It is necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for political leaders to accept uncomfortable realities if they wish to be successful.
They can work to change these realities, of course – that is often their work and mission – but they will get nowhere if they do not accept them to start with.
The DUP does not have, to put it mildly, a brilliant record of accepting realities. Its recently departed leader believed that the Earth is 6,000 years old and was created more or less as it is by the Almighty. The party’s founder believed that the pope was the Anti-Christ, and once tried to Save Ulster from Sodomy. So there is work to be done here.
The new leader of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, will have to accept a number of realities that his party members find unpalatable or even unendurable if he is to have any hope of staving off the growing nervous breakdown of unionism, the triumph of Sinn Féin as the largest party after the Stormont elections and that party’s occupation of the First Minister’s office. This will be difficult for him and his party, but the alternative is worse. How he manages it will also have direct consequences on politics in Dublin.
The first uncomfortable reality that the DUP will have to face is that psychologically and culturally, the union is in ribbons. By and large, most British voters don’t care whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, and a hefty minority would prefer if they left. The British political establishment remains committed to the union, but the public disinterest in the issue cannot but have an effect on political decision-making in the medium term. Politics, as they say, is downstream of culture.
London and trust
The second reality is that the current British political leadership is entirely unanchored to the things that its predecessors considered part of their political patrimony, and felt bound to protect: Britain’s reputation in the world as a trusted ally and example to other nations, the preservation of the union, and the independence and integrity of Britain’s constitutional, cultural and political institutions. None of these things seem that important to Boris Johnson. At least, they are plainly not important enough not to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, should the circumstances require it. There was poor Sammy Wilson, bleating on Newsnight the other night that the British government “has to recognise the damage it’s done to the union”. It’s pitiful, in a way.
If the deepest fear of unionism has been betrayal by London, then this British government seems less worthy of trust by unionists than any before it
If the deepest fear of unionism has always been betrayal by London, then this British government seems less worthy of trust by unionists than any before it. And that’s saying something. When hapless Theresa May talked about “our precious union”, you know she meant it; when Johnson says it, you know he doesn’t. He has already demonstrated his willingness to double-cross unionism; if you are the Rt Hon Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, you’ve got to fear he would do the same again.
It is not all doom and gloom for Donaldson, though. Some of the realities he faces are less scary.
There is no prospect of a Border poll, and even if there were, there is no sign that it would succeed. The union is safe for the short term. That is not to say, of course, that it will remain so forever, and through the work of groups like Ireland’s Future the issue is part of the political discussion in a way it wasn’t previously. But the Irish Government doesn’t want a poll and the British government doesn’t want a poll, so pretending that it somehow might happen anyway may be useful for some people but it’s not a real-world concern. Donaldson’s challenges will be more complex, actually, and require smarter, and perhaps braver, politics.
The second thing is that Donaldson has in his favour is a taoiseach who will be keen to assist him in some things. Dublin stayed studiously quiet about the DUP’s circular firing squad but it is not unhappy with the outcome; Donaldson will be tough on the protocol because he must but he could also be a man with whom Dublin could do business. Dublin has gone out on a limb to persuade the EU to extend the grace period, a move that raised eyebrows in Brussels as Micheál Martin begins to articulate an all-Ireland interest in defusing the protocol bomb.
Dublin has gone out on a limb to persuade the EU to extend the grace period, a move that raised eyebrows in Brussels
Martin’s northern policy – one of the distinctive aspects of his first year as taoiseach in a term otherwise dominated by the pandemic – is clearly and explicitly designed to reach out to unionism in the most unthreatening way possible. At a time when Sinn Féin, assorted united Irelanders, a goodly chunk of Martin’s own party and Leo Varadkar are beating the green drum, Donaldson would be foolish not to recognise Martin’s measured outreach. If this takes a leap of imagination that unionist leaders have found impossible or at least traumatic, Donaldson should reflect that it was the old ogre himself, Paisley, who managed it best and most profitably. He might also listen to the voices in the UK that are increasingly directed at Ulster unionism and say: come on, grow up, get on with it. Donaldson will also find in Martin an ally in dealing with Downing Street – where resides a man that both must deal with, but neither trusts.
If he can see it, Donaldson has an opportunity to strengthen the union by making the North and its institutions work for ordinary people. That requires pragmatism with Dublin and London and accommodating himself and his party to the Northern Ireland of 2021. He will have to face down his own hotheads and blowhards. That will take real leadership, of a kind that unionism has only ever had fitfully and desperately needs now.