In 1921, Edward Carson warned his successor as the political leader of Ulster Unionism, James Craig: “From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from Protestant majority.” Contrary to Carson’s advice, Craig was to boast in 1934 of having created in Belfast “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People.” At Stormont today, the site of Northern Ireland’s devolved Parliament, stands a statue of Edward Carson. Yet political unionism adopted Craig’s mantra as the pedestal upon which Northern Ireland is to be operated.
Craig and contemporary Unionism share the same common fear: that actions considered progressive and inclusive in Northern Ireland are concessions in a zero-sum game being fought against political actors in Dublin aiming to implement a united Ireland discreetly. Notably, Brexit has created the most recent schism in Unionist politics because it has expanded unification discourse beyond the traditional confines of Irish nationalism and republicanism.
The DUP’s support for Brexit, despite the obvious risks arising to the Union as a result of the border in Ireland constituting Britain’s only land border with the EU, caused significant consternation in Britain amongst bastions of British Unionism. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, argued that the DUP’s support of Brexit and repudiation of Theresa May’s Brexit provisions for Northern Ireland has resulted in Northern Ireland “slowly becoming part of a united Ireland.” Not only did a former Chancellor from the Conservative & Unionist Party tie Northern Ireland’s fate as closer to Dublin than London; he admitted to indifference. Northern Ireland is not as essential to the Union as Scotland, a reality Ulster Unionists have to contend with.
Osborne’s bombshell is not a selling out of Ulster Unionism by the Conservatives, like Carson accused them in 1921 by incorporating Ulster “in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.” This week, DUP MP for East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, called on unionists to prepare for a border poll. Robinson echoed the remarks of long-time DUP leader, Peter Robinson (no relation), who called for unionists to prepare for a border poll in 2018. Alas, the elephant in the room has finally been acknowledged.
Political manoeuvring of this kind is a new phenomenon in political unionism. Brexit and the inability of the DUP to force the Conservatives’ hand in their favour during negotiations, despite holding the Westminster balance of power, has revealed the fatal flaw of the DUP’s ardent support for Brexit in 2016. The DUP, the largest electoral force in Ulster Unionism, opposed protocols for Northern Ireland tabled by both May and Boris Johnson due to their detriment to the integrity of the UK by differentiating alignment rules for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the EU single market. Why did the DUP and unionists support Brexit in the first instance, despite the obvious problems of incorporating an open border between an EU member state and a non-EU member state? And why did this support continue in the face of evolving British, Irish and EU opinion on the matter? After waddling through 4 ½ years of intensive negotiations, the DUP decided, in the end, to oppose a UK-EU trade deal.
This is part of a paradoxical historical trend within mainstream unionism: moves intended to greater entrench the permanence of Northern Ireland are perceived as concessions in a zero-sum game being fought against Dublin and internal Irish nationalist and republican actors. This trend began with Craig creating a Protestant ethno-state in Northern Ireland that was hostile to Irish nationalism and Catholics. This began as early as 1922, when Catholic shipyard workers in Belfast were among those driven out during a sustained period of state-sponsored terror, disputably referred to as the Belfast Pogrom.
In Northern Ireland, an extensive security state was established in the inter- and post-war years, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary as the predominantly Protestant police force. Supported by the Ulster Special Constabulary, the menacing ‘B Specials’ were the force used to stifle internal republican agitation. Historian Richard English argued that ‘the British desire to insulate itself from the Northern Irish problem allowed persistent anti-Catholic discrimination to occur.’ Such marginalisation undermined any possible support Northern Ireland could garner from working-class Catholics. In the 1960s, the post-war generation of Catholics in Northern Ireland began modest campaigns for increased civil rights provisions. When the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement (NICRA) was established in 1967, the prospect of a 30-year stalemate emerging between the IRA and the British security services was unfathomable.
Under the moderate Unionist Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, reform seemed plausible. O’Neill met his Irish counterpart in 1965, the first Prime Minister to do so. English-born, he was considered too aloof and Anglo-Irish by other Ulster Unionists, similar to Craig’s perceptions of Carson 45 years before. Despite his sincerity for reform, O’Neill oversaw the deterioration of order in Northern Ireland, which by 1969 saw British soldiers on the streets in order to preserve order. By the end of the year, the Provisional IRA were at war with the security forces.
Opposition to NICRA’s modest proposals and RUC-orchestrated violence against protestors resulted in increasingly entrenched viewpoints within both unionism and nationalism. The IRA had evolved from largely dormant in 1969 to the capability of sustaining a war of attrition for a British withdrawal from Ireland in a short period. Would such events have arisen with a more conciliatory approach from Unionism as a whole? It is difficult to say for certain, but throughout the Troubles efforts to curtail violence and reach a political solution were stymied by ardent DUP opposition with significant grassroot and paramilitary enforcement powers.
The Sunningdale Agreement, signed in 1973 by both the British and Irish governments as an attempt to introduce power-sharing into Northern Ireland, was opposed by the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC). A workers’ strike organised by the UUUC in May 1974 undermined the agreement. The threat of encroachment into Northern Irish affairs by the Government of Ireland drew Unionist opposition, repeated during the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP, gave rise to “Ulster Says No,” drawing on inspiration from 100 years before by Randolph Churchill: “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right.”
Through opposition to both the Sunningdale and Anglo-Irish Agreements, the DUP overlooked the significance of the Irish governments acknowledging the legitimacy of partition, thus strengthening the permanence of Northern Ireland. This was why republicans opposed the latter agreement. Furthermore, the DUP’s opposition to the Good Friday Agreement misread the public mood, which was more concerned with the establishment of post-conflict institutions than a revision of the constitutional question. During Brexit negotiations, First Minister Arlene Foster said the agreement was not ‘sacrosanct.’
Throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles and beyond, the DUP misinterpreted these legitimacy-enhancing agreements for Northern Ireland as regressive, despite being supported by the population of Northern Ireland and both the British and Irish governments. In 1998, the people of Ireland overwhelmingly voted to relinquish claims to ownership of the entirety of the island of Ireland, while simultaneous British and Irish membership of the EU allowed for the once heavily militarised border to operate freely. These opportunities allowed for coexistence and integration of the two communities in Northern Ireland.
Cross-community consensus existed for implementing the Good Friday Agreement and for remaining in the EU, with 56% of Northern Ireland voting to Remain. The DUP resisted the efforts of pressure groups like Border Communities Against Brexit in opposing the legislative impact of Brexit. Similar to the DUP’s opposition to an Irish Language Act, opportunities to place Northern Ireland closer in tandem with the rest of the United Kingdom have been missed (both Scotland and Wales have legislative protections in place which established Scottish Gaelic and Welsh as official languages in both countries).
In 2021, the mood of the DUP’s elected politicians fluctuates from Robinson’s realism with the traditional position of suppressing any possibility of the prospect of a united Ireland. Sammy Wilson, MP for East Antrim, argues that Brexit does not risk Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. That is counter to British and Irish public opinion. YouGov polls in April 2020 show that only 37% outright supporting Northern Ireland remaining in the Union, and 53% of Conservative voters being indifferent if Northern Ireland left the UK.
100 years since the opening of the first Stormont government in June 1921, questions arise over what the centenary of Northern Ireland means. Foster remains keen to illustrate Northern Ireland’s strength in perseverance, but one must question whether Brexit will be the straw to break the camel’s back. A centenary, of which the first 77 years existed in states of Catholic marginalisation and sustained conflict, is a cause for re-evaluating where Northern Ireland exists in the future of both the UK and Ireland.
The DUP, in misinterpreting moves to make Northern Ireland accommodating of more than Protestant and Unionist discourse, have created a zero-sum game paradigm that is increasingly escaping from their grasp. Through alienating not only nationalists in Northern Ireland, but also public opinion in the rest of the UK and Ireland, it may be too late for the DUP to acknowledge Carson’s foresight so soon ignored by Craig and subsequent generations of political unionist leadership.