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Unionist chaos

Hatred of the Irish language leads to the ousting of unionist leader

18 June 2021

Edwin Poots, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), leaves the
party headquarters in Belfast. (Getty Images)

A week is a long time in politics.  For Edwin Poots, three weeks as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party was a lifetime.

Even by the standards of the DUP the dramatic expulsion of Poots as leader just 21 days following his ousting of Arlene Foster from that position is extraordinary.  It marks a deep crisis for the party, for unionism as a whole and for the whole Irish settlement crafted by Britain over three decades.

The intensity of the Unionist crisis distracts from Sinn Fein's role, settling the issue of the Irish language around a deal that gives it nothing like official status and lobbying for the British Secretary to impose that arrangement despite claims that the area is no longer a British colony.

The current drama arose from the DUP's frantic support for Brexit against the economic interests of many of their supporters and their subsequent betrayal by British PM Boris Johnson. They became tied to a Northern Ireland Protocol that left the area inside the European Single Market and subject to checks on goods arriving from Britain. Poots was to the fore in leading rejection of the situation and linking with paramilitary groups who then staged sectarian riots and was able to unseat Arlene Foster as Party leader.

The DUP crisis quickly impacted on the overall political stability of the political institutions and Poots seems to have been unprepared for this.

The power sharing administration ties Sinn Fein and the DUP in lockstep. Once Arlene Foster relinquished the post of First Minister, both parties have to renominate. This put SF in the position of ratifying the new ultraright DUP leadership and their supporters looked for action on a culture Bill that included provision for an Irish language commissioner. Poots could not stay in power if he conceded, even though commitments on Irish had been in every iteration of the GFA and the commissioner was part of the New Decade New Approach deal signed last year.  The way out was to have the British say that they would pass legislation at Westminster and this is what was agreed between Poots, Sinn Fein and the British Secretary of State. (It should be noted that, although the same procedure led to an abortion rights Bill at Westminster, absolutely nothing has been done locally to implement the legislation).

The Poots stooge, Paul Given, was installed as First Minister in the Assembly alongside Michelle O'Neill of SF as Deputy First minister, while upstairs in a dining room 20 of 24 MLAs and MPs voted against the deal. Within hours Poots had been expelled as leader.

The story now from politicians and the press is that this was because of procedure and not policy. There had been a promise of consultation in the party and this had not taken place. In reality it was the policy. Unionists of many different hues were horrified that even this minor concession had been made. Nothing shows the deep-seated bigotry within unionism more than this constant revulsion against things Irish and denial of their own Irishness.

It will take some time for the shattered party to pull itself together. They must appoint a new leader, end the internal civil war and come up with a replacement for Poot's chaotic guerrilla campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol, more urgent than ever now that Johnson is toning down the confrontation with Europe. Will they operate cross border bodies or allow the whole political structure to collapse? What will they do with Paul Given? This minor stooge is now First Minister but represents no-one. However, if the DUP dump him, they are in the same tango with Sinn Fein that led to the current crisis.

In the short term the danger of organised sectarian violence is reduced. Even the most vicious paramilitary will be aware that there is no-one behind them if they take to the streets.  The longer-term evolution of unionism cannot yet be determined.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein are flushed with success.  The unionist explosion hides what is really a comprehensive sell-out on language rights. They are now the most popular party in the 26-county state and set for inclusion in the next coalition government, which they say will enable them to push for a United Ireland.

It is then that their problems will start. Their history in the Northern administration is one of corruption and enthusiastic endorsement of a neoliberal and privatisation agenda. They are not in any way equipped to deliver a "left" government that the reformist socialist groups fantasise about, or to deal with the massive problems arising from imperialist domination of the economy.

In the North we should learn the lesson from Brandon Lewis, British Secretary of state, when he stood on his doorstep on the early morning of 17th of June and announced that Westminster would overrule Stormont and legislate a culture Bill. Unionism may be in chaos, but it is not they who enforce partition. It is, it has always been, the British state.

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