The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Poots
DUP split shows sharp decay in unionism
29 May 2021
Edwin Poots and his new party deputy, Paula Bradley
The new regime in the Democratic Unionist Party under Edwin Poots fits the Marxist term "Bonapartism." Marx used it to define the attempt by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew to seize power, indicating a coup that looked backwards, tried to restore a vanished past, but that was inherently unstable.
Today the DUP aim is to bring back the Unionist all class alliance that secured the partitioned sectarian state in the North of Ireland, end power sharing and restore Northern Ireland as the home of Protestant privilege.
There is no possibility of success. What is possible is the British state yet again using the unionists as a pawn while they consider if it is best to make final tweaks to the Brexit deal or better to collapse the agreement and return a hard land border to the island of Ireland. The walkout by Foster and other prominent opponents following the refusal of a secret ballot means that there will be no reconciliation. The opposition will not be offered a place in the new administration. For once, this is not a matter of sharing patronage. It also involves turning away from attempts to mollify the slightly more liberal elements of unionist society.
The loyalists and the evangelicals have been unleashed and the DUP is turning to its fundamentalist roots.
Poots, a creationist homophobe and opponent of women's rights, bitter opponent of any concessions to nationalism, whose response to covid was essentially to label it a Fenian flu, won the leadership. Gregory Campbell, whose party trick is equating Irish to an animal language, came close to winning the Deputy leadership. Jim Wells, a former health minister, is back in the party, having stood down after denying claims that he had equated same sex marriage to child abuse.
The focus of the new administration will be on winning back ground from the even further right Traditional Unionist Voice party and on unity with the Orange Order and the paramilitaries.
One trophy "liberal," Paula Bradley, has been elected deputy leader, but abortion, gay rights, and Irish language legislation are all out the window.
This all arises from DUP support for a hard Brexit, their betrayal by the Tories and the adoption of a Northern Ireland Protocol that leaves the North inside the EU customs union. Foster tried briefly to make the rational argument that this could be an economic opportunity, but the majority of her party were happier casting it as an existential threat to the union.
A former leader, Peter Robinson, advised the DUP that to stand any chance of victory they should collapse the Stormont administration, but MLAs are unwilling to give up money and patronage and fear that Britain may invoke regulations to freeze them out and continue with a Sinn Fein first minister.
Having frozen out Foster and her allies Poots has no choice but to form an alliance with the Orange Order and the paramilitaries and wage a guerrilla war against the Protocol and also to express burning resentment against the political settlement, the inclusion of nationalists in government and the perceived erosion of Protestant privilege.
Poots' specialty is not war. It is sabotage. As health minister he framed regulations designed to terrorise medical staff and prevent abortions. Limited legislation us now in place, but nothing has been done to enact the legislation. There are a whole series of committees and institutions built around relationships with the southern state. Poots has advanced a bizarre theory that the Dublin government, rather than Brexit, are responsible for the protocol and the DUP will not attend the committees.
A whole series of contradictory proposals have been made around the administration. Poots will be party leader, but a stooge will be First Minister (the first nominee politely declined the honour). Poots will stay on as agriculture minister under his own stooge.
What this all means is that the DUP have yet again withdrawn from Stormont. It has not collapsed, but it will no longer even pretend to function as a collective. Each minister will sit in their own office without reference to others.
The official sabotage will require the support of sabotage on the streets. This will involve impromptu band parades, increasing in frequency as the Orange Festival of the 12th July approaches. Almost certainly there will be violence.
However, the omens are not good. Poots and his supporters have already attempted to halt inspection procedures at ports with little effect. Loyalists have organised band parades and riots, again with little effect. Attempts to mobilise around nationalist areas caused a great deal of tension but no broader instability.
Following its disastrous Brexit policy, undertaken in opposition to the economic interests of many of its supporters, the DUP's authority, and its share of the vote, has declined markedly, with the right wing of unionism moving towards Traditional Unionist Voice and relatively moderate unionists towards the Alliance Party. The small Ulster Unionist Party appointed a new leader on the same evening as Poots' fractious coronation The traditional response is loyalist unity involving mobilisations and paramilitary action, but the last mobilisation around flags failed and loyalist paramilitaries are more cautious about falling in behind the DUP.
In any case the past success of mobilisations depended heavily on British support. Collaboration by state forces and impunity for paramilitaries made success a relatively straightforward task. On this occasion it is the British who sold them down the river.
The need for British support has driven the DUP towards running the Brexit movie again. They have swung behind Lord Frost, the Tory negotiator who believes that if he speaks loudly to Johnny Foreigner, he will change their mind and throws in a meeting with the loyalist paramilitaries, Orange 12th of July deadlines and reckless threats of communal violence in Ireland to make his case.
It's true that Brexit has resulted in a sharp move to the right and that internal reports show a reckless and shambolic regime led by the reckless populist Johnson. Economically Brexit has been a disaster, but politically the Tories have gone from strength to strength, given the utter failure of Labour to offer any opposition.
The temptation is there to go for broke, tear up the deal and build a Singapore on Thames where workers rights are non-existent. One outcome would be the end of the Northern Ireland protocol and the return of the Irish land border. However, that will involve a long and intense struggle with the British working class and the period of instability would weaken the British. Reopening the Irish question cannot be high on the to do list.
The immediate task for the British is to come out from behind the scenery and start working on yet another upgrade of the now defunct Good Friday Agreement. It is highly unlikely that the Alliance party will join a loyalist rebellion. Can a lesser form of unionist unity be cobbled together to keep Sinn Fein out of the First Minister’s seat? would a substantial section of unionism simply shrug their shoulders and accept a Stormont led by Sinn Fein?
What can't be avoided is a new period where unionist disunity means that saving partition will become a task for nationalism. The Dublin government will have to conciliate Poots despite rabid attacks and a refusal to work the institutions of the peace process. Sinn Fein will yet again have to bite their tongue as the last wisps of reform disappear from the Stormont agenda.
A new test faces them soon. Edwin Poots has yet to appoint a new team. Arlene Foster has indicated that she will resign immediately this happens. Poots will nominate a stooge as First Minister. Sinn Fein must nominate a deputy First Minister.
If they do so they will be endorsing the stooge and endorsing Poots' plan of a stalled executive and political sabotage.
Will they hesitate? That's unlikely, but a thumbs up will further weaken their own support at a time when stories of corruption are swirling around their own organisation.
100 years ago Sinn Fein were leading a struggle for Irish independence. Carson was leading many tens of thousands in the unionist counterrevolution. Now Poots is further weakening unionism as the nationalists try to save it.
150 years ago Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about the attempt of Bonaparte’s nephew to copy his uncle's achievements and his subsequent rapid failure, he coined the phrase:
"all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. …. the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce".
Poots should read some Marx.