Ghost of Enoch Powell is feeding DUP’s death wish

Posted By: February 12, 2022


In his impotent rage, Jeffrey Donaldson seems unable to escape grim logic of Powell-ism

British Conservative politician Enoch Powell at the party conference in Brighton, 1969.

Fintan O’Toole. Irish Times. Dublin. Saturday, February 12, 2022.


On Jeffrey Donaldson’s official website, the biography section is adorned with photographs of himself with the party leaders he served under James Molyneaux, Ian Paisley, and Peter Robinson. But there is no image of his political mentor, a figure who is, in the politics of these islands, both omnipresent and invisible.

Donaldson’s self-portrait does acknowledge that his political formation was in the service of one of the “greatest names in Unionism in the 20th century. . . Between 1982 and 1984 I worked as Enoch Powell’s constituency agent, successfully spearheading Mr. Powell’s election campaigns of 1983 and 1986”.

It is impossible to understand what is happening in the United Kingdom now without acknowledging the posthumous triumph of Powell. That goes double for the state of Unionism in Northern Ireland.

Its current crisis, dramatized by the decision of Donaldson’s Democratic Unionist Party to walk away from both its legal and political obligations, is the obverse side of Powell’s victory from beyond the grave. The desperation that lies behind Donaldson’s stunt last week, when the DUP pushed the Northern Ireland Executive into a state of paralysis, is the paradoxical consequence of the accomplishment of Powell’s great mission.

In 1968, 14 years before Donaldson went to work for him, Powell gave one of the most notorious speeches in the history of British politics. He conjured the mortal threat to Britain of the immigration of black- and brown-skinned people from its former colonies. He predicted a bloodbath: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “The River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

In deploying naked racism, Powell used the old trick of quoting what ordinary folk were saying to him: the elderly lady beset by “wide-grinning piccaninnies” on her street, the “decent, ordinary Englishman” who told him that, “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

Edward Heath, then leader of the Conservative Party, sacked Powell from his shadow cabinet. Powell drifted away from the Tories and ended up as the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. With Donaldson’s help, he found a place where he was not a pariah but still a prophet.

I do not suggest that Donaldson shared Powell’s racist agenda, but he was clearly not so repelled by it that he would not embrace its author as a political father figure. This might have been, in retrospect, just a peculiar footnote to history. Powell seemed, in his South Down years, more like the end of something than the beginning; more a hangover from the 19th-century past than the harbinger of a 21st-century future.


And yet, 30 years after the so-called “rivers of blood” speech, Powell’s body, dressed in his brigadier’s uniform, lay in state at Westminster Abbey, as if he were a fallen hero of the nation.

By then, Powell’s ideas had seeped back from his South Down redoubt into the mainstream of Conservatism. Margaret Thatcher, a great fan of Powell, consciously echoed his rhetoric in a less luridly racist form, claiming that people are afraid that “this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”.

But this wasn’t just about racism. Powell had blended a potent cocktail: fear of immigrants fused with the idea that the European Union was an oppressor set on destroying British identity. The two invaders – dark-skinned former colonials and Brussels meddlers – formed one existential threat.

When Powell died in 1998, Labor leader Tony Blair was in his prime. Cool Britannia was replacing post-imperial neurosis. Powell’s influence could be thought of as a poison slowly draining out the British body politic.

But Powell has won the long game. He is the grandfather of Brexit. Another of his youthful acolytes, Nigel Farage, gradually revivified his anti-immigrant and anti-EU cause. He in turn opened the way for Boris Johnson.

There is, then, a sense in which Donaldson has a share in this great vindication. He was with Powell in the wilderness. Now he is there in spirit with him as he has returned to the center of Britain’s governing ideology.

But the Enoch Powell ghost train is taking Unionism nowhere it should want to be. The ideological journey Unionism needed to go on was towards a forward-looking and positive sense of itself. Powell-ism, on the other hand, is a hysterical death cult.

The historian Camilla Schofield wrote that “Powell’s postcolonial nationalism relied on an obsessive preoccupation with community decline and victimhood”. If there was one community that really did not need an outsider to amplify its sense of decline and victimhood, it was Ulster Protestantism.

Powell’s antagonism towards immigrants and his animosity towards British membership of the EU had the same emotional root: the terror that, together, they would deprive the British, not of an identity they could live for, but of one they would die for.

“The breath which condemns submission to laws this nation has not made,” he wrote in 1977, “condemns submission to scales of value which this nation had not willed. To both sorts of submission, I ascribe the haunting fear, which I am sure I am not alone in feeling, that we, the British, will soon have nothing left to die for… Patriotism is to have a nation to die for, and to be glad to die for it – all the days of one’s life.”

This death wish leads, for Unionism, to a dead end. Powell, in that infamous speech in 1968, said that allowing dark immigrants to come to England was “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”.

That feverishly imagined funeral pyre is all that Powell and his followers had to warm themselves by. There is a perverse kind of pleasure in this self-destructive rhetoric – the worse things get, the more right the prophet of extinction proves to be.

Donaldson seems unable to escape this grim logic of Powell-ism; the way it feels alive only on the edge of the abyss. He has many decent and pragmatic instincts, but he has led Unionism back to his old home ground of decline, victimhood, and the terror of annihilation. Instead of seeking to govern well, he has retreated into impotent rage against the dying of the light of an old supremacy.

The problem with a death wish is that the closer you come to getting what you want, the nearer you are to self-annihilation. Brexit has realized Powell’s dream, but at the cost, for his followers in Northern Ireland, of undermining the hope of an open, forward-looking union on which their collective future depends.

What remains is the politics of self-pity and an endless railing against the very conditions you yourself have brought into being. If you follow a cruel ghost, you should not be surprised that he leads you into a chilly after-life.