Let’s Talk Loyalism (LTL) recently published their survey examining a defined segment of loyalist opinion on the Northern Ireland Protocol, Policing and Politics. The full report, its methodology and its key findings can be found on its website. As the survey was only completed by 1,020 respondents, most of whom as LTL has acknowledged are “middle-aged, male and either from County Antrim, County Armagh or County Down,” it cannot be taken as a representative survey of loyalist opinion in its entirety. So I have to treat the survey with the same academic rigour and by the same standards as I would treat any other opinion survey.
However, this is LTL’s first major survey and a lot of work has clearly gone into it. I commend LTL for trying to gauge loyalist opinion and there is still value in addressing a major talking point that has emerged from it: the collapsing of Stormont in protest to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
This lack of confidence in devolution chimes with the anti-Belfast-Agreement sentiment that has been building up for many years within loyalism and the perception that it rewards republicanism. If loyalists are supportive of collapsing Stormont over the Protocol, is there an understanding that this power would be transferred to the UK Government which imposes the Protocol on Northern Ireland in the first place?
I would argue that if Stormont were collapsed, Sinn Fein would use this as evidence that Northern Ireland cannot work and therefore demand a border poll be called in its aftermath either as its price to restore Stormont or if there were no other governing arrangements put in its place. An unstable Northern Ireland is good for Sinn Fein and with its high level of support in the recent LucidTalk opinion poll against a heavily-weakened DUP, it has no reason to compromise with unionism.
Additionally, Northern Ireland unionism and loyalism must realise we are only a small part of the world. The UK Government will not want to be dealing with Northern Ireland in the midst of tackling the current pandemic and the ongoing crisis that is happening in Afghanistan. It does not look good for the UK Government to have trouble in one part of the UK while it tries to solve the problems of others on an international stage.
Nevertheless, I admit that I support the Belfast Agreement and I support devolution. They’re not perfect and they are in need of reform (if a political consensus ever emerges on what that reform should be), but they at least provide a means for Northern Ireland to have its own legislature and government. So I find the idea of collapsing Stormont – unionism’s main power base – to be unorthodox.
If however we entertain the idea of collapsing Stormont, what are the benefits for unionism? Would it really stop the Protocol? Would unionism have any allies supporting it? I often hear that unionism should collapse Stormont because Sinn Fein did it and it is claimed they benefited from doing so. But did they really? Some would claim the collapse of Stormont damaged Sinn Fein’s image as a suitable governing party in the Republic of Ireland.
Even if Sinn Fein did benefit from collapsing Stormont, would the same also be true for unionism? Unlike Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, unionism has a constitutional framework to maintain – something that Sinn Fein would like to see abolished to make way for a united Ireland. I’m not trying to suggest to anyone on what to think but rather how they should think.
A lot of assumptions are made and I would encourage any unionists and loyalists who want to see Stormont collapsed to think through realistically what would happen rather than what they wish to happen. From my own reading of Northern Ireland history, unionism usually doesn’t benefit from crises.
The only certainty I do have is that the fear of a Sinn Fein First Minister will no doubt come into play in the next Assembly election. But whether this tactic will still continue to work remains to be seen. The next election – like every election – will be very interesting to observe.
Michael Palmer holds a degree in Politics from Ulster University and is interested in political ideology, the politics of popular culture and wrote a dissertation on unionism/loyalism.