Jeffrey Donaldson needs Dublin to save the DUP

Posted By: September 04, 2021


Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, September 4, 2021


In one of those recurring ironies of Irish politics, the future of the DUP (if it has one) now lies more in Dublin than in Belfast.


A recent poll suggests that the party’s support has collapsed (although an internet poll can be somewhat unreliable). But even without a poll, the indications are that the DUP faces a crisis of electoral confidence, triggered most recently by the NI Protocol’s Irish Sea border.


The extent to which that border’s impact can be diluted will significantly influence the DUP’s electoral future.


While the Dublin government will not have the final say in UK-EU protocol negotiations, it will certainly have some influence on the EU’s attitude. This is why Jeffrey Donaldson recently visited Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Jeffrey needs Dublin’s help.


He cannot deal directly with the EU and he cannot trust Boris Johnson. So he is seeking the taoiseach’s support to scale down the protocol. If he does not achieve that to a significant and visible extent, he will remain a general in charge of a phantom army. His party will then return to its origins, as the saber-rattling conscience of unionism.


The Dublin government, for so long the object of the late Ian Paisley’s sectarian abuse, is now the DUP’s main hope. (Time teaches some wonderful lessons.) So what is Dublin likely to do, will it be enough to save the DUP, and, if not, what is unionism’s future?


The good news for Jeffrey is that he is not dealing with Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. To head off the southern electoral threat from Sinn Féin, they launched a needless sectarian campaign against post-Brexit unionism. (This week Varadkar arrived in Belfast to talk to unionists and others, four years too late.)


Micheál Martin is a more astute politician. He realizes that attacking northern unionism merely increases southern support for Sinn Féin (which Varadkar and Coveney discovered after the last election.). So, in keeping with his traditional republican values, Martin offers unionism a more receptive ear.


The taoiseach’s stance is unlikely to face much opposition from his Fine Gael coalition partners. Coveney’s political petulance has landed him in trouble over his appointment of a former cabinet minister to a specially created post. He did not tell the taoiseach but kept Varadkar informed.


Martin is also aware that crumbling DUP support may collapse Stormont. He wants to avoid political instability in the north, hence his efforts to ease the pressure on unionism. However, even a scaled-down protocol may not be enough to alleviate unionism’s sense of victimization.


While unionists are loyal to the northern state, they are increasingly distanced from its day-to-day operation. (Nationalists dislike the state, but are now pretty adept at running it.) Unionists show little appetite for Stormont, the Good Friday Agreement, or even the PSNI.


So as they march to celebrate the north’s centenary, their loyalty is to what they think the state should be rather than what it is.


In party political terms, unionism risks becoming a loose amalgamation of competing schisms, united only by their uncertainty over what to do next. It needs leaders. However, the academic selection-fuelled flight of young Protestants to British universities leaves many potential leaders permanently on the wrong side of the Irish Sea.


Right now the DUP needs a rabble-rouser, but Donaldson’s measured tones would have difficulty in rousing anyone. He offers an image of reason and logic, but because the DUP has no history of either, his message is lost among its supporters. He sounds good in the Commons, but his cultured tones may be less well received by those with broader accents.


What he needs now are reassuring words in Micheál Martin’s soft Cork accent, offering support in scaling down the protocol. He may get enough to dilute its unnecessarily punitive nature, but not quite sufficient to translate that into election-winning votes. In the meantime, all Jeffrey can do is sit and wait – and marvel at the recurring irony of Irish politics.