More than half a century after Terence O’Neill, the Prime Minister of a dying Stormont, said that Northern Ireland was at a crossroads, another O’Neill is at the helm of Stormont – and the trade union movement is again at a crossroads.
Already the dominant party of modern unionism seems oblivious to the magnitude of the crisis it faces and deaf to warnings now coming even from within its own ranks.
It’s this DUP’s inability to honestly address its own role in propelling voters to Sinn Féin that unionists should be concerned about – rather than worrying about a border poll the DUP has selfishly touted but for which it is in Reality is neither imminent nor winnable is nationalism.
Also Thursday’s vote will not mean a radical change in Stormont. The decentralized institutions were deliberately designed to prevent majority rule and so, although Michelle O’Neill can now drop a word from her old title as Deputy First Secretary, she cannot gain any new power. When devolution returns, Sinn Féin will be constrained by the DUP just as Sinn Féin’s DUP was.
That’s not to belittle the magnitude of Sinn Féin’s amazing achievement. It is noteworthy that a party which for decades had been marginalized as an apologist for IRA atrocities became Stormont’s largest party. To do so so decisively – more than a quarter million first preference votes cast, 66,386 votes ahead of the DUP – is extraordinary. To increase Sinn Féin’s vote after 15 years at the helm of Stormont, and when the polls predicted a decline, is a devastating display of electoral power.
Was the DUP’s reaction introspection, humility, or regret? Of course not. The DUP has effectively blamed other union parties for its position and many union voters for having the audacity to choose those parties and the Alliance Party over it. These would be demonstrably ridiculous arguments for any party, but for the DUP – a party that only exists because it divided unionist votes by challenging the dominant UUP – it is utterly hypocritical.
As with Brexit, as with the RHI scandal, as with the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, as with almost every calamity for which the DUP could have been advised to at least feign remorse, the party has blamed others instead.
Not only is this stubborn, it hurts the DUP. As former DUP adviser Tim Cairns brutally put it on Friday night: “21.3pc [of the vote] is a disaster for the DUP. If the party was a proper political party, there would be a change in the senior backroom team Monday morning. That won’t happen.”
Politics is about survival of the fittest, and those who don’t face their mistakes repeat them. In fact, the DUP seems to be positioning itself to amplify these bugs. The party has refused to say whether it would accept a first minister from Sinn Féin – and has driven many people to O’Neill’s party to teach the DUP a lesson.
When asked what the message of the DUP’s fall in votes was, Chairman Jeffrey Donaldson replied: “A divided union mechanism doesn’t win elections”. Colleague Mervyn Storey took this idea to its logical conclusion and proposed the idea of a single union party.
The UUP and DUP are now desperate enough to consider such a nostalgic perspective, long advocated by some of their leading members. But the reestablishment of the old Unionist Party would almost certainly mean an even greater decline in the overall union vote. The incoherence of such a party would be overwhelming. Unionists disagree on almost everything outside the union—economic policy, social policy, education policy, the environment, and so on. Eventually it would split and the remnants would be weaker than ever.
In the short term, a closer encirclement of the Unionist wagons would certainly secure important seats for the unionist and, at least until nationalism responds in kind, would re-establish her first ministerial post. But politics is about persuasion, and there’s no reason to think that a single unionist party, which would look deeply tribal to many voters, will persuade voters who are leaving the union movement to come back.
It is a measure of the Union’s strength, which it has endured despite the unsuccessful efforts of the parties that exist to defend it. Many voters who support the Union choose the Alliance party because they intuitively feel that it is not in immediate danger. Many nationalists are also now voting for Alliance because they are more concerned with trying to make Northern Ireland work than with pushing for an urgent referendum on reunification.
There is a tension here between those who are pro-union and those who are unionists. The latter are concerned not only with the fact of union, but also with the cultural trappings of unionism—flags, emblems, and Britishness. You perceive correctly that these are changing as the Union movement is now one of three minority blocs. Staying in the Union isn’t enough for them when the price is a radical reshaping of what Northern Ireland looks and feels like.
That’s why the Northern Ireland Protocol helped Jim Allister’s uncompromising MOT nearly triple its support to 65,000 votes. The protocol involves an unstoppable divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, something that is yet to be seen as most of the protocol has not been implemented.
When Johnson betrayed the DUP to agree a border in the Irish Sea, the only scrap he threw at them was a “consent mechanism” whereby Stormont could reject the deal in 2024 if unions secured a majority. In that election, the union movement fell short of the seats it needed.
Indeed, it was an argument the DUP made little during the campaign, ignoring that substantive issue in favor of tribal symbolism over who would become First Minister and the risky decision to hype the link between a Sinn Féin win and a Border poll .
Northern Ireland is not going away anytime soon. But it is fundamentally changing, and it is the parties that exist to defend the status quo that continue to spectacularly misunderstand this reality.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/unionism-at-the-crossroads-as-dup-drives-voters-away-41626450.html Unionism at a crossroads as the DUP drives out voters