DUP now facing a make-or-break moment

Posted By: October 28, 2022


Distributed to Congress by Irish National Caucus

“Alex Kane has described himself as “an unashamed, unambiguous, unembarrassed unionist.”… So, it should behoove the Unionists/Loyalists/Protestants of Northern Ireland to pay attention to his attached article—especially his warnings about England’s duplicity when it comes to the island of Ireland.”—Fr. Sean McManus.

Recent history is littered with ‘What ifs’ for the DUP, particularly in its support for Brexit.

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, October 28, 2022.

If the DUP hadn’t gone full-blown gung-ho during the Brexit referendum, would it have made it easier for the party to reach an agreement with other local parties and the UK government on a resolution?

If Arlene Foster had agreed (as Peter Robinson would have done) to stand aside for a few weeks when the RHI story broke, would it have avoided the collapse of the assembly and the early election in March 2017 which saw unionists lose their overall majority for the first time ever?

If the DUP hadn’t got carried away and thrown in its lot with the ERG from 2017-2019, would it have ended up with something much better than the protocol?

I love What Ifs. Fair enough, you can’t go back and change history, but you can learn from what you might now recognize as strategic errors. I still think the DUP reckoned that the Leave vote wouldn’t carry the day, but they quite liked the idea of putting themselves well to the right of the UUP who, at the time of the referendum, were working together with the SDLP in the role of opposition. And some leading lights within the DUP (although some key figures were privately advising against it) quite liked the links they had built with the official Leave campaign; albeit because they thought, as individuals, it would boost their profiles nationally.

I voted Leave. I wrote articles in this paper setting out my reasons for so doing. But I didn’t join the Leave campaign and I declined invitations to speak at Leave events. Crucially, I was pleased when Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster wrote a joint letter to Theresa May in August 2016 setting out a willingness to work together to agree an approach that the NI Executive could buy into. I knew it would involve compromise from both sides: I had no problem with that because I always knew that a withdrawal agreement would require compromise—and not just over Northern Ireland.

But along came another two What Ifs. If the assembly hadn’t crashed in January 2017, would it have been possible for the McGuinness/Foster approach (albeit without him) to have gained traction and made it easier for the British and Irish governments, along with the EU and NI Executive, to reach agreement? And if Theresa May hadn’t required DUP and ERG votes to prop up her government after June 2017 would the DUP have rowed back from almost unconditional support for an unfeasibly hard Brexit and shown a greater willingness to reboot the assembly?

Again, we can’t rewrite history, although we can note the consequences of those two What Ifs. There are no What Ifs, of course, when it comes to Boris Johnson. He was always going to undermine the DUP. He has never had an emotional attachment to ‘Ulster’ unionism in any of its guises: and if he were willing to tell bare faced lies to his own party members in Northern Ireland (although most of them were still prepared to roll over so that he could kick them as well) he wasn’t going to have second thoughts about leaving the DUP at the altar.

Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson and Ian Jnr were always going to be the tossed-into-the-food-bin giblets of his oven-ready turkey. As long as the regenerated English nationalist voters—who didn’t give a stuff about the ‘Celtic fringes’—were happy, he was happy.

There are no votes for him in Northern Ireland. And he no longer needed DUP MPs to underpin him. He packed his previous promises to them into a weighted suitcase and tossed it into the Thames. And to this day I’m still not sure if the DUP understands how deliberately and comprehensively it was used and then abandoned by Johnson and the vast majority of the ERG. It was used to serve the purposes of one side in the Conservative’s civil war and then jettisoned when it was no longer required. Carson and puppets and What Ifs spring to mind.

So, where is unionism now? I don’t really know, to be honest, other than somewhere where it has no control over its own destiny. And when you have no control over your own destiny there really is no point heading into another showdown with the very people who do have that control. Unionism is not where it expected to be right now. It doesn’t really understand how it got here, which makes it more attractive to blame everyone else.

So, it must examine the What Ifs since 2016 and avoid adding to the list. The crucial question it must consider and then answer is this: how likely is it that the British government would trigger a trade war with the EU—with all the accompanying problems that would bring—just to keep the DUP happy?

The answer, and the strategy pursued as a result of that answer, could be the existential make-or-break moment for the DUP particularly and unionism generally.