21 May 2021

Divided Unionists: cracks in Ulster’s pro-British parties pose a real danger

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In the negotiations over leaving the EU, It was predictable that ‘the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ – not to mention the other four counties of Northern Ireland – would become more prominent than their population would seem to justify. Two assumptions are now being made: that the Irish protocol could threaten Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and that the Province is in a political crisis. Only one of those is true.

Anyone who actually reads the Northern Ireland Protocol ought to be struck by two aspects. By the standards of EU documents, the drafting is surprisingly lucid. Moreover, the tone is surprisingly Unionist. This is not just a matter of language. There are safeguards – not least that if the protocol seems to be causing serious economic, social or environmental damage, the British Government can suspend it.

A few months ago, the airwaves were full of threats from Brussels, with the EU threatening to go to court to enforce the protocol. Since then, there has been no more of that. It may be that the EU team have now read the document. We can be certain that David Frost, the chief British negotiator, will have drawn it to their attention. Lord Frost is reluctant to open the bidding with threats, given the many issues at stake, especially the future of the City of London. Good will would be helpful, but Ulster’s Unionists should relax – they are not about to be handed over to the Irish Republic in a coffin draped with the Twelve Star flag.

Unfortunately the Unionists are not good at relaxing, hence the political crisis we now face. They have never recovered from the traumatic shock that they suffered 50 years ago, when they realised that they could no longer trust the English.

As so often in Ulster, the problem stems from history. At least until woke came along, it could be argued that the English (I am Scottish) had a healthy attitude towards their history. That is to say, they take little notice of it. They know that King Alfred burnt the cakes, that Henry VIII was not a feminist and that we won the War. But in England, past history plays a smaller part in present politics than in any major country. This makes it hard for the English to understand the other nations of the UK, who all produce more history than they can consume. The English indulge in harmless myths: the Scots, in harmful ones. They know that William Wallace was a poll tax protestor, horribly done to death by Margaret Thatcher. They also believe that in the 1680s, they would have been Covenanters: in the 1740s, Jacobites. All nonsense, but it could yet break up the Union.

In the early decades of the last century, many Englishmen did have more interest in history than their descendants do. They still regarded themselves as Protestants, which gave them an affinity with their co-religionists in Ulster. Fast-forward five decades and loyal Ulster had retained both its faith and its symbols, while almost all the English had lost theirs. Religion was for weddings and christenings, and little more. When Orangemen marched and Ian Paisley bellowed, the English reaction often ranged from incomprehension to horror. The Unionist spokesmen were almost all a PR disaster. The Nationalists, with their age-old gift for sentimentalising homicide, did much better.

For 50 years, Northern Irish Unionists have failed to find a leader who could woo the English. The trouble is, they assumed that with truth on their side, they could economise on charm. If only. There was also the Paisley problem. He not only appalled the English, but he also undermined moderate Unionism. Therein lay a dilemma. The moderates found it hard to win respect in the Province as they could not deliver. Because they lacked authority in Ulster, London was reluctant to take them seriously.

Eventually, Whitehall decided that the moderates would never succeed in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. That would depend on a deal between Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Fein. Hence the Good Friday Agreement, which has sort of worked. It did so, however, at a cost: the alienation of a large section of the Ulster middle classes, who hated the thought of a political choice between bombers and bigots. A lot of them now vote for the Alliance party.

In fact, the idea the DUP or its supporters were bigots was always an overstatement. Mr Paisley himself always said that many of his voters never set foot in church. They voted for him to make a strong statement against the IRA. Nonetheless, the broader Unionist electorate is unlikely to be reassured by Edwin Poots, the new Leader of the DUP.  Although he is a decent fellow, his views could be charitably described as old-fashioned. In the 17th century, Archbishop Ussher concluded that the world had been created on October 23,  4004 BC. Mr Poots is more sophisticated than that. He does not go in for days and months, though he does agree about 6,000 years.

It seems unlikely that he is the man to unite the Unionist vote, and that failure could be dangerous. NI Assembly elections are due in a year’s time and if Unionism is split, we could well end up with a Sinn Fein First Minister. The effect of that on the Protestant working-class is all too predictable. The bitter truth may be that Ulster Unionism is too fragmented by mutual suspicion to heal itself. That means that, among many other preoccupations, London has to find a way of reassuring the Ulster loyalists. They may have their faults, but they revere the Queen and want to remain part of the nation to which they feel allegiance. That is something that a government which values the Union ought to take very seriously indeed.

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Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.