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Raging against the dying of the light: what the DUP’s predicament tells us about the state of unionism in Northern Ireland

Thomas Evans discusses the state of the DUP in the run-up to the 5th May elections and what it means for political unionism in Northern Ireland.

All is not well for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the current overall largest political party in Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly, both in terms of vote share and seats. Since 2004, the DUP – which regards itself as Northern Ireland’s and Unionism’s leading political protector against internal and external challengers has occupied a pre-eminent position electorally within the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community. Despite its opposition to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which its PUL rival the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) helped pass, the DUP has benefited strongly from the electoral provisions that the GFA accorded. It has been a party of government in Northern Ireland’s consociational administration, Stormont, since 2007, where the electoral system can reward in-group appeals and hard-line positions. By capitalising on these embedded rewards, the DUP has thus far successfully squeezed out the UUP and the smaller Unionist and Loyalist political parties with no clear challenger to its intra-Unionist dominance.

But on 5th May 2022, when Northern Ireland goes to the polls to elect representatives to its legislature, the DUP is expected to have its long shadow over Northern Irish politics substantially shortened. Polls have consistently shown the party’s leader – Sir Jeffery Donaldson – as the most unpopular of the Northern Irish political leaders, and the party has been embattled by resurgent intra-community political rivals. The more existential worry for the party, and for elements of PUL community more broadly, is the distinct possibility that Sinn Fein, the largest political party within Catholic/Nationalist/Republican (CNR) communities, will become Northern Ireland’s largest overall political party. This would mark the first time that a CNR political party, and a party whose expressed goal is Irish Unification and the removal of Northern Ireland as a political entity, would be in the electoral driving seat. Not only is the future of the DUP’s predominance at stake, but so is, in the eyes of the party and for sections of Unionism, the future of Northern Ireland’s six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, (London)Derry, and Tyrone.

Squeezed Out: How the DUP Ended up Here

The DUP’s recent predicament, one largely of its own making, has not emerged overnight. Rather, it appears to be the culmination of perceived failures at the community level to improve the mainly working-class areas that it represents, despite its longevity in government. These feelings of being left behind have erupted sporadically, notably during the ‘flag protests’ of 2012 in response to a perceived negation of PUL identity through the removal of the Union Flag above Belfast Hall. Though instances like these are often characterised as knee-jerk reactions to greater inclusion of the historically marginalised  CNR community, they also belie real feelings within many working-class communities that they have been abandoned by both their political leadership and the Peace Process more generally. Indeed, the DUP’s tenure in government has seen continued socioeconomic deprivation and stagnation within working-class PUL communities. Protestant boys have the lowest education achievement rates in Northern Ireland, and working-class PUL communities have significantly fewer community and youth centres available than their CNR counterparts. Furthermore, whilst certainly not exclusive to PUL communities, prevailing issues around generational unemployment, low-wage work, narcotics abuse, and rising suicide rates raise questions around existing political leadership.

Yet these trends have been present for decades. What then explains the DUP’s sudden embattlement now? The answer can be found in the Northern Irish Protocol, or more accurately, what the Northern Irish Protocol represents for the future of Northern Ireland. The DUP gambled by whole-heartedly supporting Brexit, but the outcomes have backfired somewhat spectacularly. Hypothetically, Brexit not only complemented the party’s wider worldview of British nationalism and Euroscepticism, but also appeared to be an opportunity to safeguard the Union with Britain by entrenching the existing Irish border. Britain has left the European Union (EU), but by attempting to protect trade and free movement across the United Kingdom’s only land-border with the EU, the customs border has been in effect moved from within Ireland to the Irish Sea. For many Unionists, and particularly Northern Irish Loyalists, composed of primarily Protestant working-class communities, this marks the beginning of the slipperiest of slopes: the firing of a starting pistol to a United Ireland.

This is by no means a distant threat. If  demographers are correct in their expectations, the 2021 Census results will reveal Catholics have overtaken Protestants as the largest group in Northern Ireland for the first time. Increased population size for the Catholic community is not to say that Nationalist and Republican parties will dominate, or that Catholicism in Northern Ireland maps uniformly to political parties and constitutional views, or that Northern Ireland will disappear overnight (or even at all), but it does represent a seismic shift for a region founded as “a Protestant government for a Protestant people”. What is more, Sinn Fein continues to succeed electorally in both the Republic of Ireland, where it is currently the second largest party, and Northern Ireland, where it is predicted to become the largest party. Conversations around a united Ireland are being held with renewed vigour including in Irish political circles beyond the political mainstream, increasing feelings of tension and apprehension amongst some within the PUL community about where Northern Ireland’s political future lies.

The intersection of these two dynamics has resulted in increased pressure on the DUP by other forces within the PUL community, with the potential to significantly disrupt Northern Irish politics. At one end of the spectrum, the DUP faces a political challenge from the resurgent Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which risks outflanking it as a credible alternative leader for the PUL community. For the UUP, the sole party of government from the country’s inception in 1921 until the suspension of Stormont and the establishment of direct rule from Westminster in 1998, this election offers the promise of recapturing lost ground. In recent years, the party – under the leadership of Doug Beatie – has attempted to reverse its decline in Westminster and Stormont by positioning itself as a softer, more liberal alternative within the PUL community. A party, in its own view, committed to pragmatic governance, not divisive cultural ‘orange and green’ wars (increased appeals to the ethno-nationalist blocs at the expense of other policies and issues). It remains to be seen if the UUP can dent the DUP substantially. At time of writing (17/04/22) the DUP remains the expected largest PUL party overall. A slew of misogynistic and racist historical tweets have damaged Beatie’s liberal image, and as the election looms closer, the ‘orange card’ which the DUP has historically benefited from has been increasingly played by a DUP with its back against the ropes.

Meanwhile, the DUP has also been drawn into a hard-fought battle with the smaller Loyalist parties, vying to be the voice of loyalism and the dominant PUL party in working-class areas. This challenge has most noticeably come from the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party. The TUV, a splinter from the DUP, broke from the party in 2007 following the DUP’s power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein (historically the political wing of the Provisional IRA), something the TUV regards as a red line. The TUV is to the DUP what the latter once was to the UUP: an intra-unionist rival able to outbid the party on its right. The TUV has campaigned hard on the intertwined issues of the Irish Sea Border and the Northern Irish Protocol, forcing the DUP into the challenging situation of both positioning itself as an opposition party and simultaneously being a party of government. The TUV, which currently only has one assembly member – its leader Jim Allister – is certainly feeling confident. It has experienced comparatively high polling figures and is for the first time standing candidates in all 18 electoral districts. The TUV may not take any seats in May, but its presence as a party pushes  the DUP further to the political extremes. This may drive more moderate voters away or into the arms of other parties, while forcing the DUP to fight rear-guard actions in its working-class heartlands, characterised by growing intransigence to cross-community politics and hard-line, immovable positions on Loyalist issues.  

More concerning has been the DUP’s vulnerability to a progressively assertive and political Loyalist paramilitarism. Despite officially being on ceasefire, Loyalist paramilitary groups have retained a significant presence in sections of working-class PUL communities, particularly those with elevated levels of socioeconomic deprivation and a paramilitary legacy dating from the 1969-1998 conflict (known to many as ‘The Troubles’). While these groups post-ceasefire have often been regarded more as criminal enterprises than paramilitaries in the conventional Northern Irish sense, they have been increasingly politically vocal following the establishment of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) in 2015. This represents the three main Loyalist paramilitary organisations: the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and Red Hand Commando (RHC). In March 2021, the LCC announced its members were withdrawing their support for the Good Friday Agreement. The same month marked the beginning of Northern Ireland’s worst rioting within PUL areas in several years, with one reason for the youth mobilisation (among others, such as socioeconomic and cultural difficulties sparked by the closure of schools and youth services during COVID lockdowns) being the Northern Irish Protocol. Calls by DUP representatives to stop the violence went ignored, raising questions about the ability of the party to diffuse tensions within communities. 

Shortly before their withdrawal from the GFA, LCC representatives met members of the DUP in a closed meeting, a growing indication of paramilitary pressure on the party. As the demands of the LCC and its members for a political removal of the Northern Irish Protocol look increasingly less likely, Loyalist paramilitaries have significantly increased acts of violence. In 2021 there was a spate of bus hijackings and burnings by the so-called Protestant Action Force, thought to be a cover-name by at least some elements of the UVF. This violence  escalated in late March, with the Irish Foreign Minister  Simon Coveney being targeted at an event in North Belfast. A van hijacked off the PUL enclave of the Shankhill Road was driven to an event at which Coveney was speaking, with hoax claims of a bomb being on board. The PSNI are investigating UVF links to the incident, and there are concerns that further Irish politicians could be targeted or that attacks could be escalated . It seems unlikely, given the DUP’s current weak position and limited options for removing the Protocol and fomenting a practical alternative, that politically violent Loyalist paramilitary activity will be curtailed. The DUP is hemmed in on both sides by forces which appear to be chipping away at the grip the party has over its base.

The Future of Political Unionism and Northern Irish Politics

May’s election will likely result in a wounded, but not dead, DUP – one that is still the largest PUL political party, but which has lost overall to Sinn Fein. At a Loyalist anti-Protocol rally in Markethill, Belfast in February, DUP MP Sammy Wilson was booed and heckled by the assembled audience over the party’s failure to rescind the Protocol. Faced with this backlash the DUP looks set to continue doing what has resulted in previous electoral dividends: increasing its attractiveness to a subset of the PUL community through increased tribune appeals. This will likely manifest itself in an ever more siloed Northern Irish political system, with cross-community politics suffering as a response. Indeed, this looks to have already begun. In February, the DUP’s Paul Givan, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, announced his resignation from his position. In doing so, he effectively collapsed Stormont, which requires both communities – nationalist and unionist – to share power at the executive level. Ostensibly, the DUP’s stated reason for Givan’s resignation was the failure to revoke the Northern Irish Protocol. More likely was the backwards slide of the DUP within intra-PUL polling and perceived vulnerability to other Loyalist groupings within working-class communities, particularly the TUV.

Sinn Fein are the bookies’ favourite to be the largest party in the assembly after the dust of 5th May has settled. The question, therefore, is what the DUP will do after it has lost its coveted First Minister position, and how (if at all) it will govern in symbolic subordination to Sinn Fein. There are strong pressures on the DUP’s leadership, from both inside and outside the party, to boycott Stormont in such a situation. This will not only anger a nationalist community which feels that it has played by the political system’s rules, but will also significantly hamper the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland faces plenty of problems that go beyond one community or another and effective cross-community leadership is desperately needed. But times are changing in Northern Ireland. Regardless of what happens with Sinn Fein, ambitions for a United Ireland will likely increase over the coming years if current trends hold. There will be plenty more challenges for PUL politics in the near future, both at the community level and beyond. If PUL representatives fail to find a way of living with this new reality, they risk destruction.

Artwork by Ben Beechener

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