Stephen Stewart is a Faulknerite unionist currently living in exile from Norn Iron and proudly an analogue person in a digital age.
With the dust starting to settle on the [*checks notes*] “seismic” Assembly election, and with Connolly House no doubt in a jubilant mood, it’s worth taking a breath and analyzing just how it came to be that Sinn Fein finds itself with the most seats at the (formerly) unionist bastion of Parliament Buildings.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu
For all the media coverage of Sinn Féin’s victory, their vote increased by just over 1% and they emerged from the election with the same number of seats they had before: in other words, their vote is stagnant and evidently reached a plateau. Unionism, on the other hand, can rebound from this and potentially reclaim the FM office, but they’re going to have to do something that unionism, in general, has not been particularly adept at these last 100 years or so: looking inward and seeing why their vote has been declining, why they’ve lost majorities in both Stormont and City Hall and NI’s Westminster contingent, and why increasing numbers of pro-union voters don’t even bother to vote.
That would be a rather long article and thankfully not the focus of this one, so I’ll leave those questions for the backroom wonks and advisers of the unionist parties themselves.
What I will comment on, however, is the credulous stupidity of the DUP – and I’m speaking as a unionist here – in developing medium to long-term political strategies that will further their ethos in Stormont. It is my contention that stupidity, or hubris, or ineptitude, or… whatever you choose to call it is the reason that another O’Neill will be the head of government in Norn Iron roughly five decades after the DUP in their first incarnation, the Protestant Unionist Party, led by their late demagogic leader helped to undermine the authority of and ultimately oust another O’Neill at Stormont and so poison the socio-political well… with truly appalling consequences for everyone, [thank you very much, Ian].
The Duppers seem to be unable or unwilling to look past the next election when it comes to strategising, and all of unionism is paying the price for that. Their most bone-headed partisan moves are, bizarrely, often aimed at fellow unionists… and never forget that it was Paisley and his followers that were the original splitters of the unionist vote back in the late 1960’s when their merry little sectarian rampage was pushing Ulster headlong into the abyss!
But that being said, let’s all have a quick look at the DUP’s ‘greatest hits’ in shooting themselves, and unionism, in the foot…;
- The aforementioned ‘original sin’ of splitting the unionist vote; sowing the seeds of deep-rooted division and dissent just as unionism was in the clear and had finally won the game with the acceptance by the Nationalist Party of the Official Opposition role at Stormont in 1965 and the failure of the ‘Ra’s Border Campaign; ousting a reforming unionist Prime Minister for no sane reason; and ultimately indirectly leading the way to the shuttering of the Stormont Parliament.
- Contributing to the downfall of the Sunningdale reforms, sentencing us all to another two decades of bloody mayhem and misery, with such intransigence ultimately leading to the rise of SF as a political force, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and ultimately to the Good Friday Agreement, speaking of which…
- Sitting out the negotiations for the aforementioned GFA and shouting from outside the tent instead of being in it and helping unionism get a better deal… David Trimble stood alone against the UK, RoI, the EU, and the US with no help from ‘Big Ian’ and his party…. only for the latter to finally sign up to the GFA, but only when they were unionist top dogs.
- Pushing for a change to the FM nomination rules at St Andrews from the largest party within the largest designation to the largest party overall… paving the road for SF right to the FM’s office in the process!
- It was a DUP initiative to reduce the number of MLA’s from 108 to 90, and done so in order to squeeze the UUP vote (and that’s according to former Dupper SPAD, Tim Cairns)… instead what they got was 16 (!) lost unionist seats in the Assembly, and the loss of ability to initiate the petition of concern by themselves. Had the recent election been fought on 108 seats, the DUP would have emerged with six more MLA’s and the TUV would have had 6 MLA’s overall… easily enough to trigger the PoC and not have to worry about Doug Beattie’s new ‘woke’ UUP’s votes to meet the threshold.
- And speaking of the PoC, the Duppers agreed to an Assembly member reduction, and also lowering the D’Hondt threshold for a party to sit at the Executive from 10 to 8 seats… but what they didn’t do was also to push for a reduction in the threshold for the PoC from 30 to about 27, which they should have!
- Putting the kibosh on the proposed Stormont Agreement to restore devolution in 2018… an agreement negotiated by their own people and essentially all but signed off on by their leadership… until the Orange Order led a grassroots campaign to nix it, without even knowing what was in said agreement to begin with, and the DUP duly obliged by backing out and then lying through their teeth about any agreement being close to finalized… of course, Edwin Poots has proved that was indeed a lie by all but confirming an agreement existed in 2018 and that he was “very proud” to have been part of the negotiating team for it… oops! And we all know what Westminster did during the ensuing two years before devolution finally returned, alas…
- Allowing their hubris after the 2016 Assembly election to get the better of them when the RHI scandal broke and Arlene, in a spate of sheer bloody-mindedness, refused to take responsibility for what in almost any other liberal democracy would have been a resigning matter, and step aside for a couple of months to wait for a preliminary report. Instead, the Duppers decided they were above the law and procedures governing the Executive and Assembly… with both imploding after McGuinness’ resignation and the Duppers helping unionism lose its majority for the first time in the ensuing election. And all that isn’t even including Paul Givan’s utterly bone-headed and needlessly antagonistic move to cut Liofa funding the day before Christmas Eve, hoping no one would notice… and his humiliating backtrack when he was rumbled!
It is my contention, and indeed belief, that most of the above are what led to SF’s result in this election rather than the latter being some kind of master strategist, the DUP’s all-tactics-no-strategy scorched earth way of doing business really is self-defeating to those of us who believe in (although, admittedly, sometimes exasperated by) the Union and to conservative moral values.
Much of the DUP’s woes are, frankly, self-inflicted… and until they realize that, reflect accordingly, and tread a more deft path in achieving their goals, they will remain the textbook definition of insanity… the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.
And we’ll continue to pay the price for their ineptitude…
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.