. The principle of consent will evaporate the second unionism loses its majority.
And in this they will likely find an ally in a southern capitalist class weary of any northern instability rocking its own fiefdom. “No 50 + 1 vote for a united Ireland,” says Varadkar. Foster and co will soon follow his lead.
As ever, ordinary protestants and catholics will be those that lose out the most.