Newton Emerson: What exactly is the DUP fighting for?

Is Arlene Foster seeking to keep NI as exclusively British for as long as she can?

DUP leader Arlene Foster addresses the media on Brexit, saying that her party has made clear that "Northern Ireland must leave the European Union on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom." Video: Reuters

 

Since the EU referendum and the collapse of Stormont, a standard narrative has taken hold in Northern Ireland – namely that the DUP is throwing the union away by antagonising nationalists.

Behind this theory lies the incontestable fact that if Catholics become a majority, or at least outnumber Protestants, only acquiescence from “cultural nationalists” can preserve the link with Britain.

So unionism must break out of its essentially ethnic framework, make a secular and practical case for the union, and fully embrace the Irish aspect of Northern Ireland and its people.

This idea is hardly new. Sir Edward Carson famously warned unionists not to alienate Catholics at the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921.

In a keynote address to the DUP conference in 2012, party leader Peter Robinson said the future of the union depended on “representing the whole community, not just one section of it”.

The DUP seems to have abandoned this philosophy just as the need for it becomes critical and an appreciation of it feels universal.

Brexit and Stormont disputes may have raised the political temperature but if the DUP had any belief in outreach, it should be reaching out now more than ever. It most definitely should not be affronting every Irish person from the Taoiseach down.

No doubt the DUP would contest claims of active hostility.

No doubt, also, we would have been treated to a display of hands across the barricades had the DUP and Sinn Féin completed February’s abortive Stormont deal – as the DUP intended to do.

Grassroots rejection

Leader Arlene Foster has been blamed for wrecking the deal by not preparing her party’s members and supporters for compromise, and for not being willing to lead her community from the front when grassroots rejection becomes clear.

When push comes to shove – in a close election, let alone the Border poll such an election might trigger – both communities will revert overwhelmingly to type

But there is another explanation, not necessarily incompatible with the above.

What if the DUP has decided the whole notion of cultural nationalists saving the union is nonsense? What if it finds the fashionable consensus from middle-class Belfast to be laughably at odds with how the vast bulk of the electorate behaves?

There is a contradiction in how recent events have been explained, suggesting the theory of the post-unionist union has always been hopelessly flawed.

When Robinson delivered his 2012 speech, the total nationalist vote was in steady decline, the total unionist vote continued to rise, demographic gravity appeared to have been overcome and a distinct Northern Ireland identity, extrapolated from the previous year’s census, was portrayed as the explanation. Nationalists had apparently made their peace with partition and only had to be kept content to preserve Northern Ireland forever.

Yet after Stormont collapsed, another consensus view quickly emerged that nationalists had been staying away from the polls through frustration with devolution and anger at unionist arrogance.

Both these ideas cannot simultaneously be true and nobody is suggesting the nationalist community flipped en mass from contentment to anger over the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal or even Brexit. Frustration is said to have built up over years.

The angry nationalist theory appeared proved in March last year, when Sinn Féin was massively rewarded at the ballot box for crashing Stormont.

Cultural nationalism

Foster’s party was punished in the same election over RHI – there was a significant swing to Alliance – but other unionists turned out to maintain the DUP’s vote. Three months later, the DUP charged ahead in a Westminster election as unionists rallied behind it.

An obvious lesson to draw from this is that cultural nationalism may never have existed on the scale imagined and certainly cannot be counted on as a constitutional safeguard. When push comes to shove – in a close election, let alone the Border poll such an election might trigger – both communities will revert overwhelmingly to type.

Believing otherwise may be the greatest disrespect either side has ever shown the other.

Does the DUP have a longer-term view on preserving the unionist community in a united Ireland?

A relatively small number of people from a nationalist background might be all that is required to prop up the union indefinitely but the costs and risks of reaching out to them could look marginal to the DUP at best.

If that is the party’s view, then unionism has reverted to historical type, following a straightforward strategy of “what we have we hold” – or the siege mentality as it is pejoratively called.

This position, although depressing, could be perfectly rational as long as the DUP can explain what it is holding on to.

Is its goal simply to preserve Northern Ireland for as long as possible and to keep it as exclusively British as possible, without getting sidetracked by patronising delusions about converting nationalists to passive unionism?

As this amounts to demographic fatalism, then what?

Does the DUP have a longer-term view on preserving the unionist community in a united Ireland? How does it see this in terms of culture, politics and – most delicately of all – territory?

If it genuinely believes these question require no answers, it could be disabused in fairly short order.

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