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  Donaldson splits form the Ulster Unionist Party

Andrew Johnson

7th January 2004

The commonplace view of the Paisleyite triumph in the Assembly elections in the North of Ireland, a triumph completed by the transfer of Unionist dissident Jeffrey Donaldson and two supporting assembly members, is that we are seeing a resurgent Unionism moving to the right and uniting behind Paisley, leaving Trimble defeated.  This is not the case.  The elections indicate that the official unionists held their vote and the Paisleyites grew at the expense of smaller parties.  Much more important for any deep understanding of the battle in unionism is to look back at its history.  From this perspective the long fracturing of the all-class alliance that once ruled the North of Ireland securely for Britain is a sign of a long drawn-out collapse.  This decay would have long ago proved terminal but for the life support system supplied by Britain.  Nothing illustrates the decline more clearly than the total absence of strategy presented by the new Paisleyite majority.

In fact Donaldson's progress is a good metaphor for the hall of mirrors that is Northern Ireland politics. For years he was seen as the leader in waiting of the Ulster Unionist Party, not because of any leadership qualities - he's never displayed those yet - but because he was the only vaguely youthful face in the front rank of the geriatric UUP. Now Jeffrey is on the negotiating team of the DUP, a party that proudly proclaims it won't negotiate. And his defection, along with fellow nonentities Arlene Foster and Norah Beare, gives the DUP a stronger position in the virtual Assembly that may never sit.

Now Donaldson has been doing a great deal of gassing about how the dynamic, forward-looking DUP is going to provide the leadership unionism needs. We have been hearing much the same thing for years from Peter Robinson, who can't get through a sentence without using the word "modern". This thinking apparently informed the DUP's election strategy of keeping Big Ian quiet. But the rise of the DUP doesn't represent unionism in resurgence - it represents a further stage in the long process of unionist decay.

What is the DUP? On its formation in 1971 it was essentially a ragtag bunch of rural fundamentalists making up a personality cult around Paisley. In the late 1970s this was augmented by a more secular breed of urban sectarians in Belfast, who switched to Paisley when Bill Craig's Vanguard movement collapsed. This is the tendency represented by Robinson, Dodds and so on. It is not true, incidentally, that Robinson leads a "pragmatic" faction in the DUP - he just doesn't go in for public Bible-bashing.

Essentially, then, the DUP is the party of white trash standing for the defence of sectarian privilege. If the UUP is a status quo party, the DUP is a status quo ante party. This is why it not only won't but can't accommodate Catholics. And what does Donaldson bring to the mix? A background as Enoch Powell's bag-carrier and a big shot in the Orange Order. The Orange connection says it all.  Donaldson and the DUP represent a petty-bourgeois in revolt, waving their fists at the unionist bourgeoisie, unable to live with the possibility that Catholics would be in government no matter what humiliating conditions are forced on the republicans.

The rise of the DUP also points up the contradictions of the whole Good Friday process. Because the process was based on the surrender of republicans to imperialism, unionism didn't have to move at all. Unionism's function all along was to drag the process to the right, so it is only natural that the far right in unionism now has the upper hand. This in turn will drag the process even further to right, which should give pause for thought to those republicans smugly predicting that the DUP will do business with them. What is on the cards for republicanism is an even more complete and abject surrender.

It also kills off, for the time being at least, the Holy Grail of British policy - the forlorn hope that a modernised unionism would emerge to do a deal with a nationalist Ireland that has no demands other than stability and a hand in the honeypot. Terence O'Neill and Brian Faulkner fell victim to that folly, and Trimble may do so as well. In any case, it looks like we are in for a long period of direct rule and further political stalemate, if for no other reason than the fact that, contrary to her claims, Britain is staying in Ireland, is guaranteeing partition and will continue to search for a sectarian and  colonial stability.

It might be thought that the Paisleyite victory and the Donaldson switch would cause problems for Sinn Fein.  After all, it means a long period of direct rule which Sinn Fein would be asked to support.  They did say that we were in transition to a united Ireland.  To think so is to reckon without Sinn Fein Spinmeister Danny Morrison.  The new Sinn Fein term for direct rule by the colonial power?  “Joint administration (by London and Dublin) in all but name”.

That would be “in all but reality” also Danny.  The unionists look bad until we look at the opposition.



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