Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians must face facts

A strong Sinn Féin, a Catholic majority and the prospect of a unified Ireland are urgent reasons for the DUP to engage rather than withdraw, says Bill Rolston.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 2 December 2022 3 minute READ

Bill Rolston Emeritus Professor of Sociology

Ulster University

On May 25, 2022, a prominent politician in Northern Ireland described the region as a ‘non self-governing territory’ – a legal term the United Nations ascribes to states ‘whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government’. It was apt, he said, on the first day of the UN Week of Solidarity with the Peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories, to acknowledge that Northern Ireland is a ‘colony’.

Such rhetoric would be standard fare for Irish republicans and socialists. But the author was neither. He was Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Colonialism is a valuable framework with which to understand Ireland’s past, but it is also revealing in explaining its present and its future. Colonialism took many centuries to embed itself in Ireland, so there is no reason to believe that decolonization will occur overnight. But decolonization is undeniably in process. This is evident not least by the inexorable rise of Sinn Féin, the republican party, on both sides of the border. 

Donaldson’s use of the phrase was at best eccentric or, worse, disingenuous. The context for his message was the protocol established by Brexit to ensure easy movement of goods between Britain and the European Union. The protocol, he argued, ‘involves taking a jurisdiction that has enjoyed self-government for over 200 years and forcing upon it NSGT status’.

The protocol has become shorthand for the deeper existential angst of contemporary unionism

Much of this is misleading. First, for 100 of those years there was no ‘Northern Ireland’. The region was, along with the rest of Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. Second, for the century that ‘Northern Ireland’ has existed it has been a subsidiary part of the UK with powers of self-government which were never full and frequently curtailed. And third, the DUP was itself a crucial element in the politics which led to the protocol.

The protocol has become shorthand for the much deeper existential angst of contemporary unionism, as we shall see. But first, it is necessary to briefly recall how it got to pole position.  

In 2017, Theresa May’s precarious hold on power was bolstered when the DUP entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, delivering support on those issues on which they agreed with the government. As it turned out, Brexit arrangements were not included.

Squaring the circle of ‘taking back control’

In attempting to square the circle of ‘taking back control’ of Britain’s borders while not demolishing the open border in Ireland resulting from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, May agreed to ‘regulatory alignment’ between the UK and the European Union. The rules governing trade and services in the UK would continue to be those which prevailed in the EU. The DUP disagreed and withdrew support, thereby contributing to May’s downfall. 

In the end Boris Johnson settled on a deal that was somewhat different. Under this only Northern Ireland, and not the whole of the UK, would continue to be subject to these EU rules. 

In terms of trade, Northern Ireland would be fully integrated in the UK and the EU. The majority of people in Northern Ireland who had voted against Brexit saw this as an acceptable, albeit second best, arrangement, guaranteeing Northern Ireland, unlike Britain, equal access to both sets of markets. 

But there was a problem for the DUP. To ensure that goods were not passing from outside the EU – that is from Britain – into the EU – that is the Republic of Ireland – via Northern Ireland, there were to be checks on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. 

A ‘gateway of opportunity’ 

Checks on livestock entering Northern Ireland from Britain have been commonplace for decades. Perhaps with that in mind, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, said that, while she did not like the protocol, Northern Ireland would take ‘any benefits that flow from it’. There was now ‘a gateway of opportunity for the whole of the UK and for Northern Ireland’ as a result of the UK-EU trade deal.

Thanks to Brexit, Northern Ireland’s economy has performed better than those of other UK nations

There is indeed evidence of benefits and opportunities. In 2021, imports from the North to the South were up 65 per cent to €3.9 billion, compared with 2020. Exports from South to North were up 54 per cent to €3.7 billion. 

In February 2022, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research concluded: ‘The Northern Ireland protocol helped Northern Ireland attain higher Gross Value Added growth than if there was no deal in place’. 

Office of National Statistics data revealed that Northern Ireland’s economy has performed better than all other UK nations and regions due to Brexit. Meanwhile, Arlene Foster had been replaced as DUP leader by Jeffrey Donaldson who was adamant that there could be no benefits or opportunities involved in the trade deal.

The current DUP position is that the protocol has created a ‘border in the Irish Sea’ and threatens unionist identity and equal citizenship in the UK. Hence, in February 2022 they withdrew from the devolved government and refuse to re-instate the Executive short of the protocol issue being solved. The British threat of new elections in 2023 is unlikely to change the DUP’s position. 

The protocol’s threat to unionist identity 

But the protocol is only one of a tsunami of issues unsettling the DUP. When partition occurred in 1921, the unionists insisted on the border being drawn round the six northeastern counties where about two-thirds of the population was Protestant. Their aspiration was ‘a Protestant majority in perpetuity’. They then held the reins of the one-party state until the uneasy peace was blown apart, first by the civil rights campaign of the late 1960s and then the IRA campaign. 

Swing forward to the Northern Ireland Assembly election results of May 2022. With 27 seats to the DUP’s 25, Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party.  This is not an aberration but a sign of an ongoing trend. Not only are many people voting for non-traditional parties, but there is a demographic underpinning to future change. 

The DUP could be engaging in a politics that guarantees the unionist voice is heard in whatever Ireland emerges from this process

The Northern Ireland Census results released in September 2022 reveal that 42.3 per cent of the population identify as Catholic and 37.3 per cent as Protestant. Religious affiliation does not match directly with voting behaviour, but it is a good indicator. 

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 allows for a referendum on Irish reunification. Sinn Féin has focused on having that happen within the next few years. Most Catholics will vote for reunification. The newcomers in Northern Ireland from Europe and abroad might well be expected to vote for a reunified Ireland within the EU, as might some Protestants, disgruntled at Brexit and its effects.

That still leaves a substantial number of unionists who see the protocol as one more indication of impending disaster. For all its politicking, the DUP articulates this existential angst. In this scenario, going back into government where Sinn Féin gets to nominate the first minister is a step too far. 

The DUP cannot stop the tide 

The DUP may not be happy with the present situation but trying to stop the tide does no one any favours, least of all the people the party represents. It could support negotiations to ensure the protocol works to Northern Ireland’s best advantage. It could accept the democratic process which throws up a Sinn Féin first minister. It could be engaging in a politics that guarantees the unionist voice is heard and its aspirations incorporated in whatever Ireland emerges at the end of the process. 

Without that involvement, unionists could end up feeling that the laws are being made and discharged on their behalf ‘by an external power of which it is not a part and in which it has no representation’ in a unified Irish state.

Read more: Katy Hayward’s review of ‘Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle’ by Shane Ross