Tory recklessness, unionist bigotry edge Good Friday Agreement towards collapse
15 September 2021
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson at the La Mon Hotel in Belfast giving a keynote
address on theNorthern Ireland Protocol (Image: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye)
Those seeking to understand why DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, the safe pair of hands who was going to tone down unionist revolt to work behind the scenes, is now pulling out of cross border bodies and threatening to collapse the Stormont Assembly should start by looking at the recent Lucid Talk poll on voting intentions.
The results, bitterly challenged by the DUP and their supporters in the media, showed a collapse in the vote share of the major government party. The DUP, on 13%. The TUV was 14% and UUP 16%. Sinn Fein is on 25%, the SDLP on 13% and Alliance on 13%. Traditional Unionist Voice are the far right of political unionism, the Ulster Unionist Party are the former leading party, now also-rans.
Donaldson is seeking the foundations on which he can overcome the current fragmentation and re-establish the DUP majority, a task made more difficult by the widespread knowledge that it was their frantic support for a hard Brexit in the face of majority opposition that has led to the present difficulties.
Theoretically a new hegemony could be built away from opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the Ulster Unionists are trying to do this by suggesting that instead of removing the sea border they should demand a balance by reviving the land border in Ireland.
Donaldson thinks not. Unionism is something like Trumpism. The motto of unionism is drawn from the cult sci-fi movie the Chronicles of Riddick: "You keep what you kill". The TUV, paramilitaries and the new layer of sectarian street fighters are absolutely necessary to mobilise a level of fear that can maximise the vote. Donaldson's strategy is not long term; he hopes to provoke a crisis, force an election and win a majority that will stabilise his leadership for the time being.
There is clear support from Johnson and the Tories for increased unionist radicalism. Tory "negotiator" David Frost has just issued another provocation, unilaterally extending grace periods on the movement of goods and threatening to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol. The British can wave the DUP at the European Union and denounce the unreasonableness of their expectation that the British honour the treaty they signed.
The response to unionist threats has largely been indifference. There is a growing contempt for the DUP and an understanding that they damaged themselves and the economic interests of many supporters. The danger is not that Donaldson will mobilise unionism, but that he will mobilise the far right. The mechanism that will operate then is manoeuvres by nationalism to placate the hard liners and assure them that the union is safe - a stronger assertion of the anti-democratic shared Ireland position of the current Dublin government.
Far more uncertain is the direction of the British government. Brexit has been a disaster and the shortages that have arisen are likely to be long term. Johnson and his mates are desperate to push the big lie that Europe is to blame. As a result, Frost is talking nonsense. There is no "Article 16" that cuts out the Irish Protocol nor is there a rejection of the protocol that's not a tearing up of the existing treaty. The simplest solution would be a deal, but Johnson is a reckless chancer. Behind him is the Tory far right. In front a hapless Labour Party avoiding political opposition.
That recklessness, reflected in the latest Covid-19 plan that boils down to "let it rip", could lead to allowing the right free rein and total exit from the European treaty. In that case the Irish question would solve itself, with the status quo ante and a hard border across the island.
At the moment the plan is provocation and distraction. Europe will not tear up the deal, but they will move at a snail's pace in countering the British, with the Dublin government remaining the weakest link.
In Ireland the naive may reason that the failure of the Donaldson strategy would lead to the fragmentation of unionism, a Sinn Fein First Minister, a border poll and a United Ireland. In reality it would mean yet another collapse of the local executive. None of the elements of the last government programme - New Decade, New Approach - have been honoured. No section of unionism has indicated that they would support a Sinn Fein First Minister and the paramilitaries would respond with violence. The British drew up a scheme to prevent one party closing down the Executive, but this was aimed at Sinn Fein rather than the DUP, and has never been signed into law.
Yet another suspension of the local administration in this context would be a victory for unionism and would harden out the continued partition of Ireland.
At the core of the interlinked British and Irish crises is the lack of opposition to Brexit. Many despise the DUP but the alternative is the sectarian and corrupt status quo. The majority of workers oppose Brexit but do not support the capitalist club that is the EU. Socialists should advance the alternative - a Workers Republic, a United Socialist States of Europe.