by Frank Schnittger
Thu Oct 17th, 2019 at 10:54:04 AM EST
DUP leader Arlene Foster (left) and deputy leader Nigel Dodds. photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
The title of this diary is deliberately provocative as "Uster Says No" has been the Paisleyite, unionist and loyalist moto since the formation of the N. Ireland sectarian statelet. In reality N. Ireland only constitutes 6 of the 9 counties of the province of Ulster, and these were chosen as part of a deliberate gerrymander to create a protestant majority. Even within this context, the DUP now only has about 1,000 members and received 24% and 22% of the vote in the 2019 local and European elections respectively.
So it is more correct to state that it is the DUP which says NO, as they have been doing to every reform initiated since the foundation of the statelet, including the Good Friday Agreement. Basically they claim that N. Ireland is as British as Finchley while at the same time claiming different treatment for Northern Ireland compared to Britain when it suits them on car number plates, bank holidays, tourism, languages, gambling, defamation, anti-discrimination laws, spirit measures, railway lines, lighthouses, waterways, the civil service, abortion and equal marriage.
So the DUP's rejection of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal is utterly in character and of no surprise whatsoever to anyone acquainted with N. Ireland politics. But the DUP is also literally incapable of saying YES to any significant change because it does not have the skills or means to persuade its voting base of the necessity for change. As Northern Ireland Unionist commentator, Newton Emerson has observed,
On the day of the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Sinn Féin organised a victory parade along the Falls Road in Belfast. There was much public cynicism about this obvious spin but republicans still knew the importance of getting their cynicism in first.
Prior to the ceasefire, Sinn Féin and IRA leaders spent months discussing the political way ahead with their base, suffering damaging defections along the way.
There were four further years of grassroots briefings ahead of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, often to distinctly unimpressed audiences. To keep the show on the road, Sinn Féin is known to have given its supporters nudges and winks about the republican movement's honesty and commitment to peace.
The task the DUP faces in reconciling its supporters to a Brexit deal is of the same order, whatever responsibility it accepts for it. I make the comparison to illustrate how such efforts are very much not in the party's character.
The DUP opposed the Belfast Agreement but did not make any attempt to present its defeat as victory. It slinked into Stormont and carped from the sidelines, still pretending it did not want to be there.
Last week the DUP held talks with loyalist leaders to reassure them on its Brexit proposals. These talks were notable for being unusual - the party was firefighting media reports of loyalist revolt rather than pursuing any long-term engagement.
The DUP would deny loyalist paramilitaries are part of its base. It prefers to have an arm's-length relationship with them and its approach to the broader unionist community is little better. Most DUP representatives are diligent glad-handers and constituency workers but the party has no equivalent of Sinn Féin's constant campaigns and rounds of town hall meetings, where supporters are briefed on policy and strategy and invited to feel part of a movement.
There is a strange disconnection between the DUP and the unionist electorate that has only widened as its vote has grown. Religious, conservative and oddly classless, it is unlike huge swathes of the people it represents and seems disinterested in closing the gap. Internally, the DUP is a tiny black box of backroom operatives, as revealed by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Elected representatives are kept on a tight leash and the membership, numbering about 1,000, is powerless and generally ignored.
This has created a culture where decisions are decreed from the top with no serious consultation inside the party, let alone beyond it. If a decision goes down badly, the leadership is more inclined to freeze and dig in than to explain itself and try again.
So what we are seeing here is a failure of leadership, and a failure of politics, but one which has worked for Unionism up until now because of their in-built majority in N. Ireland's sectarian headcount. Now that demographic changes are beginning to challenge that majority, N. Ireland unionism has no means of accommodating itself to that change. The cries of "No Surrender" become ever more shrill the more their majority is imperilled. "Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."
Although many ERG members have now promised to support Boris' deal even before they knew what it contained, it is doubtful that there will be sufficient Labour rebels to make up for the loss of DUP, some ERG and some expelled Tory MPs to provide a majority for Boris' deal at Saturday's special meeting of the House of Commons. It seems hardly likely that the EU and UK will attempt to negotiate a third deal to satisfy the DUP, so the only outcome has to be a further Brexit extension to facilitate a general election or a second referendum.
Labour has signalled a preference for a general election, a development that would signal the end for many independent and ChangeUK MPs, and perhaps for Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, in her Scottish constituency as well. Their only option to avoid this fate - and deny Johnson a majority - would be to elected Corbyn as interim PM of a caretaker government to organise a second referendum. But could they overcome their childish vendettas against him?
With the Leave vote likely to be divided between those supporting Johnson's deal and Faragiste no dealers, there is every prospect that Remain would win the referendum, and Corbyn any subsequent general election. But there is a political process of consulting with the people that has to be gone through first. Something the DUP will have to learn to do in due course as well.