Last month , Michael Gove dispatched Ian Paisley Junior, the Democratic Unionist Party MP for North Antrim, with brutal indifference. Brexit was done, the DUP had been done over, and everyone could see that it was entirely the party’s own fault. On 11 February, Gove spoke from the House of Commons while Paisley Junior sat at his computer in Ballymena. Over video link, he asked Gove to use his upcoming meeting with the vice president of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, to ‘press on’ with arrangements to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was damaging the union by ensuring that Northern Ireland remains part of the Single Market even though the rest of the UK has left. Paisley said Gove had claimed he was a unionist. ‘Indeed he even boasted once in my local paper that he could sing “The Sash”.’
‘The Sash’ is the ballad sung by members of the Orange Order as they march around Northern Ireland celebrating battles won ‘in bygone days of yore’. Behind Paisley’s head as he spoke was a painting of William of Orange on his white horse at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. One of the key achievements of the Good Friday Agreement was increased alignment between the North and the Republic. In order to avoid the return of a hard border, EU regulatory checks are now being made at Northern Irish ports on certain goods arriving from Britain: there is, in other words, a border in the Irish Sea. ‘The protocol is poison,’ members of the order wrote to the Belfast News Letter. ‘We owe it to the many brethren who paid the supreme sacrifice to keep us part of the United Kingdom to take a stand in this our time of threatened calamity.’
‘My right honourable friend is right,’ Gove replied to Paisley. ‘I do have a formidable singing repertoire. I can also sing “The Fields of Athenry” and “Flower of Scotland” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.’ ‘The Fields of Athenry’ tells the story of an Irishman who steals corn to feed his family during the famine of the 1840s and is transported to Botany Bay. He tells his wife that he’s happy to martyr himself for the Irish cause and rebel against the crown: ‘Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free.’ Paisley’s face quivered with rage. Gove could not have been clearer. He had a nationalist song for every occasion. The unionists weren’t special, even if he had once compared the Good Friday Agreement to the appeasement of the Nazis.
Paisley likened the Tories’ desertion of unionist concerns to ‘a slap on the face with a wet kipper’. The Conservatives’ alliance with the DUP, whose ten seats rescued Theresa May’s minority government after the 2017 election, had been forgotten. When Boris Johnson, at that point on the back benches, attended the DUP’s annual conference in 2018, he said what he knew the party wanted to hear. A border in the Irish Sea would turn Northern Ireland into an ‘economic semi-colony of the EU’ and damage the union. ‘No British Conservative government could or should sign up to it.’ There was every reason to disbelieve him, but the delegates stomped and cheered. He promised to spend billions on a bridge from Scotland to Co. Antrim – they believed that too.
After Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019, the DUP became dispensable. They should have seen it coming. A YouGov poll from June that year showed that 59 per cent of Conservatives were in favour of Brexit, even if it meant losing Northern Ireland from the union. History, too, ought to have prepared them. After the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in 1921, the unionist patriarch Edward Carson wrote: ‘I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.’
Gove went straight from his exchange with Paisley to meet Šefčovič. They issued a joint statement pledging support for the protocol. Šefčovič said it had been the ‘only way’ to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Both men were keen to lessen tensions. In January, the EU had briefly invoked Article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side to introduce border checks in the event of ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties’. The EU alleged that AstraZeneca was favouring the UK with supplies of Covid vaccines, while failing to honour its supply contract with the EU. By introducing checks along the Irish border, the EU could safeguard against pharmaceutical companies exploiting the free movement of goods between the EU and Northern Ireland as a backdoor route to get more vaccines into Britain. Following an immediate outcry from Dublin and Westminster – neither government had been consulted – the EU backtracked and apologised for triggering the clause. Naturally, the DUP seized on the EU’s act of ‘hostility’ as proof that the protocol was unjust.
At the start of the Brexit negotiations, Donald Tusk, then president of the European Council, said that if the UK’s proposals were unacceptable to the Republic of Ireland, they would be unacceptable to the EU. The Irish government, along with Remain voters in Northern Ireland (56 per cent in the referendum), saw the Good Friday Agreement’s softening of the border as something to be protected at all costs. It is particularly important to people in the largely rural border region, which comprises almost a third of Ireland’s 32 counties, five of the six that make up the North and five of the Republic’s 26. But the DUP held out for the hardest possible version of Brexit, three times rejecting May’s proposed deals, all of which, at the EU’s insistence, included a ‘backstop’ – an agreement that there would be no return to border controls between the North and the Republic. Inevitably, talk turned to a more manageable alternative, a border in the sea. Asked if that would be a red line for her party, the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, replied: ‘The line is blood red.’
At the beginning of last year, I went to a poorly attended Brexit celebration outside the gates of Stormont. I asked a married couple who wore their Union Jacks like shawls against the biting wind why they felt so strongly about Brexit. ‘I don’t know a lot about it, to be honest,’ the woman said. ‘But we don’t want a united Ireland, ever.’ The man said they had been to Dublin once: ‘It was inundated with immigrants … This virus that is taking place is coming from people who are coming in from outside the EU.’ A former Ukip councillor praised ‘the prophet’ Enoch Powell, who became an Ulster Unionist Party MP after leaving the Conservatives. There was talk of shackles and slavery. A preacher gave thanks for our deliverance from ‘Babylonian’ Europe. ‘Lord keep your hand upon our little province,’ he prayed. ‘Lord remove the border in the sea.’
This attitude is not confined to the unionist fringes. In 2016, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman at Westminster, Sammy Wilson, was filmed by the BBC discussing Brexit with his constituents. One man said he was all for it. ‘And get the ethnics out too,’ he added. ‘You are absolutely right you know,’ Wilson replied. He later said his words had been taken out of context. Another DUP MP, Gregory Campbell, complained in February that there were too many black people on Songs of Praise. It was, he said, ‘the BBC at its BLM worst’. He refused to apologise.
In January 2020, almost three years after power-sharing collapsed, the DUP and Sinn Féin finally made a deal to restore the administration in Stormont. The supposed rapprochement didn’t stop the DUP minister for agriculture, Edwin Poots, blaming Catholics for the spread of Covid. In October, Poots broke ranks with his party and argued that targeted localised restrictions were required instead of the general lockdown that the Northern Ireland Executive had agreed. He went on to claim that the rate of Covid infection in nationalist areas was six times higher than in unionist ones. Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer immediately said there was no basis for this claim. Poots denied his comments were sectarian because ‘most Sinn Féin leaders don’t attend the Catholic Church on a regular basis.’ A few weeks later, there was an outbreak of Covid associated with a Free Presbyterian Church. Soon afterwards, it was announced that Poots himself had tested positive for the virus.
He’s never supported power-sharing. In 2015, he spoke of the ‘stench’ of Sinn Féin and said the DUP had to ‘hold [its] nose’ to do business with the party. His latest comments echo what his father, Charles, proposed in 1975, at the height of the Troubles: ‘I would cut off all supplies, including water and electricity, to Catholic areas. And I would stop Catholics from getting social security. It is the only way to deal with enemies of the state.’
Foster seems unable or disinclined to hold her DUP colleagues in check. She hasn’t even managed to persuade Sammy Wilson to wear a mask. When a Ballymena councillor, John Carson, said the pandemic was God’s judgment on Northern Ireland for introducing abortion and same-sex marriage, Foster failed to discipline him. When the same councillor alleged that Covid vaccines were made from the stem cells of aborted foetuses – a claim condemned by Stormont’s Department of Health – Foster admitted that Carson was ‘wrong’, but said his conduct would be dealt with ‘internally’. Abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which the DUP opposes – even more red lines – were legalised in Northern Ireland after Labour MPs, working with local campaigners, exploited Stormont’s suspension to bring forward amendments to legislation in the British Parliament. (The DUP is happy enough to support a border in the Irish Sea when it comes to some things.)
On 5 December, a melancholy parade passed through the centre of Belfast. The march marked the eighth anniversary of the Flags Protest, which began after the Alliance Party (which is neither unionist nor nationalist but strongly pro-European) succeeded in getting Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days on which the Union Jack was flown at Belfast’s City Hall. Unionist attempts to get this decision revoked have failed. Led, for some reason, by Olaf, the snowman from Frozen, the march consisted of eight people, several with Union Jacks, some with bags of groceries, and one woman who looked as if she might have strayed into the proceedings unawares. Olaf carried a flag emblazoned ‘In Memory of All Who Fell’, ‘No Surrender’, ‘Loyal People’s Protest’. The organisers had sought permission for fifteen marchers, the maximum allowed under lockdown restrictions, but this proved optimistic. As they approached City Hall, the group of eight passed a couple of young women who stood chatting on the pavement. Olaf waved, but they ignored him. Other unionist protests have been similarly unsuccessful. In 1985, Ian Paisley roared and raged and brought a hundred thousand people onto the streets of Belfast to try to stop the Anglo-Irish Agreement. He failed. The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 was not withdrawn. The Good Friday Agreement remained intact.
The DUP’s opposition to the protocol seems intended to distract from the fact that Brexit itself is what’s crippling the Northern Irish economy. In December, Diane Dodds, the DUP’s economy minister at Stormont, admitted that the UK would probably only replace about 10 per cent of the funds her department had been getting in EU grants: £11 million instead of £100 million. Before Brexit, all that mattered to the DUP was freedom from the shackles of the EU. When warnings about post-Brexit food shortages were discussed in Parliament, Wilson chortled: ‘Go to the chippy!’ Poots responded to a triumphalist tweet from Ukip’s backer Arron Banks with ‘thank you for all you done to make it happen.’
Foster, who initially described the protocol as ‘serious and sensible’, is now leading the charge to have it scrapped. Hardcore DUP members are demanding that the party should withdraw from Stormont and abandon the Good Friday Agreement. The walls of Northern Ireland are filling up with belligerent graffiti. Paramilitaries who had retired from killing Catholics ‘for God and Ulster’ (and many of whom diversified into gangsterism) are threatening to go back ‘to war’. Others are more pragmatic. Manufacturing NI, a campaign organisation that promotes businesses in Northern Ireland, carried out a poll after the protocol had been in operation for a month. It found that while there had inevitably been disruption – the deal had not been finalised until 24 December – only 19 per cent of businesses wanted the protocol abolished.
There is no doubt that unionism is in trouble. The DUP liked Trump. Biden, unlike his predecessor, has pledged that the US will not allow the Good Friday Agreement ‘to become a casualty of Brexit’. The last Northern Ireland Assembly election took place in March 2017. The DUP got 28.1 per cent of first preference votes; Sinn Féin got 27.9 per cent. Overall, unionists took forty of the ninety seats; non-unionist parties took fifty. For the first time since Northern Ireland’s foundation in 1921, unionists were in a minority at Stormont. A new poll suggests that Sinn Féin is now more popular than the DUP, with Alliance close behind. The Good Friday Agreement enables the secretary of state to hold a so-called ‘border poll’ to determine the constitutional future of the North: support is growing for this. The Protestant community is ageing, and a majority of the school age population are from the Catholic community.
David Trimble led the then dominant UUP (now in steep decline) through the peace process and was awarded the Nobel Prize along with the late SDLP leader John Hume. In his acceptance speech Trimble acknowledged that Northern Ireland had been ‘a cold house’ for Catholics. Unionists know that if they want their country to survive they need to make it attractive to those beyond their traditional base. Yet the DUP continues to indulge bigots, neglects the needs of working-class communities, and fails to discourage those nostalgic for the old days of unionist dominance.
The largest cohort of people in the North now define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. This includes many politically engaged young people who are less concerned with religion or the constitutional status of Northern Ireland than with economic survival, human rights and the future of the planet. Some with a Protestant background have joined Alliance or the Greens. Some helped the SDLP regain two seats at Westminster, and not because, as certain unionists would have it, they were ‘traitors’. Others simply do not vote. A young man called Jordan Moore wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that while he wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, he was embarrassed to be associated with unionist parties, which ‘clung to their conservatism as if it was a matter of life or death’. There is now a distinct category of pro-union non-unionists.
Johnson, having abandoned his half-baked promise to build a bridge, is now proposing a 25-mile tunnel between Stranraer in Scotland and Larne in Co. Antrim. If he was sincere about investing in travel infrastructure, he would start by redressing the scarcity of railway lines in Northern Ireland, or the fact that there is no motorway connecting the city of Derry in the west with Belfast in the east. As for the tunnel – dubbed the ‘Boris Burrow’ – even the DUP won’t fall for that.