In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) established that there would be no change in Northern Ireland’s political status without support from a majority of voters in the region. This was a success for unionism and a defeat for Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as republicans had always insisted that Northern Ireland was an artificial political entity and that the nationalist majority across the whole island should trump the desire of unionists to remain part of the UK (the “unionist veto”, in Sinn Féin’s lexicon).
At the time of the negotiations in 1997–98, few people imagined that there could be a vote within Northern Ireland itself to leave the UK – at least not while the leading political actors of the time were still on the scene. The clause in the GFA mandating the British secretary of state to call a border poll if that outcome ever seemed likely was effectively a consolation prize for republicans.
There was a quid pro quo unionist politicians had to accept in return for this constitutional guarantee. To avoid a return to the system of unqualified majority rule that existed before 1972, under which nationalists had been excluded from any share in political power, there would be a devolved government based on compulsory power-sharing. Northern Irish parties had to register as unionist, nationalist or “other”, and there were elaborate mechanisms built into the Northern Ireland assembly to ensure cross-community consent.
In other words, the political system set up by the GFA can only work on its own terms if there is a unionist party (or bloc of parties) that retains majority support from its community, but in a way that makes power-sharing with nationalists viable. After a shaky start to devolution after 1998, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) successfully performed that role between 2007 and 2017, at which point Sinn Féin brought down the Northern Ireland executive.
While the two parties resumed their coalition in January 2020, the DUP’s ability to retain the leadership of unionism seems increasingly doubtful. The next assembly election must be held by May 2022 at the latest, and opinion polls over the last year have given the DUP an average vote share of less than 18% – ten points down on its 2017 performance. The most recent poll at the end of August placed the DUP fourth, tying with two other parties on just 13%. In a bid to stave off electoral disaster, the DUP’s new leader Jeffrey Donaldson has threatened to bring down the executive if the Irish government and the EU do not meet his demands over the Northern Ireland protocol of Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement.
(Ell Folan/Novara Media)
To understand how the DUP got itself into this position, it’s helpful to go back to the GFA’s early years and compare the party’s experience with that of David Trimble and his previously dominant Ulster Unionist party (UUP). It was Trimble who haggled over the terms of the GFA while the DUP leadership refused to engage in the process, and who then tried to make the agreement work under constant pressure from his main unionist rival. Why did the DUP succeed after 2007 where Trimble had previously failed? And why have things started to come unstuck in the past few years?
From Trimble to Paisley.
The nature of the peace process meant that Trimble (or any leader who signed up to the GFA in 1998) was bound to take a number of damaging hits. The text of the agreement effectively fudged two of the most controversial issues: the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and police reform. If the GFA had set out explicitly the terms on which these issues were going to be addressed, it would have been impossible to secure the backing of the UUP and Sinn Féin. At least one of the two parties, and most likely both, would have refused to support it.
A commission chaired by the Conservative politician Chris Patten drew up a blueprint for police reform in 1999. It didn’t go far enough for the liking of Sinn Féin, which wanted the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to be disbanded altogether. But Patten’s report was still much too radical so far as Trimble and his party were concerned. Although Tony Blair’s government watered down some of the recommendations, it did change the RUC’s name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and put civilian oversight structures in place.
While this was going on, the protracted stand-off over the decommissioning of IRA weapons undermined Trimble’s credibility with the unionist electorate. Supporters of Gerry Adams and the Sinn Féin leadership insisted that the delay was unavoidable: if they had tried to move any faster, there would have been a split in the ranks of the IRA. Their critics argued that Adams and his associates were exaggerating the threat of republican splinter groups and dragging things out to secure the maximum political advantage for their party. Whichever explanation was closer to the truth, the failure to secure decommissioning at an early stage was unquestionably very damaging for Trimble’s leadership.
By the time the DUP finally broke bread with Sinn Féin in 2007, these two issues had lost much of their potency. Unionists had come to terms with police reform, and Sinn Féin for its part had endorsed the PSNI. The IRA decommissioned the vast bulk of its arsenal in 2005: even if the group held back a certain number of weapons and maintained some residual structures, nobody seriously expected it to go back to war.
The DUP leader Ian Paisley could also feel confident because of factors that were internal to political unionism. Trimble had only become the leader of the UUP in 1995, and his decision to support the GFA ran into opposition from some of the party’s Westminster MPs – not to mention the Orange Order, which had a guaranteed place on the UUP’s governing body until 2005. Trimble also faced strong competition from rival unionist organisations. In the first assembly election, held in June 1998, the UUP received fewer votes than the combined total for the DUP and another anti-agreement group, the UK Unionist party. Trimble’s inner-party opponents repeatedly called meetings of the UUP’s ruling council to challenge his political strategy.
Paisley, on the other hand, was the only leader his party had known since its foundation in 1971. His role as the quintessential unionist hard-liner went back even further. The DUP was far more centralised than the UUP and had long been in the habit of keeping disagreements behind closed doors. When Paisley concluded a deal with Sinn Féin, he kept internal dissent to a minimum. The most high-profile opponent was the MEP Jim Allister, who set up a new party of his own, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Most of the DUP’s heavy hitters, from veterans like Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds to recent UUP defectors such as Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster, went along with Paisley’s leadership.
Unionist voters gave the DUP a much stronger mandate after the agreement with Sinn Féin than they had ever bestowed upon David Trimble: 30% in the assembly elections of 2007 and 2011, and just over 29% in 2016, after nearly a decade in office. Allister’s TUV seemed like a complete flop, with 2.5% of the vote in 2011 and 3.4% five years later. However, there were problems building up beneath the surface of events for the DUP, including some self-inflicted ones.
Paisley’s charismatic aura was not enough to guarantee him longevity as first minister. His public displays of affability with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness made a very bad impression on DUP activists. Paisley’s deputy Peter Robinson had bundled him into retirement by May 2008 and took over as party leader, promising a much flintier approach to Sinn Féin. Scottish academic Steve Bruce, who has written about Paisley’s movement with a rare degree of sympathy and understanding, complained in 2009 about the “distrust, mean-spiritedness and foot-dragging” that already characterised its approach to power-sharing.
The question of an Irish-language act became the symbol of DUP obstructionism under the stewardship of Robinson and his successor Arlene Foster. If Sinn Féin wanted to rally support from nationalists by presenting the DUP as unreconstructed sectarian dinosaurs, it could not have asked for a better opportunity. Passing the act would have no implications for the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, but the DUP still couldn’t bring itself to compromise.
The DUP’s call for a leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum, when the other main parties all supported remain, increased the levels of distrust. The issue that actually brought down the power-sharing government in January 2017 was a scandal about mismanagement of a renewable heating scheme, and Foster’s refusal to step aside temporarily as first minister while an inquiry scrutinised her role. In the assembly election held that March, the DUP came perilously close to being overtaken by Sinn Féin as the largest party, with just over a thousand votes separating them.
The DUP didn’t learn any lessons in prudence and humility from this near miss. On the contrary: the outcome of the Westminster election in June 2017, which gave the party’s ten MPs the role of kingmaker, appears to have sent a rush of blood to its head. The reckless and self-defeating Brexit strategy adopted by the DUP may well have done permanent damage to the party, and perhaps even the union itself.
The negotiating stance of the Irish government and the EU meant that there were two basic options for a Brexit agreement: a softer form of Brexit for the whole of the UK than Theresa May had promised in the early months of 2017, or a special deal for Northern Ireland. As the Brexit crisis came to a head in 2018-19, the DUP criticised May’s proposed blueprint for being insufficiently hard and aligned itself with Johnson and the European Research Group. However, when push came to shove in autumn 2019, Johnson had no hesitation in sacrificing his would-be unionist allies to clear the decks for a new deal with the EU.
Johnson lied about the terms of his deal as it applied to Northern Ireland during the 2019 election campaign, but it was perfectly clear that he had agreed to something along the lines of the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol has not created an economic united Ireland. Nor does it mean that the EU has annexed Northern Ireland against the will of its people, as some unionist politicians have claimed. But it does establish separate trading arrangements on either side of the Irish sea. Quite apart from its practical implications for the Northern Irish economy, the fact that Johnson’s government signed up to it in the first place is the clearest possible statement of indifference to the unionist cause, from the most stridently nationalist figures in the British political class.
The DUP now has a real political dilemma, with months to go before its next electoral test. One symptom of that is the party’s recent internal chaos. After decades without a leadership challenge, it experienced two in the space of a few months earlier this year, with Foster giving way to Edwin Poots before Poots in turn fell victim to a palace coup. One of the first priorities for Jeffrey Donaldson was to restore the DUP’s reputation for basic political competence.
Donaldson’s threat to collapse the assembly and trigger an early election is an attempt to win back support from Allister’s TUV. The last three polls gave TUV an average score of nearly 12%: although Allister’s group will struggle to convert those votes into seats, the DUP cannot afford to bleed support on its right flank. Unfortunately for Donaldson, he also has to worry about competition from a rejuvenated UUP and the bi-confessional Alliance party. Clawing back support on one side with a rightwards lurch may end up costing the DUP votes elsewhere.
That’s not the only problem. The more confrontational the DUP is over the protocol and other issues, the harder it will be to maintain the power-sharing government. Sinn Féin agreed to restore the coalition after the 2019 UK election, but it has little reason to help Donaldson’s party out of its bind. Support for a united Ireland has increased, and there is now a realistic prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in both Irish parliaments, north and south, over the course of the next election cycle. Those who want to end the union still have a long, uncertain path ahead of them. But the DUP already has more pressing things to worry about than blocking the erection of bilingual road signs.
Daniel Finn is features editor of Jacobin and author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.
Breaking Britain is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).