The implosion of the DUP and the dead end of Unionism



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In the course of scarcely a month, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has begun imploding in spectacular fashion. Arlene Foster – the DUP leader and First Minister at Stormont who survived the RHI scandal, the collapse of Stormont in 2017, and the introduction of Northern Ireland Protocol earlier this year – has finally and unceremoniously been booted out. The straw that broke the camel’s back? Her opposition to gay conversion therapy.

After a stormy inauguration that saw bitter exchanges, walk-outs and resignations aplenty, her replacement, the Young Earth creationist Edwin Poots, has now also been ejected. At just three weeks in the job, his tenure as DUP leader has been the shortest yet. Had you blinked, you would have missed it. But, as one person commented, he can at least brag that he was DUP leader for three times longer than it took God to create the Earth.

Now the so-called ‘moderate’ Jeffrey Donaldson has been crowned leader. This will prove a poisoned chalice as the crisis is far from abating. Things will only get worse for the beleaguered party. The DUP’s crisis could prove to be an existential one, reflecting the deep malaise of unionism that has dragged out for decades, but which has now reached a turning point.

The knives are out

The knives have been out for Foster for some time. Anger has been simmering among the DUP’s hardliners, who believe Foster threw away unprecedented influence at Westminster and landed them with the Northern Ireland Protocol – which they see as an ‘economic united Ireland’ and a stepping stone to Irish unification.

Her replacement, Poots, fully encapsulates the party’s poisonous reactionary ‘tradition’ of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and sectarianism. A fundamentalist; a proponent of gay conversion therapy; last year he (baselessly) claimed that COVID-19 was more prevalent in Catholic communities than in Protestant ones, a transparent attempt to make the pandemic a sectarian question.

Since the start of the year, he has been among the more vocal Unionists calling for any and all means to be used to bring down the NI Protocol prior to the outbreak of a series of violent sectarian riots in April.

Faced with Poots, the media has been very efficient in airbrushing the records of Foster and her allies. They are being repainted as supposed ‘reforming moderates’. Make no mistake, there is no difference of principles between the DUP’s ‘moderates’ and ‘hardliners’.

Et tu Brute?

The coup against Foster immediately brought all the simmering tensions inside the DUP to the point of civil war. Foster’s local DUP association publicly exclaimed its “disgust” at her treatment. Her ally, Jeffrey Donaldson, claimed the UDA had threatened not to ‘campaign’ (read: bully) on behalf of those who failed to sign the no-confidence motion in Foster, and physically threatened those not backing Poots’ nomination as her replacement. In a public repudiation of Poots’ leadership, senior figures including Foster, Donaldson, the MLA Diane Dodds and the MP Gregory Campbell sensationally walked out of the meeting to ratify his leadership.

On the back of this very public descent into civil war, Arlene Foster, some councillors, and former MPs resigned from the party. In the war of words that followed, Ian Paisley Jr. (son of DUP founder, Rev. Ian Paisley) accused former party leader and Foster ally, Peter Robinson, of killing his father by carrying out his own coup against him. Personal and political animosities have now burst into the open. For all the subsequent diplomatic talk about “healing the rift” in the party, the DUP is now mortally divided.

But before Poots could even get comfortable he also found himself being defenestrated. The problem was, having ejected Foster he wanted his man in the post of First Minister. But this meant an agreement with Sinn Féin, who insisted that Poots guarantee that Irish language legislation will be introduced. Arlene Foster has long played sectarian football with this question, once notoriously stating that to grant nationalists their demand for an Irish Language Act (which would give the Irish language equal status with English) would be akin to “feeding a crocodile”. The nationalist “crocodile” would inevitably come back for more.

In the agreement she signed in January 2020 to restore Stormont, she nevertheless accepted some form of legislation. Yet this has been indefinitely deferred for the last year and a half. As such, Sinn Féin made a guarantee from Poots on this question a condition of accepting his nominee for First Minister. Poots could not stomach such a demand, which was roundly rejected by the DUP hardliners who had elevated him to power.

In stepped the British government to give him an apparent escape route from the situation. They offered to pass the legislation through Westminster. The hardliners weren’t to be fooled by this. Yet, eager for power, Poots hastily proceeded to nominate Paul Givan as his First Minister. The DUP hardliners were in uproar. Three weeks after he took the post, Poots found himself ousted along with his First Minister.

Where next?

The new leadership contest has handed the so-called ‘moderate’ Donaldson the party leadership unopposed. But frankly, he is going to face the same dilemma. Does he accept Irish language legislation? Does he refuse, inviting Sinn Féin to collapse the Stormont Assembly? Or does he collapse the Assembly himself by refusing to nominate a First Minister?

If he opts for the former, he may be in with a chance of surpassing Poots as the shortest-serving DUP leader in history. The latter options would trigger new NI Assembly elections, which would almost certainly see the DUP relegated from the position of first party at Stormont, and perhaps even relegated to third or fourth!

As things stand, the opinion polls put the parties in the following positions:

Sinn Féin: 25%

DUP: 16%

Alliance: 16%

UUP: 14%

SDLP: 11%

TUV: 11%

Here we get to the crux of the civil war inside the DUP. The party is hurtling off a cliff. Unionism is split three ways (four if you include the officially unaligned but de facto soft-unionist Alliance party), with the DUP being ripped apart by polarisation to its right (TUV) and centre (Alliance and UUP). Such polling, translated into an election outcome, would give Sinn Féin the First Minister post – a historic outcome.

Besides the substantial number of careers at risk, some in the party are looking at the future of Unionism and can see only an abyss. Demographic changes and disillusionment in Protestant communities are undermining the Unionist vote, and fracturing it among many parties. And the Northern Ireland Protocol is pointing – as they see it – towards a United Ireland. Some in the DUP are therefore drawing the conclusion that they have to go back to the days of “no surrender”, refusing to cede an inch to the nationalists, and throwing everything, including the kitchen sink and UDA petrol bombs, at stopping the NI Protocol.

Unable to offer anything to working-class Protestants, the DUP has been forced to heighten its sectarian demagogy over time. As it has done so, its base has become narrower and narrower. For a time it grew at the expense of the old UUP, but the other side of the equation was a tiredness with the sectarian circus at Stormont among a layer of Protestant workers and youth, who increasingly preferred to abstain or perhaps vote for Alliance.

Now this polarisation is tearing apart the DUP itself, with the TUV snatching its support from the right. As its base has narrowed, a virulent right-wing can only imagine a future if they cease any cooperation with Sinn Féin and collapse Stormont, perhaps never to return.

A party steeped in reaction

In many ways, the DUP epitomises the impasse of Unionism. It was formed 50 years ago by the fundamentalist preacher, Rev. Ian Paisley, in the context of growing unrest among Catholics over the denial of their basic civil rights. Paisley came from outside the Unionist establishment, and his antics were completely beyond their control. He and his supporters whipped up Protestant mobs to meet the civil rights movement, pushing the region in the direction of sectarian civil war. Originally (and more appropriately) named the Protestant Unionist Party, the DUP was founded as the political vehicle for Paisley and his followers in his fundamentalist Free Presbytarian Church. Through it, they sought to block any, even perceived concessions to nationalism or ‘popery’.

The sectarian violence they whipped up helped destabilise the region, creating a nightmare for the ruling class. The prominent role Paisley played, and the rise of the DUP at the expense of the traditional party of the Unionist bourgeoisie, the UUP, has epitomised how Protestant sectarianism has grown beyond the control of the ruling class and has developed a life of its own. The DUP rested upon disillusionment among working-class Protestants, feeding off of and further encouraging a sense that their communities are under siege, and that only they (the DUP) will defend Protestants from the IRA, Sinn Féin, and the evils of Irish unification.

The Unionist bourgeoisie and British imperialism, both of whom sought to whip up Protestant sectarianism when it suited them, have been at a loss to control this Frankenstein’s monster of their own creation and to prevent the DUP’s rise.

After suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2002, the growth of the DUP to the biggest Unionist party at Stormont in 2003 potentially spelled trouble for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which the party had campaigned against. But the fact was that in signing the GFA, it was Sinn Féin that had made all the concessions: they accepted the Unionist veto, the established police force, the decommissioning of their weapons, yet they gained no guarantees concerning Irish unification.

The economic programme of Sinn Féin was not fundamentally distinct from that of the DUP, and with a Unionist veto in hand, it was possible for the British government to eventually coax Paisley and company into coalition with Sinn Féin. Indeed, so famously did Paisley and McGuinness get on that they came to be regarded as the “chuckle brothers”, much to the chagrin of some in the DUP.

In government, the DUP attracted its share of defectors from the UUP, including Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson. The only difference between the ‘hardliners’ and the ‘moderate’ newcomers is that the former perhaps believe the sectarian and fundamentalist creed of the party, whereas the latter, no less sectarian, are happy mouthing the words to the same hymns, whilst it’s their careers that ultimately come first. The party concentrates within itself the distilled essence of reactionary Protestant sectarianism.

Working-class Protestants

There is a yawning abyss between the Unionism of the DUP reactionaries – and we might add, of the reactionaries of the TUV and UUP – and the working-class Protestant communities that they purport to represent. Working-class Protestants in the North of Ireland have been led down a blind alley by British imperialism and the political exploiters of their communities.

The historic basis of Unionism in working-class Protestant communities lay in fear of the consequences of becoming a minority in a Catholic Church-dominated united Ireland, and of losing the relative privileges that Protestant workers enjoyed over Catholic workers.

Today much has changed. In the South of Ireland, the domination of the Catholic Church has been subject to blow after blow by the masses. Meanwhile, the relative material advantages enjoyed by Protestant workers have been eroded by deindustrialisation and years of austerity. And yet, Unionism has not and will not automatically be supplanted.

Working-class Protestants have been abandoned to the scrap heap by their bosses. Their co-religionist political ‘representatives’ have climbed onto their backs only to enrich themselves. The British ruling class nurtured the idea of loyalty to the union, whilst showing loyalty only to their own profit margins. Behind the Union Flag, working-class Protestants have been led up a blind alley and abandoned – and they know it.

Healthcare is dilapidated with 335,000 people on waiting lists, and 185,000 on them for more than a year. This out of a population of just 1.8 million! Schools in the North experienced average spending cuts of 11% from 2011 to 2019, the highest cuts in the UK. Whilst as bare averages, the living conditions of Catholics are worse on all indices, nevertheless, both the Catholic-majority Falls Road and the Protestant-majority Shankill in Belfast are listed in the top ten most deprived regions in the North of Ireland.

With living standards sliding, it is no wonder that, deprived of every material comfort, many hold onto the one immaterial thing that cannot be taken from them – indeed the only thing that imperialism and Unionism have left them: the flag, the crown, and annual bonfires and marches that hark back to a mythical past.

These trappings, which are called ‘culture’ by Unionists, are really the paraphernalia left behind by British imperialism and an era of Protestant supremacy. The irony is that British imperialism regards working-class Protestants in the North with complete and utter contempt, and the representatives of British imperialism are in turn regarded with seething bitterness by working-class Protestants.

The reason then that so many workers do not let go of these cold, immaterial comforts is that they are offered nothing of substance with which to replace them. The influence of Unionism over Protestant workers will not die of its own accord. It will only do so once a clear way out of the social crisis is offered – a way out that can only come through a revolutionary programme to overthrow capitalism. But to achieve this, a revolutionary party, equipped with a clear class-based programme and comprising the advanced layer of workers in all communities, must be built.

Some on the left are lamentably inclined to write off working-class Protestants as one reactionary mass. This is false to the core, a fact amply attested to by history. Were it true, a Socialist United Ireland would be off the agenda indefinitely. The sentiments among working-class Protestants have nothing in common with and are at direct odds with the Unionism of the DUP and of the other parties. Working-class Protestants, and particularly the youth, have no interest in the status quo and the careers so dear to the ‘moderates’, nor in the Biblical literalism and fundamentalist insanity of the ‘hardliners’.

There exists a burning class anger, as there does among all workers. However, in some of the most depressed working-class Protestant communities, this anger has become distorted beyond all recognition and directed into a force aimed at the very people who have suffered the same neglect and exploitation, and who represent the only real potential allies of working-class Protestants: namely, working-class Catholics.

The perspective in the coming months is potentially a very dangerous one. In the coming weeks, loyalists are likely to throw everything they’ve got at creating chaos across the region in the course of the marching season. By encouraging sectarian violence, they hope to widen the gulf between Protestants and Catholics, corralling working-class Protestants around themselves and the most reactionary elements of political Unionism. By threatening to destabilise the situation they hope to blackmail the Tory government into jettisoning the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This is a dangerous game, which could have extremely reactionary consequences. But as we saw during the riots in April: when unionised bus drivers were subjected to violence by rioters and organised protests in response, they were met with overwhelming sympathy. The methods of the loyalist reactionaries backfired.

The bus drivers showed how reaction could potentially be stymied by the organised labour movement. Imagine what more could be achieved by a labour movement prepared to mobilise every single worker to isolate the loyalist paramilitaries, to politically expose the reactionary politicians, and to fight tooth and nail for class demands, mobilising workers around a common programme. But that would require a revolutionary leadership of the working class to be built in opposition to the ‘meek and mild’ reformists at the head of the labour movement today.