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DUP so compromised by Brexit that tiny TUV is turning its tactics against it

Newton Emerson: Out of the pan-unionism into the fire for desperate DUP

Under the leadership of Ian Paisley and his deputy and successor Peter Robinson, the DUP repeated the same tactic for decades.

Whenever it faced a serious problem it would cajole the UUP into some supposed pan-unionist initiative, portray itself as setting the agenda, then walk away whistling as the problem remained unsolved.

While the DUP was the smaller party this allowed it to cannibalise the UUP’s authority. Once it became the larger party it still liked a UUP mudguard before attempting anything messy.

The tactic fell out of use under Arlene Foster, presumably because she was unable to pull it off. With Jeffrey Donaldson in charge and Robinson back as an adviser, pan-unionism is on the hob again.


There is scant evidence unionist voters prioritise having the largest party above the survival of devolution

A statement this Tuesday opposing the Northern Ireland protocol was a classic of the genre, signed by the leaders of four unionist parties – the DUP, UUP, hardline TUV and loyalist PUP. In an accompanying video UUP leader Doug Beattie looked like a hostage. He had little option but to sign as almost all unionists would prefer the protocol did not exist. Few nationalists are ecstatic about it either – their preference would be that Brexit had not happened.

The UUP has a careful position of regretting the protocol while accepting it and wanting agreed changes. The wording of the letter had been widened to encompass then swamp this stance. It read: “The protocol must be rejected and replaced.” Beattie was left to mutter “we cannot support the protocol”.

The widening of terms also allowed Donaldson to finesse his position. He said “the Irish Sea border must go” – very different from saying the protocol must go.

TUV leader Jim Allister simply called for the protocol's "removal", as did PUP leader Billy Hutchinson.

However, this win for the DUP comes after a week of pan-unionist manoeuvring, all of which went badly wrong.

Unionist pact

In a Belfast Telegraph interview last Saturday, clearly meant as a mini-relaunch of his leadership, Donaldson called for a unionist pact at the next assembly election. This makes no sense in a PR-STV vote. Less choice would harm unionism overall, regardless of anything transfer management might deliver in theory.

The call was a trap to accuse Beattie and Allister of splitting the vote, but neither showed any hesitation in defying it. Beattie issued a flat-out rejection. Allister said “in a PR election you can’t split the vote” and unionists should just transfer down the ballot. Then he moved the subject on to Sinn Féin becoming the largest party, challenging Beattie and Donaldson to say they will not nominate a Deputy First Minister in that scenario, causing devolution to collapse.

This was a trap to accuse rivals of being willing to play second fiddle to republicans – Alistair used the phrase “stooge unionists”. The accusation makes no sense beyond the symbolic.

The DUP is so compromised by Brexit that the tiny TUV can use the pan-unionist tactic against it

Refusing to nominate would only cause a collapse because the First and Deputy First Ministers hold “a joint office”, as the TUV leader had to note. But Beattie and Donaldson both had to duck the question because every party must claim it is fighting an election to win.

This did no harm to Beattie as everyone knows he would nominate a Deputy First Minister. In fact that is the most the UUP can achieve as it is unlikely to run enough candidates to beat Sinn Féin.

The question was toxic for Donaldson, however, as there is doubt over the DUP’s commitment to power-sharing. The DUP leader has raised this himself, saying two weeks ago Sinn Féin as the largest party “presents a real problem for unionism”.


There is scant evidence unionist voters prioritise having the largest party above the survival of devolution. If they did they would not be spreading their support evenly across three unionist parties and Alliance.

Unionist people consider themselves principled democrats, even if opponents say this comes from a place of majoritarianism. Unionists did rally behind the DUP to beat Sinn Féin in the 2017 Westminster election, but that was after the renewable heat incentive, with Sinn Féin calling for “one last push” to abandon Stormont and hold a border poll.

Today the DUP is threatening to abandon Stormont over the protocol, while calls for a border poll have become part of the background noise of political life. For the DUP to even entertain the idea it would walk away over taking second place makes it look confused, petulant and desperate.

On Monday, as front pages and radio shows in the North led with Allister’s challenge to Donaldson, an article by both men appeared in this newspaper. It took a far harder line than Tuesday’s statement, saying “the Northern Ireland protocol must go”.

Having trapped Donaldson over the Deputy First Minister question, Allister was setting the agenda. The DUP is so compromised by Brexit that the tiny TUV can use the pan-unionist tactic against it.

A four-party letter is not going to turn this around.