Unionism saw in Brexit an opportunity to wreck the Good Friday agreement and get a hard border back. Instead, it is any prospect of the survival of Northern Ireland that has been demolished. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson admitted in an interview at the weekend that if Sinn Féin took the first minister’s post at Stormont, it would be a problem for unionists.
The latest opinion poll showed Sinn Féin poised to be country’s largest party on 25%, with the DUP plummeting to 13%, now surpassed on the unionist side by the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Next year’s census will probably show that the Catholic community is now larger than the Protestant one. An election is due in the spring of 2022. This is the context in which we must view Donaldson’s threat to pull out of the executive, and his decision to stop co-operating with the Irish government in cross-border bodies. The protocol is a fig leaf, and one plucked from a tree the DUP and Boris Johnson planted.
The Rev Ian Paisley used to refer to Martin McGuinness as “my deputy” when the DUP leader was the first minister and the Sinn Féiner was the deputy first minister. McGuinness indulged the old man: both roles are actually equal and represent the joint leadership of the Northern Ireland executive. But unionism, having had marginally the largest party electorally, has always held the first ministry, and clings to the vestigial delusion of dominance, glossing over the concept of power-sharing in mandatory coalition that was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. The TUV has only one MLA at Stormont, but Jim Allister speaks forcefully for the past to which much of unionism longs to return – in the aformentioned poll, the party hit 14%, leapfrogging the DUP. He said any unionist leader who serves under a Sinn Féin first minister would be “a stooge”.
Donaldson chose to make what was billed as a landmark speech on the eve of the visit to Northern Ireland last week of the European Commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič. According to the former DUP leader Peter Robinson, the speech would “define the position of unionism for decades to come and with it the future of the union”. On becoming leader in June, Donaldson was meant to be the progressive face of the DUP who would turn the party around to face forwards. But having called the protocol “the most serious constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland since our formation a century ago”, he offered no ideas as to how to save his beloved country, other than threatening to collapse its government. He implied his grand gesture would bring about an election; in reality that is the prerogative of the secretary of state, who might just not bother.
What Donaldson wants of the EU and the British government is unclear. In his speech he declared: “Kicking the can down the road will merely tighten the knot.” As political statements go, it’s not far off “an owl in a sack troubles no man”. Robinson, now the party’s backroom statesman, wrote garishly that unionism must unite “against a devilish ploy that will, unless it is removed, spread like a cancer through the blood and into the bones and organs of the union”. But while Donaldson said attempts to limit the impact of the protocol would fail, and that his party would not follow those who said it was “here to stay” (a dig at the new UUP leader, Doug Beattie, who suggested that a cross-border body might help), he did not adopt the full “ditch the protocol” position of fundamentalist unionists, either.
He did, however, to his shame, play the old Paisleyite card of implying that his was the voice of reason holding back a tide of rage. Paisley Sr used to warn his opponents that they would reap a bitter harvest. Loyalist gangs would demonstrate what they believed he meant by going out and killing Catholics. Donaldson referred to street disorder last spring and added that while it had subsided, “it would be an act of folly to believe that the anger has receded or the danger has passed”. The government indulges this notion, though it knows it to be spurious. Those disturbances in unionist working-class areas were relatively minor, largely orchestrated by a thuggish element and widely denounced within the unionist community. But the thugs have not given up. Sectarian graffiti is being scrawled on walls, and there are reports of Catholics being intimidated out of traditionally Protestant areas.
Šefčovič will judge for himself the strength of opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol. When it was announced that he was to meet with academics, business and community leaders at Queen’s University Belfast, loyalists called on protesters to gather at the gates. Šefčovič said the Commission would do everything possible to minimise the disruption brought about by the protocol, which was, he reasoned, not the problem. “On the contrary,” he said, “it is the only solution we have.” While a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, many of those in the room are now adapting to the realities of Brexit, turning to their advantage the unique access the protocol gives the country to both EU and UK markets. The anti-protocol men marched up and down outside. There were about 25 of them. Paisley Sr got tens of thousands of people out to oppose the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 – it went ahead anyway.
In his speech, Donaldson said childishly that “to unionists it would appear that there are those in the EU who only seem to be alive to nationalist concerns”. The EU has wisely declined to indulge unionism’s desire to play the victim, instead turning a blind eye to the government’s persistent unilateral abuse of the trading rules it agreed when it signed up to the protocol. A better strategist than Donaldson could have claimed this as a victory. The situation suits the British government. The prime minister can point to the DUP in the same way Donaldson points to the loyalist paramilitaries. Kate Hoey, who recently said Northern Ireland had been sacrificed to get Brexit, was reportedly photographed at the weekend speaking at a TUV barbecue. She’s a close friend of Ian Paisley Jr MP, who backed the fundamentalist Edwin Poots during his brief tenure as leader.
The DUP, baulking at the potential of a first minister coming from what used to be known as “the other sort”, has retreated back to sectarianism, the frailty of its commitment to power-sharing exposed. The Irish government, in deference to unionist sensitivities, and alarmed itself by the rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic, is keeping a polite distance from talk of a border poll. But soon it will be inevitable. There will be no “decades to come” for the union. Donaldson said in his speech he would not play the blame game. No wonder.