A century of decay
Night of the long knives for Irish Unionism
4 May 2021
The ousting of Arlene Foster and the first ever leadership contest in the Democratic Unionist Party marks a serious split in the party and a further fragmentation of unionism just as the partitioned Irish state reaches its centenary.
Whoever wins the leadership contest, the battle in the party will continue. The settlement will become more unstable and yet again the British will emerge from the back of the stage as the real guarantors of partition.
The proximate cause of the battle is DUP support for Brexit and their betrayal by the Tories, leaving the North inside the European customs union and with the Northern Ireland protocol requiring checks on goods from Britain.
The whole party were enthusiastic supporters of a hard Brexit, but Foster was the leader, arrogantly ignored criticism and so had to carry the can.
Agriculture Secretary Edwin Poots led the revolt on the grounds that the DUP could have organised a guerrilla war against the British with obstruction of the ports, boycott of cross border structures, a closer alliance with loyalist paramilitaries and sponsoring street demonstrations and riots.
His opponent, Jeffrey Donaldson, believes that the party will lose any confrontation with Westminster and should aim at joining with the British government to smooth out the rough edges of the deal. In the end, it does not translate into a political severing of ties with Britain.
Both are appealing to different audiences. Poots is appealing to the evangelical base and to hard-line bigots, Donaldson to the urban middle class and business class. Interestingly both are fighting for the party leadership and intend to elect a stooge as First Minister in the assembly, further evidence that the DUP has lost interest in running the Good Friday arrangements.
The fight is being held on a relatively narrow ground. Poots will not break with the British overlords. Donaldson will have to conciliate revolts on abortion, gay rights and limited recognition of the Irish language.
However, it is a deep and existential fight that will not end with the election of a leader. The civil rights movement and the subsequent dirty war saw a steady fragmentation of a unitary unionist movement. That fragmentation was reversed when Ulster Unionist Party politicians such as Foster and Donaldson crossed over to the DUP, opposing the GFA and then ensuring political dominance within its institutions. As the political settlement decays, those earlier divisions are now re-emerging.
A split in the party and the parallel loss of votes to Traditional Unionist Voice on the right and to Alliance on the more liberal wing would mean the loss of a DUP plurality of votes and to the emergence of Sinn Fein as the leading party.
What would actually happen is the collapse of the local administration. The Unionist majority opposes the power sharing arrangements and only accepts them if they hold the position of top dog.
The dynamics of partition are not well understood, mainly because of a fog of confusion generated by Sinn Fein and allies in the unions and on the left.
The fairy story is that Unionist division will generate a border poll/Irish referendum that will lead in short order to a United Ireland. Sinn Fein and its leftist supporters find this story useful because British attempts to placate unionism and the move to the right by the British state have negated many of the promised gains of the GFA deal and they want to distract from this. In addition, there is a steady corruption of their own organisation which has led them to fold up their structures in Derry.
There will not be a poll because the British decide on this and have ruled it out. In addition, the Dublin establishment oppose a vote, have made it clear that unionism still has an absolute veto and have gone further, saying that in a United Ireland the trappings of royalty and colonialism would be retained, possibly by re-joining the Commonwealth.
As we move past 100 years of partition, we can foresee further decay, division and conflict in the North. The good news is unionist workers are more alienated from an establishment focused on sharing out the spoils of sectarianism and failing to meet the needs of workers, as evidenced by the almost total lack of celebration of the centenary of partition, met with a dull apathy. They have little interest in lining up behind unionist fat cats who are clearly focused on acquisition of the spoils of sectarianism. On the nationalist side there is little belief in the promises of Sinn Fein. In contradiction to united Ireland bombast most nationalist areas saw little observance of the traditional flying of the Irish tricolour this Easter.
The solution to unionist sectarianism, the road to Irish unity, will not come from a trip to the polling station. A popular majority didn't work in 1918, why should it work today? The road to an Irish democracy is built around uniting the dispossessed against imperialist domination and against the great and the good on both sides of the border- those who feed off their misery and are more and more openly laughing in their faces.