DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaks to the media at Stormont on February 3, 2024. Picture Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The lies of Sinn Fein

Sectarian smears against Unionists have been exposed as the falsehoods they always were. Will anyone bother to say sorry?

Artillery Row

Today, by the DUP nominating a Deputy First Minister, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson decisively put to an end the grim sectarian slur against him and unionism more broadly, a slur perpetuated by Sinn Fein and others in Irish nationalism that the DUP’s refusal to form an executive was really because it would mean “serving under” an Irish nationalist First Minister and not because of expressed concerns over the Irish Sea border.

What’s casual sectarianism after all, if it means more votes?

That this was untrue was always obvious. Donaldson took the decision to collapse the Executive in February 2022, when the DUP held the First Minister role, due to the government’s failure to address unionist concerns over the intra-UK trade border. In the two years since, with Sunak’s no sense of a sea border Windsor Framework and now Donaldson’s extra no sense of a sea border “Safeguarding The Union”, the DUP has agreed to return to the Executive on basis the issue has been sufficiently resolved to restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. While Donaldson’s decision has been criticised over the accuracy of his sea border effacing claims, there has been not a hint of opposition from within his party or more broadly on the grounds it will result in an Irish nationalist First Minister. To say, it was, as said, always about the protocol.

The origins of the claim go back to the NI Assembly elections in May 2022. Polling at the time showed that Sinn Fein was likely to be the biggest party and therefore entitled to nominate the First Minister. In interviews Donaldson refused to answer the question whether he would serve as Deputy First Minister on the reasonable political grounds that you don’t concede, even hypothetically, defeat during the campaign. Sinn Fein and follow-travellers used the occasion however to accuse him and his party of sectarianism — They SAY it’s because of the protocol but REALLY it’s because they just don’t like Irish nationalists. They did this not because of a sincere belief it was true but because they knew that in playing to Irish nationalist prejudices about unionism and its motivations, it would get the vote out. And get the vote out it did.

Post-election, Donaldson quickly confirmed that he would indeed serve as Deputy First Minister if the DUP’s protocol issues were addressed. This and further statements of the same from him and his colleagues went ignored. Many in Irish nationalism continued to periodically repeat and reinforce the impression that it was really about sectarianism. The SDLP leader, probably with an eye on retaining his Foyle Westminster seat against a resurgent Sinn Fein, also joined in. What’s casual sectarianism after all, if it means more votes?

The burden of proof was disgustingly put on unionism. It was for it to show the unfounded accusation was actually unfounded

Immediately upon becoming the biggest party Sinn Fein also dropped its long standing practice of making up names for the Deputy First Minister post to emphasise the (factually true) equality of the two offices. For years it used various titles for Deputy First Minister — Martin McGuinness, O’Neill’s predecessor, called himself “Joint First Minister”. When Stormont returned in January 2020 after Sinn Fein’s three-year boycott of the devolved institutions, they started to refer to O’Neill as “Joint Head of Government.” Now the biggest party, it turns out it does actually matter. Michelle O’Neill is “First Minister.” Insisting it does at precisely the point of becoming the largest party tells you everything — this was about getting digs in, about asserting an Irish nationalist ascendancy over Northern Irish unionism. And it did this at the same time as also insisting it was Donaldson and unionism who were being sectarian.

All of this went largely unchallenged by local journalists (the only substantial pushback against it that I have seen came recently in the Belfast Telegraph) and other virtuous observers of Northern Irish politics from near and far. Many said not a word against it. The burden of proof was disgustingly put on unionism. It was for it to show the unfounded accusation was actually unfounded. Not, you know, on those making it. More, unionists were told they had it coming for boycotting the Executive. What did they expect to happen? Think “strategically”, it was exhorted. Not, you know, upbraiding Irish nationalism for being sectarian.

Let me dell on a particular recent example. In early January, following a failed attempt to elect a new speaker due to the DUP’s ongoing opposition, Michelle O’Neill, self-styling as “First Minister for all”, again took the opportunity to assert the stumbling block was really unionism’s problem with Irish nationalism. She did so on the basis of “everything being in place” (a protocol deal, more funding for the devolved institutions). What else could it be could?

We now know how grossly cynical and vile this was. We’ve seen the protocol deal between the DUP and the government that has led to re-formation of the Executive. We know it might be something but we also know it doesn’t come close to addressing even the practical issues of the sea border let alone the DUP’s “seven tests”. O’Neill knows this too. She’s known it for months. In December she knew it would be a very hard sell within the DUP and to its voters more broadly. She knew when she implied Donaldson’s real issue was sectarianism. But she said it anyway.

Playing with and stoking sectarian prejudices in Northern Ireland is deeply irresponsible and slurring unionists as sectarian bigots is not only irresponsible but wrong. Today we have heard from Irish nationalists in the Assembly about how it wants a “new Ireland”. We have heard from the First Minister that she is so “for all”. Yet the evidence of the past twenty months shows how hollow these words are in how easily, knowingly and cynically Irish nationalism has indulged in petty sectarian politics for perceived political gain. It also shows how few people will notice it let alone point it out, though it is clear for all to see.

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