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Artillery Row

The DUP’s accidental ally

UUP failures are keeping DUP hopes alive

In January, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) negotiated the Safeguarding the Union deal with the government and ended its two year boycott of power-sharing at Stormont.

It boasted that, in the process, it had stopped checks on British goods destined for Northern Ireland, ended an “automatic pipeline” of EU law to the province and effectively removed the border in the Irish Sea. Months later, the checks are still in place and last week the High Court struck down the government’s Rwanda scheme in Northern Ireland, confirming that an immigration frontier, to add to economic and legal barriers, separate the province from the rest of the UK.

In the interim, the former leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who brokered Safeguarding the Union, was arrested for a litany of alleged sex offences, including rape. At a preliminary hearing in Newry, a scrum of journalists and angry protestors competed to get at him outside the courtroom. 

This combination of scandal and political failure would destroy most parties. Why then will the DUP go into this year’s general election with every expectation that it will remain Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party?     

The answer must centre on the sorry recent history of its main rival for pro-Union votes, the Ulster Unionist Party. From Northern Ireland’s inception and for much of its existence, the UUP dominated politics there absolutely, but it has now spent decades trying fruitlessly to persuade voters that it still has a purpose.

The Ulster Unionists lost effective leadership of unionism in the early 2000s, after Ian Paisley’s DUP attacked David Trimble viciously for endorsing the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and sharing power with (among others), Sinn Fein. When Paisley subsequently performed a volte-face, becoming first minister and forming one half of Northern Ireland’s so-called “Chuckle Brothers” with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, many “Official Unionists” (as Ulster Unionists were referred to colloquially) expected an imminent comeback.

Indeed, the sense that voters would soon see through the DUP’s hypocrisy and return to the UUP became a recurring weakness for the party. It bred complacency and entitlement that often caused it to focus on intra-unionist attacks, rather than developing its own distinctive message. 

That changed briefly in 2009, when the Ulster Unionists’ then leader, Reg Empey, forged an electoral pact with David Cameron’s Conservatives.

It may seem naive in retrospect, having witnessed Cameron’s failures as prime minister, the Tories’ civil war over Brexit and now their embarrassing long goodbye to power, but the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — New Force (or UCUNF) created genuine excitement and energy in Ulster Unionism during the lead up to the 2010 general election.

Its message was that pro-Union voters could support centre-right policies, play a part in choosing the next national government and help move Northern Ireland back to the heart of UK politics. It made sense, but it was undermined by sections of the party that saw their dalliance with the Tories simply as a convenient short-cut that could put the UUP back in its rightful place, ahead of the DUP.

That lack of conviction, and some mixed messages during the campaign, helped ensure that the Conservatives and Unionists returned no MPs in Ulster. The pact fizzled out quickly and the Tories officially relaunched their Northern Irish organisation, as a separate electoral entity, in 2012.

During the subsequent years, the UUP struggled to articulate a defining idea, as it railed against consecutive beatings at the ballot box, without absorbing many transformative lessons from those defeats. At times, it found it difficult to explain how it differed from the DUP, which now had a less uncompromising image and contained many former Ulster Unionists.

The parties occasionally agreed to work together at elections, to maximise unionist representation, but continued otherwise to fight acrimoniously.  For much of that period, the Ulster Unionists claimed to articulate a more liberal, inclusive form of unionism. The implication was that the party supported changes to society that its unionist rival struggled to accept.

To that end, the UUP campaigned for “remain” at the Brexit referendum, under its former leader Mike Nesbitt, while the DUP backed Brexit. The Ulster Unionists argued that leaving the European Union could present Northern Ireland with unique difficulties and in retrospect they seemed to be right. 

The problem was that, rather than moving on from the result, and making it clear that the province must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK, influential party figures seemed sympathetic to wounded remainers at Westminster, who wanted to use Ulster’s position to keep the whole country aligned closely with the EU. It was difficult to tell, at times, whether some UUP politicians were cautioning that Northern Ireland could be treated differently, in the event of a harder Brexit, or providing a rationale for that outcome.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Nesbitt told The Australian newspaper, “Some of my unionist friends are saying for the first time to me: ‘Exactly how would I be worse off in a united Ireland (compared to Britain after Brexit)?’ The answer is they wouldn’t be worse off.”

It was a statement that encapsulated post-Brexit hysteria perfectly, and implied a profoundly anti-unionist belief that being part of the EU was more important to Northern Ireland than membership of the UK. Nesbitt eventually tried to “clarify” these remarks, claiming they were intended only as a “warning”.

He remains an influential figure in the party, though, and one of its most bewildering and bewildered MLAs. Only last week, he sponsored an event at Stormont that asked for Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland to have a vote in EU elections. It’s difficult to imagine a more constitutionally muddled cause for the party to become connected to, or one that contradicts more directly the unionist assertion that Northern Ireland should be treated, for the most part, the same as the rest of the UK.  

The UUP has experimented with more traditional leaders, in the shape of Tom Elliott and Robin Swann, but it is now under the charge of Doug Beattie, a former army captain and Military Cross recipient, who wants his candidates to claim back votes from the “progressive” Alliance Party. Under Mr Beattie, the Ulster Unionists have mixed prescient warnings about the development of an Irish Sea border with statements that implied that the Northern Ireland Protocol was an issue of secondary importance.

The party now commentates regularly (and justifiably) on the problems with the sea border, pointing out that the DUP’s failures and shortcomings helped establish that barrier. However, it also claims the protocol is merely a “trade deal” and that Northern Ireland should take advantage of its provisions.

Mr Beattie is inclined to philosophise about his identity and its imperviousness to Irish Sea barriers, as if a firm personal sense of Britishness could compensate unionists for being detached economically, legally and politically from the rest of the UK. 

In Northern Irish unionism, it’s often assumed that the critical division is between traditional, conservative unionists and their more liberal counterparts. But there’s a persuasive argument that its defining faultline separates unionists who are genuinely focussed on Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK and those who are more comfortable with the province being an exception to the British mainstream.

That division now cuts through both the larger unionist parties. However, previously, the DUP’s instincts were markedly Ulster exceptionalist, while the UUP was split between “integrationists” who concentrated on forging stronger political links with the rest of Britain and “devolutionists” who focussed on the trappings of devolved power at Stormont.

The Ulster Unionists, under the leadership of Doug Beattie, seem increasingly unlikely to become a strong voice for UK-centred unionism. Indeed, a third party, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) are now partnered with Reform UK, and sound less parochial currently than either of their unionist rivals.

The DUP, meanwhile, could still have a difficult election year come the July 4th election. At least two of the eight Westminster seats it won in 2019, in Lagan Valley and East Belfast, are particularly vulnerable. If the party doesn’t get the pasting that some of its leadership deserves, though, that has a lot to do with the UUP’s repeated failures to offer a convincing alternative.  

This piece has been amended in the wake of the general election being called.

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