Susan McKay: DUP believes chaos is best plan

Constructive voices within Northern Ireland’s Protestant community being shut out

First Minister Arlene Foster seems only nominally in charge. She scarcely rebukes the politicians she is supposed to be leading when they engage in uncouth, disruptive and bigoted behaviour. Photograph: Liam McBurney

As the Proud Boys are to Trump, so the loyalist paramilitaries are to the Democratic Unionist Party. They are what you are left with when democracy lets you down.

“We will fight guerrilla warfare against this, until the big battle opportunity comes,” the DUP MP for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson, declared last weekend in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol. His comments followed a meeting between First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster and a group that included retired former paramilitary leaders. Deputy leader Nigel Dodd was there as well. The meeting was held because it was important that “all communities have a voice”.

It came after threats were issued and incendiary devices left at the offices of the SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin politicians. One of those at the meeting, former UUP adviser David Campbell, recently said on one of BBC NI’s angry men shows that if loyalists had to “fight physically” again, “so be it”. After all, he reasoned, we didn’t put up with Hitler or Stalin.

Also present was Jim Wilson, a former paramilitary and now “loyalist community worker”, who on the same show the next day, shouted down Jude Whyte who asked him who it was the loyalists had fought, suggesting it was “unarmed civilians”. Wilson called him an idiot and told him he knew “absolutely nothing about the conflict”. The UVF murdered Whyte’s mother in a bomb attack on her home which also killed a young policeman. Wilson subsequently apologised.


Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin wrote in an essay about the links between the late DUP founder Ian Paisley’s fiery and belligerent preaching in the 1960s and the actual violence carried out by loyalist paramilitaries, “puritan metaphor . . . has a habit of becoming literal”.

In his fine poem Desertmartin he describes the transformation of the “free strenuous spirit” of Ulster Presbyterianism into a “servile defiance”, left shouting “for the Big Man to lead his wee people/To a clean white prison, their scorched tomorrow”. He saw a culture that had declined into “Waving a gaudy flag it loves and curses.” That poem was published in 1993, before the loyalist ceasefires of 1994, and the Belfast Agreement which the DUP said it would “smash”.

Bigoted behaviour

Unionism is crashing backwards. Aside from Sammy Wilson’s guerilla war, it is placing its hopes on Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister’s appeal to the courts to uphold the 1800 Act of Union. The Ulster Unionist Party is by now completely incoherent.

Foster seems only nominally in charge. She scarcely rebukes the politicians she is supposed to be leading when they engage in uncouth, disruptive and bigoted behaviour. Last week MP Carla Lockhart reacted to the Executive’s latest Covid-19 “roadmap” with the comment “clear as mud”. Foster defended her.

Unionism is crashing backwards. The Ulster Unionist Party is by now completely incoherent

The First Minister cannot explain why she initially said that it was her responsibility to implement the protocol to the Brexit deal, and even suggested it might present NI with opportunities, but is now claiming that it is a disaster and has to be removed.

Last week a DUP junior minister temporarily standing in for minister for agriculture Edwin Poots (who has been ill) ordered a halt to construction of customs posts at which foods coming into the North from British ports will be checked. Gordon Lyons did not consult with other Executive colleagues or seek their consent, and the case is likely to end up in court.

Wilson believes this will provoke a “crisis in devolution”. It will arise because the UK government, which after all pays the wages of the civil servants in Northern Ireland, will try to overrule the Stormont minister by instructing staff to continue to work on the border infrastructure. Menacing graffiti around Larne and other towns includes explicit threats to those working on implementing new border rules.

Former faux ally

In other words, the DUP has decided chaos is the best plan. Wilson even explained why. When the party’s former faux ally Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, suggested unionists should use democratic processes to oppose the protocol, which comes up for review in 2024, Wilson said that unionism could not do this because, well, basically, it would lose the vote. “If you consider the Alliance Party, SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Greens and People Before Profit, etc, all agree with the protocol . . .” he said.

Unionism is in a panic because it no longer dominates

In reality, of course, the other parties, along with business people and others, are being pragmatic in the interests of stability at a time of pandemic and economic recovery. They got stuck with the protocol because the DUP ignored the wishes of the 56 per cent of people who voted to remain in the EU, and kept bidding for a harder and harder Brexit until their votes no longer mattered and the prime minister they liked because he was like Donald Trump tossed them aside.

Unionism is in a panic because it no longer dominates. There are many constructive voices within the Protestant community, including those of the women who actually run the community sector. The parties shut them out. As for the paramilitaries “withdrawing” their support for the Belfast Agreement, when did you last hear any of these men championing equality, respect and human rights? Or even shouting about God and Ulster?

All the security assessments find them to be armed criminal gangs, though they do a lucrative sideline in hoovering up funds that are meant to persuade them to disband. Last week, some of them were tweeting admiration for the tactics of the QAnon-types throwing fireworks at the police in Dublin. That’s their level. They do not represent working-class unionist communities. The DUP does. But it offers its people nothing but a gaudy flag to wave and curse.