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The end is nigh for Northern Ireland as we know it – and unionists can blame themselves

The end is nigh for Northern Ireland as we know it – and unionists can blame themselves

By Susan McKay Published in The Guardian 30th March 2022

Northern Ireland is coming to an end, and unionists, having nowadays only themselves to blame, are plummeting through history, desperately seeking the security of the homeland they are convinced their forefathers built for them.

There will be elections to the Stormont assembly in Belfast on 5 May, but it looks as if the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), currently the largest unionist party, will refuse to return.

Sinn Féin looks set to come in as the largest party, thereby winning the first minister’s role. Up to now this has always been held by a unionist. The DUP has said this is “a problem”.

There are those with a nostalgia for violence who like to hint that the paramilitaries will rise again and save the province

Fifty years ago, on 28 March 1972, the British government, realising that unionism was incapable of handling the requirement to change by giving civil rights to nationalists, shut down the Northern Irish parliament and imposed direct rule. Brian Faulkner, the last of the province’s unionist prime ministers, declared it a betrayal. Tens of thousands of loyalists rallied in protest in front of Edward Carson’s statue outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont. In 1974 the Sunningdale Agreement, an attempt to set up a new regime with participation by nationalists, was thwarted when unionists and loyalist paramilitaries joined forces to stage a massive strike that brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. Direct rule continued for the rest of the years of the Troubles, only ending when the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998.

The problem in 1972 was the refusal to share power, and recognising the rights of Irish citizens in NI, and the problem today is the same. Even though the arrangements at Stormont are founded on a mandatory powersharing coalition and the first and deputy first ministers are actually joint and equal, the DUP has been pretending to itself and to its gullible voters that because the first minister’s office has always been held by a unionist, Northern Ireland essentially still had a unionist prime minister. And that it was therefore still in charge of its beloved wee country with the right to say “no”, over and over.

A rude awakening is coming and panic has set in. And so it is that Jeffrey Donaldson MP, the DUP leader, and, reluctantly, one of its candidates as an MLA, finds himself sitting miserably on lorry-pulled trailers at poorly attended anti-protocol rallies in the main streets of small towns in unionist heartlands. He has his Orange sash with him, lest anyone doubt his loyalty – and plenty do, for paranoia is the prevailing condition at these events. The Orange order is once again trying to unite the unionist family. What is being opposed is not just the protocol - it is the Good Friday agreement.

Alongside Donaldson are people who, having nothing constructive to offer to politics, seek to make up for it with breast-beating sectarian rhetoric which portrays unionists as the most betrayed and victimised people in the world. Ever. The Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister (his party’s sole MLA) claims Northern Ireland has been colonised by the EU and is coveted by the Republic of Ireland. A senior DUP politician told one rally that if the government could stand up for Ukraine, it could stand up for the union. This was expanded by a hyperbolic blogger who explained that while Ukraine was under siege from Russia, Northern Ireland was “[in the] UK, subjugated by the protocol & is under an EU jackboot”. There are warnings about foreigners and enemies – including journalists and the judiciary.

Apart from Kate Hoey, for whom no one in Northern Ireland ever cast a vote, they are all men. Manliness is next to godliness when it comes to saving Ulster. Allister sneerily equates the prospect of unionism taking the deputy first minister’s role with becoming the “bridemaid” of Sinn Féin.

The DUP was disappointed by Westminster’s reaction when it crashed the executive at Stormont earlier this year. The government hardly registered the big move, and there was the usual scramble for the exits when MP Ian Paisley Jr got up to lament the ingratitude of the prime minister to his most loyal subjects. This week the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, said checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea must continue. Unionists love to call for the “triggering” of article 16. Lewis pointed out that this would not in any case mean scrapping the protocol.

In the last days of what may be the last Northern Irish assembly for the foreseeable future, bills that had already been progressed were voted through. They included one to offer women further protections from domestic violence, one to stop anti-abortionists from harassing women outside health clinics, and one to give more parents the ability to choose integrated education for their children. The DUP attempted to stop most of them. No wonder many of those who used to vote unionist are now looking elsewhere, or not voting at all.

Last week, while Prince Charles and Camilla were learning Irish dancing in the Irish Republic during a congenial tour, gunmen forced a man to drive a hoax bomb to a venue at which an Irish government minister was speaking. Nationalist politicians have been intimidated, their election posters set on fire. After Ulster Unionist party leader Doug Beattie spoke out against incendiary rhetoric at anti-protocol rallies, the window of his constituency office was smashed. Thuggery. There are those with a nostalgia for violence who like to hint that the paramilitaries will rise again and save the province. They won’t. They do not have the capacity and the people do not want them. Northern Ireland never worked for all of its people. Unionism has seen to it that it never will.

Susan McKay is an Irish writer and journalist whose books include Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground

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