‘Unionism is more splintered now than it has been for many years’

On the Lower Newtownards Road, there’s support for the DUP, but also disillusionment

Life for many living near the east Belfast centre on the Lower Newtownards Road is hard, where day-to-day struggles usually consume nearly every waking moment, rather than the happenings in Stormont seven miles away.

Nevertheless, many locals support the Democratic Unionist Party's decision to withdraw Paul Givan as First Minister. "Those angry at them will be a minority in this part," Methodist minister Rev Brian Anderson believed.

“For a large portion of the community, pragmatic considerations are not taking precedence. This goes to the core of how they see and understand themselves. It is part of their very strong sense of who they are.

“In their eyes, the protocol represents a British government that is not backing them as well. Unionism is more splintered now than it has been for many years,” he told The Irish Times on Friday.

The Lower Newtownards Road and the streets around it are a key battleground between the DUP and Jim Allister's hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in the Stormont elections, scheduled for May, if not before.

One Northern Ireland-wide poll last year put the TUV ahead. More recent polls showed unionists splitting three ways, with the Ulster Unionist Party gaining ground, though that was before its leader, Doug Beattie, was embarrassed by the emergence of 10-year-old misogynistic tweets.

However, this week’s development, Rev Anderson fears, highlights the “lack of joined-up thinking” within unionism, one where it increasingly feels that it is facing an “existential” threat to its existence.

“My personal fear is you can’t keep playing with devolution/the institutions in this way. You can’t keep marching up the hill, and [then] when you don’t like it, that you’re going to bring the walls down. You can’t keep doing that.

“There comes a point then where relationships are broken to such an extent that they are hard to repair – goodwill is going to run out if we keep on doing this,” declared Anderson, a minister for 25 years.

‘Outward-looking’

However, a “considerable percentage of younger voters have moved past ‘orange and green’ politics”, he believed, and those more “outward-looking” voters will have an impact in better-off suburban parts.

In such places, the Alliance Party will eat into the DUP’s support, he believed, but the same does not apply on the Newtownards Road. “This still remains a major DUP/TUV battleground,” he said.

Meanwhile, east Belfast resident Gareth Wright, 22, also believes the DUP's decision will be greeted warmly in his community, seen as a "firm stand" against long-held grievances about the protocol.

However, Wright accepts that not everything about the protocol is bad. “I don’t agree with border checks on goods coming in. And I don’t support certain elements that I see as undermining the Union.

"However, being part of the single market and also being part of the UK market really is the best of both worlds in economic terms for Northern Ireland – and that isn't highlighted enough," he declared.

Faced with concerns about Sinn Féin electoral advances on both sides of the border, efforts to appease unionists with changes to the protocol have done little to help, says Sam Mcilwaine.

Last Thursday, Mcilwaine, a clerical officer at a Belfast further education centre, heard concerns in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim about the impact the DUP's move could have on planned social housing in the Rathcoole estate.

In places such as Rathcoole, where the UDA still holds sway, loyalist communities have long complained of being ignored by mainstream unionist parties.

Rioting

That sense of grievance was illustrated in March and April last year in four days of rioting in Derry, Belfast and Newtownabbey, where cars were hijacked and burned and police came under attack with petrol bombs.

“That’s where the community is in certain places. They don’t see a return to rioting or violence as the way forward necessarily, but certainly some kind of increased presence in the streets is inevitable over the coming weeks,” he said.

During Thursday’s meeting, Mcilwaine was asked to speak with a young man who was looking for guidance “because the young lads he is talking to want to go back onto the streets. And that’s where the community is at the minute.

“They don’t see any other option than an increased presence in the streets, even if not necessarily a violent one. They feel ignored and they’re not fully sure yet of how Stormont’s collapse will work out.”

In coming months, the biggest challenge could be electoral. “The biggest fear that the unionist and loyalist communities have at the moment is turnout. The sense of disillusionment with how the political process works is widespread.

“What’s the point of voting in a Stormont election if it’s going to collapse again so soon? That kind of thing. Abstention will be a big challenge for the DUP and others to overcome. They don’t see much incentive to vote.”

Despite that, Mcilwaine is not alone in thinking that the elections will see a halt, or, perhaps, even a reversal in the drift to non-traditional parties, such as People Before Profit and the Greens.

“I think it will see voters more polarised around the traditional orange and green divide. Whoever takes the hardest line is likely to pick up the most voters, including some of those on the verge of abstention,” he declared.