Northern Ireland is a bit of a mystery for Tories and many people on the so-called mainland. So it comes as no surprise to The Cat that the historic gains for Sinn Féin and the collapse of the Democratic Unionist Party’s share of the vote in last Thursday’s snap election went under-reported by the British media. More about that later.
For many British people, it’s as if the ‘Troubles’ (I hate that euphemism) never ended and the Good Friday Agreement never took place. For the Tories, especially, time in Northern Ireland stands still in the year 1984. This is often revealed in the ‘Corbyn and McDonnell appease IRA terrorists’ slur, which is repeated by Tory, UKIP and Lib Dem politicians and the trolls that gather on the ‘below the line’ threads on newspaper websites and blogs like this one. Centuries of history are simply swept aside along with evidence.
The mainstream media, too, selectively recalls the ‘Troubles’ as a symmetrical conflict between Catholics and Protestants, with the former group often depicted as wild-eyed Fenian bomb-throwers and the latter as oppressed victims of sectarian hatred. Nationalism, too, is often conflated with Republicanism. So it comes as a surprise to many that there were Protestant members of the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army and Catholic Unionists; while Loyalism is a peculiarly Protestant phenomenon and predates Unionism as a political movement. Unsurprisingly, there is little, if any, mention in the British media of the strong fraternal (sic) ties between the various Loyalist paramilitaries and extreme right parties like Britain First and the British National Party. The mainstream media’s simplistic narratives deliberately ignore the complexity of Northern Ireland’s politics and gloss over the history of the centuries old occupation of Ireland by the British.
The gerrymandering of Northern Ireland by the Unionists from the inception of the semi-state in 1920 until the 1970s is also ignored by mainstream media commentators. This video from the 1970s describes how Unionists controlled Derry City Council by rigging the wards.
In the years following partition, Stormont was a mostly Unionist institution with nationalists represented by the Nationalist Party, a continuation of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The dominant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which monopolized the Protestant vote, has close ties to the Conservative and Unionist Party on the mainland.
In the first Northern Ireland House of Commons election of 1921, James Craig’s Unionists polled 60 seats with Sinn Féin and the Nationalists receiving 6 seats each. Both parties abstained from taking their seats. This remained the case until 1925, when the Northern Ireland Labour Party gained 3 seats and Independent Unionists took 4 seats from the UUP. This would be the last election to be held using proportional representation. There are no prizes for guessing why PR was abolished in favour of First Past The Post. Single seat constituencies were also created, thus making it doubly difficult for small parties and independents to gain seats. The UUP held onto its unfair advantage until 1973 when direct rule was imposed on Northern Ireland by Westminster. Even so, the UUP’s hegemony remained intact until the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2003, when it was overtaken by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.
Success for the DUP at Stormont would translate into success at Westminster, where it eclipsed the UUP. Now part of a power-sharing executive with with its old foe, Sinn Féin, the DUP believed it could keep the Unionist political hegemony alive forever. How wrong they were.
In spite of their historical differences, the DUP’s Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness appeared to get along well as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The press even dubbed them ‘The Chuckle Brothers’. When Paisley retired due to ill health in 2008, his place as FM was taken by Peter Robinson, who immediately adopted a hardline approach to the Shinners. Robinson would eventually be brought down 8 years later by no less a figure than his wife, Iris, who was involved in an extramarital affair with a man who was nearly 20 years her junior. She also arranged £50,000 of loans for her lover to open a restaurant.
Under Robinson and his successor, the hapless Arlene Foster , the DUP blocked socially progressive legislation and supported Brexit (they have always been anti-EU), while most voters in the Six Counties supported Remain. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) or ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, began to drag Foster under. RHI had been introduced while Foster was Minister for Enterprise and Trade and she was accused by a “senior member” in her own party of withholding evidence from the Assembly. In response to Foster’s stubborn refusal to resign while investigations took place, Martin McGuinness, who was already extremely ill, resigned as Deputy FM, thus precipitating the election. The DUP has lost 10 seats, while the UUP continues its descent into obscurity having lost one of its six seats. Other smaller parties, like the Loyalist-orientated Traditional Unionist Voice, are static. Only Sinn Féin and the SDLP made significant gains, while Profit Before People lost one seat.
Yet Foster still refuses to stand down. Even Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the UUP, resigned. The normally Unionist-friendly Belfast Telegraph has urged her to stand aside.
Unionists of all shades – mainstream, moderate and hardline – need to engage in a soul-searching inquest. The fact that Mike Nesbitt so swiftly relinquished his leadership of the Ulster Unionists should not mean that Foster can ignore a similar fate in the DUP.
Meanwhile Sinn Féin is refusing to work with the DUP if they insist on keeping Foster as FM.
There is nothing particularly modern or forward-looking about the Unionist parties and they have held the Six Counties back for far too long. Could this be the beginning of the end for Unionism? I hope so.