Dean Bonner is Law graduate and current Public Policy Masters student. He writes here about how a common culture of political intransigence binds the two dominant of the Executive Office.
The political theatre of Northern Ireland is dominated by the tug-of-war between the DUP and Sinn Féin for dominance and cultural supremacy. Both of them promulgate their respective ideologies as if they reflect majority will and as if they are received wisdom. But that simply isn’t true of either ideology.
Furthermore, the behaviour of both parties in advancing their ideologies does much to frustrate and undermine their objectives. But they can’t see that. They don’t want to. Despite their differences, the DUP and Sinn Féin are united by an iron-clad intransigence that precludes them from recognizing their folly.
The recently deposed DUP leader said in 2019 that “we trust ourselves to do what’s right for Northern Ireland“. Yet, the DUP’s assessment of what’s right for Northern Ireland has been at odds with that of its citizens in many ways for many years. The “Democratic Unionists” have acted against majority sentiment many times, as with their blocking same-sex marriage.
But their penchant for undemocratic, unilateral action became most prominent as they championed Brexit, despite the majority here rejecting it. Something else they once championed was a withdrawal agreement that involved checks upon goods coming from Britain; Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC Spotlight in March 2020 that such checks wouldn’t threaten Northern Ireland’s status within the UK.
Flash forward twenty months and Jeffrey’s brethren are stridently opposing the Protocol, spurning mitigations proposed by the EU, threatening to collapse the Assembly and, bizarrely, boycotting the North-South Ministerial Council to protest against a border the British Government created. Jeffrey claims the DUP’s crusade to “protect our place within the UK…is what the people…actually want.”
But the people simply don’t want what the DUP are selling. While there are issues with the Protocol, most people aren’t shitting bricks over it. The University of Liverpool’s recent survey found that under 10% of people and only 12.6% of Unionists see it as a top priority, that there is no majority support for rejecting the EU’s proposals, and that a clear majority of voters (and of DUP voters) do not want the Assembly to be brought down. Yet, the DUP maintain their tactics.
In doing so, they clearly have no mandate. Moreover, their legendary prejudice springs eternal as their figureheads implore Westminster not to introduce Irish language legislation, claim that COVID-19 is more prevalent among nationalist communities and blame same-sex marriage for COVID-19. Jeffrey can’t even utter “Taoiseach,” referring instead to the “Irish Prime Minister” in a recent BBC interview.
They seem to irrationally believe that their brand of unionism remains hegemonic, such that they can act with impunity. But that bird has flown. LucidTalk’s August survey put them behind the UUP and TUV and 12% below Sinn Féin. Less stark but still significant was the Liverpool survey which also put them below Sinn Féin and identified a mass movement of voters away from unionist parties, mainly towards Alliance.
The DUP are seemingly alienating moderate unionists who are flocking elsewhere, splitting the unionist vote, and paving the way for Sinn Féin to become the largest party here. The DUP’s wilful stupidity has disunited unionism and fed the crocodile.
Following that crocodile’s success in the Republic’s 2020 Election, their leader proclaimed that “over half a million voters endorsed Sinn Féin’s manifesto, including our plan for unity”. Sinn Féin tend to portray their success as an endorsement of reunification or of a referendum at least. A recent survey has indeed indicated a majority in the South and 44% in the North would like a referendum.
But it isn’t popular opinion about holding one that dictates if one is called. That’s for the Northern Secretary to decide and he/she is compelled to call a vote only if “it appears likely…that a majority [of Northerners] …would…wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom.” That majority doesn’t exist.
The Liverpool survey found that almost 60% of people in the North would stick with the UK if a referendum was held tomorrow, and the NI Life and Times Survey 2020 found that 55% favour remaining in the UK long-term and only 26% favour reunification. Sinn Féin sometimes claim that demographic change makes reunification ineluctable. Who could forget Gerry Kelly’s 2015 leaflet which delightedly declared that Catholics outnumber Protestants in North Belfast today?
While the 2011 Census identified an almost even split between them, Protestants were much more likely to identify as British only than Catholics were to identify as Irish only. Further, the Liverpool survey found if a referendum took place tomorrow, 93% of unionists would back the Union but just 74% of nationalists would back reunification. So much for demographic changes producing the goods.
Sinn Féin are clearly far off persuading a majority in the North to back reunification. Surely, they’d therefore be appealing to those outside republicanism via a demonstrable commitment to a shared society? They’re not. They celebrate the declining PUL majority via sectarian headcounts, as with Kelly’s leaflet.
They attack acknowledgments of the North’s centenary by preventing City Hall from being illuminated to mark it and by lambasting the SDLP and others for attending the ecumenical service in Armagh. They traduce integrated schools, claiming they promote British identity and undermine Irish identity.
They brazenly beatify Provisional IRA members who murdered civilians, and their representatives openly chant “Up the RA”, rubbing salt into the wounds of those maimed and bereaved by the IRA. Yet, Sinn Féin claim unionists would be respected in their “new Ireland”. How could any unionist believe that?
Sinn Féin are not selling their “new Ireland” to any northern audiences outside those who are already committed to their particular brand of republicanism. Indeed, their woeful selling skills in this regard in itself creates a major obstacle to achieving their fundamental ambition.
For all that divides them, the DUP and Sinn Féin are united by intransigence. Both have abandoned any pretence of wanting a shared society. Both represent nothing but their own insular ideologies. And both are undermining themselves and their objectives through successive own goals.
They’d therefore do well to change tack. That’s unlikely though. Who ever changes the habit of what is now almost a lifetime from their inception as a political movement back in the early 70s?
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.