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 Unionist Isolation in Northern Ireland             Gerry OShea

Joe Brolly, known as a fine footballer and lively commentator on big Gaelic matches on Irish television, writes a regular column in the Sunday Independent in Dublin. Recently, he penned an uncharacteristically bitter essay about the celebrations in Belfast following the victory of Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Football League.

Joe had no problem with fans celebrating the win, their first in ten years, but the carry-on by Rangers supporters in the Shankill Road area left him in a foul mood. The old gutter anti-Catholic tropes were heard throughout the crowd.

Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys  --- Up tae yer knees in Finian blood.  Surrender or ye’ll die.

He noted that the following day the police superintendent responsible for the area, Nigel Henry, expressed his “disappointment” about a large crowd partying in clear breach of the Covid restrictions on gatherings in the city.

A few weeks previously Mark Sykes and four relatives gathered to lay flowers to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the murders of five people, including Mark’s brother-in-law, in what is known as the Sean Graham Massacre. The police arrested Mr. Sykes for breaking the Covid regulations.

 Joe’s article highlights clearly the tribalism that still permeates life in Northern Ireland.

The Protestant community feels - with good reason - that they are under siege and they have few friends in powerful places. Their main political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is lacking any real gravitas or sense of direction as they try to cope with their political impotence.

The Conservative and Unionist Party in Westminster, better known as the Tories, has always been viewed by the various unionist groups in Ulster as being in tune with their philosophy and supporting their political agenda.

Still, the division of a small island into two statelets 100 years ago wasn’t the first choice of any political party in Westminster. They believed that such an arrangement would be unstable and it has been.

Unionists feared the inherent precariousness of their political situation where the clear majority of the people living on the island wanted a united country, and more than a third of the population in their own statelet was hostile to partition. So, they carry a persecution complex, a strong sense of grievance, fearing always incipient betrayal by some British government.

Edward Carson who served in the Westminster Cabinet during the Great War more than a hundred years ago was the leading unionist politician then, advocating successfully for dividing the province of Ulster to ensure that his tribe, the Protestant Loyalists, would have a guaranteed majority in the new statelet. Still, he wrote afterwards: “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.”

The Brexit negotiations confirmed Carson’s insight from the last century. Ten DUP MP’s voted Theresa May and the Tory party into power in 2017, but she had to yield to European negotiators insisting on the so-called protocol, ruling out any return of the Irish land border. Even in this strong parliamentary position their views on a pivotal issue did not prevail.

Boris Johnson, now prime minister but then a backbencher, spoke at the DUP convention in 2018. He told the delegates what they wanted to hear. A border in the Irish Sea as contemplated by Brexit negotiators would turn Northern Ireland into “an economic semi-colony of the EU.” He guaranteed them that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to it.”

The delegates loved his spiel especially when he promised to spend billions to build a bridge connecting Antrim to Scotland. After becoming prime minister in July 2019, with a strong parliamentary majority, not needing DUP help, he faced serious negotiations on the implementation of Brexit, the British withdrawal from the EU. At the start of these discussions, Donald Tusk, then president of the European Council, declared publicly that the Dublin government would have veto power over any proposed deal.

In addition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-candidate Joe Biden warned British leaders publicly that any proposal that didn’t fully respect the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) would rule out a new trade deal between the two countries. The DUP along with Prime Minister Johnson were far more in tune with Donald Trump and his anti-European and anti-immigrant instincts. His loss last November was one more deflating blow for unionism.

While the DUP supported the Tories in their drive to rid themselves of what they called the Brussels shackles, 56% of the people of Northern Ireland voted to stay within the European Union. A few months ago, Diane Dodds, the DUP’s economy minister in Stormont, conceded that the Westminster replacement for 100 million pounds that flowed from Europe every year would come to about 11 million. Agriculture will be hit hardest but the wider community will also feel the pain.

Meanwhile, the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, is heading the charge against the hated protocol. Her party is threatening to withdraw from Stormont and to abandon the GFA. The Protestant paramilitary groups are not yet warning of a return to killing Catholics but they are using belligerent language demanding the end of the border at the ports. Asked if the sea arrangement would be a red line for her party, Foster replied ominously that “the line is blood red.”

Leaders of the powerful Orange Order warned in an article in the Belfast Newsletter that “the protocol is poison.” And Ian Paisley Junior MP complained angrily that the Tories’ betrayal of unionism was like “a slap in the face with a wet kipper.”

Power-sharing which is central to the 1998 GFA was restored in Stormont between Sinn Fein and the DUP in January 2020, three years after its demise because of serious disagreements between the two parties. The Westminster and Dublin governments pushed both sides hard to get back to the goodwill days generated by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness when they provided cross-community leadership after the GFA passed in 1998.

While the Belfast government is functioning now, the positive rapprochement between the two big parties has not happened. Shortly after the parliament re-opened, Edwin Poots, the DUP minister for agriculture, blamed Catholics for the spread of Covid, and he urged that lockdowns should be confined to nationalist areas. Poots denied that his assertions were sectarian, but in a touch of poetic justice he himself tested positive after an event in a Free Presbyterian Church.

In the last Northern Ireland elections in March 2017, the DUP got 28.1% of first preference votes while Sinn Fein won the support of 27.9%. Overall, unionists took forty of ninety seats; the remaining fifty were filled by a variety of non-unionist parties. Opinion polls suggest that those favoring a united Ireland come close to half of the population.

Some nationalists, led by Sinn Fein, are urging a border poll in the next few years. During Taoiseach Micheal Martin’s interviews around St. Patrick’s Day, he argued convincingly that demands for a unity referendum at this time are divisive and “push people back into tribal trenches.”

He pointed instead to the Shared Ireland initiative that his government started, which encourages dialogue and accommodation in all areas of public life before moving for a new referendum down the road. Consensual and peaceful unification requires much more than the assent of 51% in a border plebiscite.

Representatives from both communities need time to assess the economic impact and implications of staying as part of Great Britain versus re-joining the EU. Nationalists have to show a willingness to deal magnanimously with the cultural and identity worries of unionists. That is very much in the best tradition of Irish republicanism.

Unionists must know that whether in five, ten or twenty-five years there will likely be a clear decision for a united Ireland, and they must engage with all the nationalist parties on how the new state will accommodate both traditions. This will take time.

Gerry OShea blogs at



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