Perfidious Albion is more normally a fixture of Irish nationalist discourse. Yet history shows that it is direct rule, usually by Conservatives, which has traumatised the unionist psycheby Andrew McQuillan / November 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
It may seem counter-intuitive that the prospect of direct rule and further integration with the United Kingdom should engender wariness on the part of that most loyal tribe, Northern Irish unionists.
The seemingly inevitable slide towards direct rule following the failure to relaunch the Stormont institutions has been met with sanguinity by the Democratic Unionist hierarchy at Westminster. That the impending demise of devolution has been acknowledged with a shrug by most of the Northern Irish populace points to its failure to positively mark the collective consciousness.
Perfidious Albion is more normally a fixture of Irish nationalist discourse. Yet history shows that it is direct rule, usually by Conservatives, which has traumatised the unionist psyche; the abolition of majoritarian Stormont in 1972 led to Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and other events which caused reactionary unionism to fall into hysteric denunciations of Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State as “traitors” selling them out to Dublin.
Circumstances have of course changed, with the principle of consent placing the future of Northern Ireland in the hands of its citizens. Yet the point still stands that settler nationalism desires a bulwark; David Trimble once said unionism’s basic desire was simply “to be left alone.” The move to direct rule profoundly inhibits that reflex: the ease with which Stella Creasy compelled the Government to make it easier for Northern Ireland women to have abortions in England acts as a reminder that rule from Westminster can consign local politicians to irrelevance.
Acquiescing to direct rule is a repudiation of, bar an integrationist turn following the Anglo-Irish agreement, the DUP’s consistent commitment to some form of devolution since its foundation. Following the defeat of the No side in the 1998 referendum on the Belfast Agreement, the party opted for a strategy of constitutional robustness and commitment to a “competent” delivery of devolution to usurp the Ulster Unionist Party. This would be rendered unworkable in the absence of a functioning Executive with which to showcase DUP achievements.
The focus on Westminster would also render the party’s MLAs largely obsolete, effectively putting its leader Arlene Foster out of a job. As Labour discovered in Scotland and Wales and the SNP found following their 2015 landslide, a schism can develop between those at home and those at Westminster. Foster’s cautious words that a deal could still be reached jar with the enthusiasm some of her MPs expressed when calling for ministers to be appointed.
Foster’s inability to deal with Sinn Féin on matters of contention such as the Irish language points to her being held hostage by the membership—though the same could be said for her republican counterpart Michelle O’Neill. Unionist leaders who have broached compromise with nationalism—Terence O’Neill and David Trimble for example—are reminders of the political fate which awaits those deemed to have given up too much ground. In this sense, the tyranny of the past continues to exert a hold on the present.
The confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives adds further complications. Concerns that the unionist tail would wag the Conservative dog were overplayed in the post-election tumult though the benefits of increased exposure in national life and the funds promised to Northern Ireland have bolstered the party. It is unlikely to step back given a general aversion for Jeremy Corbyn while this deepening relationship has been illustrated by a popular DUP event at the Tory conference and Michael Gove attending a unionist fundraiser in Ballymena. They are also lucky that the beleaguered Prime Minister is, superficially at least, a committed unionist, though she has only visited Northern Ireland once during her premiership.
Yet, as Government credibility diminishes daily and the tone of Brexit negotiations worsen, the chance of contagion increases. Should a hard border on Ireland and other potential maladies emerge due to a botched EU withdrawal enthusiastically championed, though not vigorously justified, by the DUP the damage could be profound. Equally, should domestic policy harmful to Northern Ireland, such as welfare reform, result in DUP MPs complaining their opponents could easily level the charge that they should return to Stormont to mitigate it. The possibility of a Northern Ireland Office run by a Corbyn administration is something that should also focus minds.
The DUP’s thorough gutting of the Ulster Unionists limits any immediate electoral threat while northern nationalism appears strategically bereft. However, if eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the DUP should engage with other unionists, nationalists and the British and Irish governments on ways to create a devolved government which improves on the creaking 1998 edifice which has institutionalised dysfunction.
The party however has not produced any of the great thinkers of unionism. It is more managerial and in tune with a grassroots which is currently not in the mood for necessary compromise. With the confluence of direct rule, Brexit, demographic change and polling suggesting some younger Protestants are put-off by the DUP’s conservatism, the time is fast approaching for unionism to adapt and justify itself in changing times.