The Tottering Unionist Colossus in Ireland

Joseph Healy writes: Probably the most important election next Thursday in these islands, both historically and politically, is the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. One hundred and one years after the partition of Ireland by the British and the creation of a gerrymandered sectarian state to ensure permanent Unionist hegemony it appears that the plan is no longer working and the Unionist colossus created in 1921 is tottering. Opinion polls are showing that Sinn Fein, a party born out of the IRA and with the clear aim of abolishing partition and supporting a united Ireland, is ahead in the polls and could emerge as the largest party in the Assembly. This would truly be ironic considering the century of repression and gerrymandering which the Nationalist community have been subjected to and has created a Unionist psychic and constitutional nightmare from which they are desperately trying to awake. 

The DUP, formerly the largest party, is in a state of panic and has been looking to shore up its vote by whatever means necessary in order to stave off this outcome. The party, which has had three leaders in one year, and has been haemorrhaging votes at an increasing rate is probably the most stupid party politically in these islands, and that is saying something. First, they supported Brexit, in the hope that a land border on the island of Ireland would seal off any hope of reunification. Then, when Theresa May offered a soft Brexit without the need for any trade border, they blocked it and offered their support to Johnson instead who promised no border in the Irish Sea and hard Brexit.

However, as with Unionist parties in Ireland before, they were sold out by the Tories who agreed to a Northern Ireland Protocol attached to the Withdrawal Agreement, which produced a trade border in the Irish Sea, as all goods entering from Britain needed to be checked if there was any likelihood that they would continue into the Republic and hence the EU. This created a strong sense of betrayal in the Unionist community but also a sense that they had lost the upper hand and that the Nationalist community was benefiting most from the Protocol. The irony is that the North of Ireland is the only part of the UK state where trade was prospered since Brexit as it is in the enviable position of being both in the Single Market and the Customs Union and so its products can pass freely to both the EU (which often means the huge cross border trade) but also to Britain. Many farmers and businesses have profited from this and are in no hurry to scrap the Protocol which is the DUP demand.

The DUP has suffered from this as holding the post of First Minister, they were regarded by hard-line Unionists as having sold out and many of these have now defected to the more extreme Traditional Unionist Voice party which has reverted to the age old Unionist cry of “No surrender” and threatened civil disobedience to bring down the Protocol. On the other side, more moderate Unionists, who also dislike the conservative social agenda of the DUP (anti LGBTQ rights and abortion) but also see the economic benefits of the Protocol, are more attracted to the centrist Alliance Party which holds a somewhat agnostic position on the constitutional issue.

Sinn Fein meanwhile has played a blinder by appearing to be the more reasonable partner in the power-sharing relationship and when the DUP recently withdrew from the government, Sinn Fein continued to work with the other parties in the Assembly to ensure that essential legislation continued to be passed. They have also held on to the majority of the Nationalist vote and are projected to win 25% of the vote next week. This will present the possibility, under the terms of the power-sharing agreement, that Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein could be nominated as the First Minister with the DUP having to take the position of Deputy FM. This would be a huge humiliation of the DUP, who until recently were continuing to call Sinn Fein “Sinn Fein IRA”. It would also be a seminal moment in the history of the partitioned statelet, indicating that Unionism had lost control and would add impetus to those (led by Sinn Fein) calling for a border poll and a united Ireland.

This is probably the most dangerous moment for Unionism in a century and a spate of recent books have suggested that for many moderate Unionists or those who profess to have no position on the constitutional position, the pull of a modern European state in the EU to the south compared to an increasingly backward and isolated British state tied to the Tories would be much greater.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, has continually refused to answer the question of what his party will do in the event of a Sinn Fein majority. Many commentators believe that the DUP will refuse to enter the power-sharing government and that this will spell the collapse of the Assembly for the third time and the reintroduction of direct rule from London. Some parties, such as the nationalist SDLP, believe that in the event of this happening the Assembly and the power-sharing setup would disappear for good as the public’s trust in the institutions would be permanently damaged.

What would this lead to? Political stasis and crisis and a growing resentment from the Nationalist community that they will never be properly represented in the artificially created Unionist enclave. It will also mean internal dissension and unrest in the Unionist community and the breakdown of trust in the institutions. The only long-term response can be a border poll and a commitment from Britain to withdraw from Ireland. At the last all-island election in 1918 the vast majority of the Irish people voted for independence but this result was stymied by connivance between the Unionist elite and their supporters in the British government. With the final emergence of Sinn Fein as the largest party the tectonic plates will shift fundamentally in the North of Ireland and a new, and hopefully final, chapter in its tragic history will open.


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