Irish Times view on the restless state of unionism

Arlene Foster and the DUP leadership are struggling to plot a path forward

First Minister Arlene Foster defended the Northern Executive’s approach before stating her own preference for opening up business and society. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis's promise of longer grace periods before further EU-mandated checks on goods at Northern ports was good news for DUP leader Arlene Foster. It is unlikely, however, to dispel unionist anti-lockdown emotion and anger at the Northern Ireland protocol's long-denied but inevitable outworking of Brexit.

Nor has turmoil inside the DUP been calmed by reaction to Tuesday’s Stormont Executive announcement of a “pathway” out of Covid restrictions. Much of the response was negative because of the absence of specific dates for relaxation measures. And tensions have been heighthened in Stormont over the legality of a junior DUP minister’s decision to halt work on permanent post-Brexit inspection posts.

DUP denunciation of Boris Johnson as a betrayer of promises perhaps succeeded in eliciting a statement from the European Research Group, supposedly an ally of the DUP before it effectively voted for the protocol. Its deputy chair said they now want Johnson to "unilaterally neutralise" the protocol. The Lewis Commons statement followed.

How Foster hopes to tackle the restless state of unionism is not clear. The DUP has tried to position itself at the head of protest and in doing so has consulted loyalist paramilitary groups. These, unionist politicians had hinted, were potentially considering violence, although the police have denied it


Deputy first minister Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill, arguing for the dateless lockdown pathway – with reviews built in – as the best way to avoid a return to higher infection rates, emphasised the collective nature of the decision. Johnson’s most recent announcements, influenced by fear of new variants, have shown similar caution. Foster defended the Executive’s approach before stating her own preference for opening up business and society. Praise from the health service for the Executive’s caution seemed to have no effect on objections from some business voices. Successful vaccine rollout and favourable comparison with slower progress in the Republic looks likely only to increase pressure, especially on the DUP, for further relaxation.

Elements reflected in unionism include anti-scientific populism, anti-lockdown mentality checked by legitimate fear of the pandemic, resentment of Stormont's power-sharing, plus mistrust of Westminster and Dublin. Small wonder its leadership is struggling to plot a path forward and Foster is left to distance herself from party colleague Sammy Wilson who vows "guerrilla warfare" against the protocol, and calls health minister Robin Swann "a poodle" for following scientific and medical advice. Any relief from Wednesday's announcement may be as temporary as the grace periods themselves.