Diarmaid Ferriter: DUP needs to move from Ulster unionism to Irish unionism
Party realists realise a shift in the wider balance of power requires a new strategy
Tánaiste Simon Coveney and DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson at the Fine Gael national conference in Wexford last Saturday. Photograph: Patrick Browne/FG/PA Wire
Trying to read the smile of the DUP’s Edwin Poots during the week on BBC Ulster’s Spotlight programme was a challenge. It was hard to know if it was smug, righteous or defiant. Perhaps it was all three, but none of them are warranted. Some in the DUP are continuing to throw shapes based on their current profile at Westminster and the toxic febrility of the London cauldron, but they are doing that at a time when the realists in the party are aware that it is a shift in the wider balance of power that will leave them requiring a new strategy.
Donaldson was speaking as someone who knows that the days of traditional, trenchant Ulster unionism yielding results are numbered
Jeffrey Donaldson appears to be one of those realists, judging by his very presence at the Fine Gael national convention last week and his speech there calling for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth. “The Commonwealth is a place where Ireland’s voice should be heard and I would like to see that happen,” he said. Why? The answer lies in the other words of his speech: “I do hope we can come to a day when the Republic will join with many other [nations] in the commonwealth recognising that we have overcome a lot of adversity and it would be good.”
The use of “we” was hardly careless. Surely Donaldson was speaking as someone who knows that the days of traditional, trenchant Ulster unionism yielding results are numbered. Other, unscripted remarks of his included, “ I’m delighted to be here today talking to our friends in Fine Gael about all kinds of things, including future relations . . . It’s all about strengthening relations and that whatever happens with Brexit we still want to be good neighbours and we want to work towards the common good.”
‘Internal UK matter’
This is in contrast to the pose struck by the DUP in 2016 when dismissing the invitation to join a “civic forum” on Brexit convened by the Irish Government and loudly insisting that the issues at stake were an “internal UK matter”. That was never going to be sustainable. Nor in the long run can the party exercise a permanent veto over a united Ireland; current political convulsions, demographic change and economic imperatives are likely to win out.
In January 2017, unionist political commentator Alex Kane suggested in Dublin that only 15 to 20 per cent of unionists were open to persuasion about voting for the ending of partition. Where that figure might lie as a consequence of the current political dysfunction is hard to know but, either way, they need to engage with new realities. And, as has been evident in relation to previous historic shifts, most obviously the peace process and powersharing, it is necessary for political realists to adapt to changed circumstances by disentangling themselves from inherited positions that amount to a political straitjacket. Why leave themselves merely reacting when they can, more sensibly, be strategising?
Carson recognised that the real danger for unionists was betrayal by English Tories when unionists were no longer useful to them
Donaldson’s Dublin appearance might also be seen as an extension of the logic of former DUP leader Peter Robinson when he spoke at Queen’s University Belfast last year. What generated headlines was his assertion in relation to a united Ireland: “I don’t expect my own house to burn down but I still insure it because it could happen”. What was more significant, however, was his suggestion that in the future if there was to be an agreed new Ireland prompted by Northern Ireland’s exit from the UK, there would be a need “to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement”. His words imply the DUP’s traditional mantras are not tenable long-term; that unionists would ultimately need to engage with the possibility of a changed, agreed Ireland.
Could it be possible that what we are witnessing is the beginning of a long process that sees the Ulster unionists of old instead becoming Irish unionists? With this, the wheel could turn full circle; after all, the iconic Godfather of Ulster unionism, Edward Carson, born in Dublin, considered himself an Irish unionist and only reluctantly accepted partition. He also came to recognise that the real danger for unionists was betrayal by English Tories when unionists were no longer useful to them. As he put it when speaking during a House of Lords debate in December 1921: “I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game” at Westminster; Tories “used to tell us that black was very black, just with as great eloquence they have now assured us that it is very white”. The result was that unionists were being “deserted and cast aside”.
Historian RB McDowell was later to insist these words were those “of an Irish unionist, a member of a deserted garrison, a Conservative facing defeat and seeing the close of a great tradition”.
Perhaps that tradition could be reborn.