WHEN EDWIN POOTS became leader of Northern Ireland’s largest political party a month ago, he described politics as “a rough-and-tumble game”. Defending his role in ousting his predecessor, Arlene Foster, as party leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister—that is, joint leader of its devolved assembly—he said: “I would assume that at some stage it may well happen to me.” Prophetic words: after just 21 days in office Mr Poots was on his way out, too.
The origins of his political demise lie in 2017, when the then prime minister, Theresa May, held a snap election that lost her Conservatives their majority. That handed Mr Poots’s party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the balance of power in Westminster. After Mrs May failed to get her Brexit deal through, it supported Boris Johnson’s bid to replace her. It liked his vision of a post-Brexit United Kingdom set adrift from the European Union, rather than retained within a customs union, as Mrs May—and its nationalist rivals—wanted. That miscalculation is now tearing the party, and Unionism, apart.
In the contest to lead the DUP Mr Poots, a creationist from its hardline wing, saw off the party’s leader in Westminster, the more moderate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. But upon taking over he dismayed his supporters, who had expected obduracy in response to both Irish nationalism and the British government’s seeming lack of interest in solving the conundrums posed by Brexit in the province. The vaunted hard man turned squishy, compromising to keep Northern Ireland’s devolved government in Stormont functioning for fear of a drubbing for the DUP if the government collapsed, triggering fresh elections.
That led to a fatal gamble. Mr Poots needed the DUP’s nationalist arch-rival, Sinn Fein, with which it shares power in Stormont, to ratify his choice of first minister. Sinn Fein demanded a price: enhanced protections for the Irish language that are opposed by many DUP members. The issue threatened to bring down Northern Ireland’s assembly. In an attempt to prop it up, on June 17th Mr Johnson’s government said it would legislate for Irish-language protections if Stormont refused—a promise accepted by Sinn Fein, and by Mr Poots. But not by his party: hours later just 15% of DUP legislators voted for the deal.
His position untenable, Mr Poots stepped down that night. Peter Donaghy, a data-analyst based in Belfast, produced a chart giving context to Mr Poots’s tenure as party leader: midway between the average shelf life of yoghurt and the lifespan of a housefly.
Unionists had seen in Mr Poots someone who would put an end to compromise and concession, says David Campbell, the chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a (legal) umbrella group for illegal paramilitary organisations that together have more than 12,000 members. They blame Unionist leaders, whom they regard as “totally incompetent”, for the political mess. “It’s just one strategic blunder after another.”
The DUP’s next leader—almost certainly Sir Jeffrey—will struggle to reimpose party discipline. But a bigger challenge will be dealing with the trade border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. That was the price for the Brexit Mr Johnson chose, which takes Britain out of the EU’s single market and customs union, but in effect leaves Northern Ireland in both. The province is bound by EU rules over which it has no say, with added bureaucracy for British traders selling across the Irish sea, checks on goods at Ulster’s ports and some British goods banned from entering. Before Brexit, Mr Johnson had vowed never to accept such an arrangement—and after signing the deal, he denied that this was what it entailed.
The broken promises increased Unionists’ sense of betrayal when in January, after Brexit, many products disappeared from supermarket shelves. In April rioting broke out in loyalist areas. In a sign that the worsening political situation in the North has harmed cross-border relations, on June 18th the LCC issued a menacing statement saying that “Irish government ministers and officials are no longer welcome in Northern Ireland.”
The Reverend Mervyn Gibson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, a fraternity formed in 1795 to promote Protestantism and loyalty to the United Kingdom, laments the “rudderless” state of Unionism. He now believes that Mr Johnson’s plan to smooth over the difficulties caused by Mr Johnson’s deal—extending “grace periods” for certain items—is inadequate. That shows how Unionist attitudes have hardened. Mr Gibson had been among the moderates, saying nine months ago after meeting Mr Johnson’s government that he was “taking people at their word”. Now he says that “we should keep every option on the table—and that includes bringing down the [devolved] executive”.
All this is happening at the point in the year when it is most likely to inflame tensions. July 12th is Unionism’s biggest festival, with marching Orangemen celebrating the victory of William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant, over his rival for the English throne, the Catholic King James, in 1690. The Orange Order will “look at what action we’ll take after the 12th”, says Mr Gibson. Options include protests and breaking off relations with the Irish government.
The disarray within Unionism does not mean a united Ireland is imminent. But it does mean that devolution is under threat.
This year, the centenary of Ireland’s partition, should have been a gala one for Unionists, who have managed to stave off all calls for reunification. Brexit has increased support for reunification a bit, but opinion among Unionist voters has barely shifted. The most recent results of a long-running survey, Northern Ireland Life and Times, published on June 10th, found that just 30% of people said they would vote for Irish unity tomorrow. But it also found that Protestant support for the power-sharing that re-established the parliament in Stormont in 2007 had fallen from 72% that year to 58% now.
A snap election is a distinct possibility, and would probably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party. Doug Beattie, the leader of the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, has said that if Stormont cannot be restored after an election, devolution will be over for good.
But power-sharing is probably the only way that Northern Ireland can survive within the United Kingdom in the long term.
Even some of the staunchest Unionists are struggling to keep the faith. “We are the unwanted children of the Union,” says Wallace Thompson, one of the founders of the DUP in 1971. “Worse, we are the abused children…Unionism is in a dark place, and the old shibboleths and ‘No Surrender’ slogans simply don’t cut it any more.”
Unlike Mr Thompson, younger Unionists do not remember the Troubles—the 30 years of intercommunal conflict during which more than 3,500 people were killed. With no personal memories of strife, and no prospect of reunification to concentrate their minds, many are still wedded to intransigence.
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