The most serious crisis in Northern Ireland’s history?

‘The Northern Ireland Protocol threatens to provoke the most serious crisis in Northern Ireland’s hundred years of existence,’ Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said in a major keynote speech at the La Mon hotel on Thursday 9th September.

Sir Jeffrey’s speech saw the DUP’s third leader this year emphasise what is at stake for Unionists. In it he set out his party’s robust opposition to the Protocol, explaining how he believed it undermined Northern Ireland’s constitutional position and economic prosperity. He also, significantly, announced the DUP’s withdrawal from the structures of Strand Two of the Belfast Agreement, namely north-south arrangements, as a prelude to further actions to be taken by the DUP.

The next step, Donaldson outlined, was for DUP Ministers to seek to block additional checks on goods transiting through ports. ‘If in the final analysis those who are democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland lack the power to prevent such checks,’ Donaldson warned, ‘then the position in office of DUP Ministers would become untenable.’ Sir Jeffery said he took the helm of his party ‘knowing the challenges that lay ahead, but I did so to seek to make Northern Ireland a better place and the Union more secure.’

To some commentators this may feel like run-of-the mill DUP rhetoric. However, a source close to DUP thinking informed me at the beginning of this week that there is a developing view within the party’s hierarchy that the Protocol must be resisted more decisively.

Therefore, as the source put it to me, the DUP is ‘highly likely’ or ‘almost certain’ to pull down the institutions. ‘Their objective,’ the source said, was ‘to force an election on the basis of a plebiscite on the border.’

It is difficult to see how the DUP can do anything else at this stage.

Interviews I completed with a range of unionists and loyalists over the past few months indicate that the DUP has been boxed in by its own decision-making process. The party is now left with a stark strategic choice: Either they continue with their rhetoric on the Irish Sea border and do nothing, risking losing face in the eyes of their supporters – not to mention ceding ground to Jim Allister’s TUV – or they ramp up the rhetoric and follow it through with decisive action.

For those of us who have been watching unionist politics closely since the DUP overtook the UUP as the dominant electoral force in that community, it does feel like it is the last roll of the dice for Donaldson’s party.

Internal party revolts against the successive leaderships of Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots have also forced the DUP to act more proactively than it is used to.

My source informed me that the DUP’s internal party review has made around 130 recommendations. One of the interesting features of these recommendations includes bringing back old stalwarts like Peter Robinson to play a more prominent role. A comparison could be made here to the role played by Gordon Brown vis-à-vis major constitutional issues affecting Scotland.

In late March this year Mr Robinson publicly warned of a growing feeling of unionist disenchantment and alienation, which he said was worse now than in his 50 years in political life.

There has also been a suggestion that other figures, including some who are seen as broad-based in their views on society, culture and politics, will return to the front line of party politics in time for any future election. There have been public signs that this process has already begun.

It is common to hear the view expressed that any imminent election would herald the demise of the DUP. One source close to the UDA leadership who has worked closely with the DUP during election campaigns told me in July that people in his community would not be supporting the DUP next time round. He cited issues like the party’s mishandling of Brexit and, significantly, the mismanagement of local bread and butter issues to explain his analysis.

When I walked the ground in this particularly deprived part of Belfast, I noted how the demographics had changed almost fundamentally. There was no longer a unionist ‘majority’. It felt like a more diverse city than the one I remember growing up in. It also felt like an area totally abandoned by the local DUP leadership.

The DUP has come a long way from its time as a rabble-rousing adjunct to the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church. That brand of religious fundamentalism has held a death grip over the party for 50 years, proving to be more of a liability in recent years.

The rise and fall of Edwin Poots served as a salutary warning to the DUP about the dangers of continuing to rely on such a narrow support base. One revelation from my source is that the DUP leadership accepts that it needs to modernise and moderate its message to voters or risk losing ground to the UUP and Alliance.

The growing popularity of Doug Beattie’s leadership and his “Union of People” mantra re-positions his party in the middle ground of unionism. It is too early to tell whether this inclusive, outward-facing agenda will yield electoral advantages but it is clear that the exclusivist, inward-facing unionism of the DUP has run its course.

I am unconvinced that unionists are going to slavishly follow the DUP’s lead in light of their mishandling of Brexit, their extreme social conservativism and a brand of unionism that appears to be out of step with the new politics sweeping these islands and further afield.

Professor John Denham, a former Labour Party MP, has argued that we need to formulate a new form of what he calls ‘progressive patriotism’ in British politics, which is so badly needed in light of the huge shift in globalisation, identity politics and the common bonds that bind us to others in the Union. This form of progressive, open-minded, UK-wide unionism is something that many Ulster Unionists would find much to agree with rather than the narrow form of ethnic entrepreneurship associated with the DUP.

I have long argued that voters in Protestant working class areas are split over the DUP’s socially conservative politics but united on their support of the constitutional position.

Smaller parties like the PUP have in the past tapped into the progressive views and beliefs of people in deprived areas, yet they have been unable to capitalise on this due to their close association with the outlawed UVF.

The UUP does not have this Achilles Heel and so is in a good position to capture floating voters who believe in a more inclusive, pluralist and non-sectarian Northern Ireland.

For now though all eyes are on the DUP.

I know from my interviews with grassroots loyalists in different parts of Northern Ireland that they have been telling the DUP’s politicians for many months that the tensions over the protocol have become intolerable.

Two weeks prior to Peter Robinson’s remarks in March, I told The Economist publication that commentators were paying far too much attention to the views of political and paramilitary leaderships and not enough to the views of those at the grassroots.

Sadly, the violence in April reinforced my views – as well as subsequently expressed by Peter Robinson – that growing disaffection – and, I would add, radicalisation – was taking hold amongst some sections of loyalism.

The DUP now finds itself in an embattled position.

Some within the higher echelons of the party may think they are ‘dammed if they do or dammed if they don’t’ in terms of taking more decisive political action. My hunch is that high-risk strategies like this only ever pay off when the direction of travel towards a stated objective is clear and achievable.

So far, I have heard more about the dire consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland’s socio-economic and political position and little about the future and the reformulation of new political identities and a form of politics that can deliver for ordinary people. Moreover, I have heard nothing about how the DUP’s ‘strategic blueprint’ – placing the collapse of Stormont at its core – will benefit all the people of Northern Ireland or these islands.

It is time for the DUP to address the question it has long evaded: Are its decisions going to be taken in the best interests of this narrow party support base or will they seek to lead in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland?

I fear we may well know the answer to this question very soon.

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