Peace process has led to gradual dismantling of the unionist veto

Posted By: October 23, 2019

Last Thursday was the moment when Boris Johnson decided to cut a deal with the EU – and thus humiliate the DUP. 

Chris Donnelly. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, October 23, 2019

BORIS Johnson’s decision to ultimately cast aside his DUP partners and strike a deal with the European Union will not have come as a surprise to many students of history.

The experience and bitter words of no less than the founder of modern Ulster Unionism, Edward Carson, when dealing with the Conservative Party a century ago should have provided a stark warning for today’s torch holders of unionism: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”

The episode has served as another useful reminder that peace and progress in Northern Ireland have been contingent upon a critical change in the nature of our power relationships.

The story of our peace process has been one marked by the gradual dismantling of the Unionist veto.

That has been central to the continuing progress towards a rights-based society based on the principle of equality for all.

Over the past 30-plus years, Northern Irish society has changed irrevocably. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, establishment of a Parades Commission, Good Friday Agreement and effective disbandment of the UDR and RUC all have played a part in blunting the effect of the Unionist veto and political unionism’s capacity to block change, if not to frustrate its pace of delivery.

The inability of Unionism to come to terms with these changes remains the single greatest obstacle to the development of sustainable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

The emergence of a third electoral bloc within The North, drawing support primarily from majority pro-Union communities, confirms the extent to which Unionist politicians’ unwillingness to embrace change has been a costly strategic mistake, resulting recently in the election of two non-Unionist MEPs.

The battles having to be fought by members of the LGBT community and Irish language speakers continue to indicate both the extent of resistance within Unionism to equality but also its willingness to use and abuse the existing power levers created by the Good Friday Agreement to frustrate the realization of a diverse and equal society.

For a half-century after partition, the Northern Irish state and society was constructed and governed exclusively in the image and  interests of Unionism.

The Tory-DUP Westminster arrangement since the 2017 election has given the DUP a taste of how things once were in Northern Ireland, though their inability to extract significant political concessions betrayed the extent to which things had changed.

Senior Conservative politicians were only too willing to indulge their DUP bedfellows, paying visits to their constituencies, attending dinners and making promises at the DUP conference, but when push came to shove, both Theresa May and Boris Johnson calculated that they needed to cede ground from their stated position on The North in spite of the vehemence of the DUP’s opposition.

The trademark arrogance defining the DUP has meant that its humiliation at the hands of Boris Johnson has been a schadenfreude experience for many others.

Johnson will have done the people of The North a service by ditching the DUP and producing a deal which, whilst far from perfect, is at least better than one resulting in a land [hard] Border.

A second referendum victory for Remain continues to be the optimal solution but that is a more distant – though still possible – outcome at this moment.

The DUP are not victims. They are not the unwitting puppets of Carson’s lament.

Like Theresa May before him, Boris Johnson knew the time had come to cut a deal. Progress compelled him.

Both were entitled to reasonably believe the DUP would shift ground to reflect the harsh realities of the British government’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the European Union.

True to form, the DUP held their ancient ground. Outsiders, unfamiliar with track record and form, consistently underestimate political Unionism’s propensity to behave unreasonably.

Britain and the EU will eventually move on, glad to leave Arlene and Nigel sulking in the shadow of that dreary steeple.