When Jeffrey Donaldson took to his feet in the House of Commons on Tuesday to respond to the Queen’s Speech, he must have asked himself how it had come to this. After a century of unionist superiority in Northern Irish elections, Donaldson was the first unionist leader to address his fellow MPs in the shadow of a larger nationalist rival. Even worse for the DUP leader, the rival party was Sinn Féin, whose leading figures still defend the IRA campaign that motivated Donaldson to become a politician in the first place.
His career as an MP began a quarter of a century ago, after a political apprenticeship working for Enoch Powell and James Molyneux. Their party, the Ulster Unionists, had been Northern Ireland’s largest throughout its history. Donaldson jumped ship to Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party in 2004, having spent several turbulent years opposing David Trimble’s approach to the peace process from within. The DUP took over as the dominant unionist party and Paisley cut a deal on power-sharing with Sinn Féin, which had meanwhile overtaken the SDLP to become the leading nationalist party.
On the eve of the Brexit referendum, things were still looking good for the DUP and the unionist cause. Despite suffering some modest attrition in the Assembly election of May 2016, the DUP had pulled further ahead of Sinn Féin, which appeared to be in worse shape than its governing partner. Donaldson may well have seen himself as an eventual candidate to replace Arlene Foster, another Ulster Unionist defector, when the time came for her to step down. But he cannot have imagined the circumstances in which it would happen.
Donaldson’s accession last June came at a moment of deep political turmoil. The DUP had experienced two leadership heaves in two months, after going half a century without one. The instability was a symptom of the party’s wider malaise. Polls already indicated that Sinn Féin would overtake it at the next Assembly election, and Donaldson’s brief was to stave that off. But nothing that he and his colleagues did in the run-up to last week’s vote could shift the balance of forces.
The final result wasn’t even close: a margin of almost 8 per cent, with an overall swing of 13 per cent from the DUP to Sinn Féin since 2016. Speaking in the House of Commons, the DUP leader plaintively accused Boris Johnson of breaking his word over Brexit and precipitating a crisis for unionism. He reminded Johnson of his solemn pledge to the DUP conference in 2018 that he would never allow a trade barrier in the Irish Sea.
At one level, Donaldson has every reason to feel aggrieved. Just before the Assembly election, Johnson’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, casually indicated that there would be nothing in the Queen’s Speech about scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol. Donaldson has been insisting on such a move as the sine qua non for progress, and Lewis may have given a last-minute boost to the main challenger on the DUP’s right flank, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
The real puzzle, however, is why Donaldson and his colleagues ever decided to entrust their fate to Johnson. Northern Irish unionism certainly isn’t primed to credit the pledges made by British politicians. The founding myth of modern unionism was the successful resistance it mounted to a Home Rule bill introduced by a British Liberal government in 1912. Unionist leaders like Edward Carson and James Craig declared their readiness to take up arms against legislation that had gone through the House of Commons.
Admittedly they engaged in this display of sabre-rattling with the support of the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, so we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree of unionist estrangement from the British political class at the time. But there has been no shortage of acrimony between unionist politicians and Tories in recent decades. It was a Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, who went over the head of Brian Faulkner to impose direct rule in 1972. The next Tory premier, Margaret Thatcher, rammed through the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the face of near-unanimous unionist opposition, and her successor, John Major, engaged in back-channel talks with the IRA while publicly insisting that he was doing no such thing. ‘Distrust and verify’ has been the guiding principle for unionist dealings with British governments of any political complexion for a very long time.
It is all the more extraordinary, then, that the DUP threw in its lot with Johnson after 2016. Some might be tempted to quote Edward Carson’s antagonist Oscar Wilde and say you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh, but the long-term ramifications could yet prove to be very serious for everyone in Northern Ireland. It is barely twelve months since the most protracted outbreak of street violence for years, in which post-Brexit tensions played their part. Loyalist paramilitaries are still active, and the DUP’s need to claw back support may lead it to adopt a confrontational stance, the consequences of which could escape the control of party leaders. And Johnson is still prime minister, which also detracts from the merriment.
Donaldson and his party must be struck by the asymmetry of outcomes on either side of the Irish Sea. The flippancy of Tory leaders when it came to Brexit comfortably exceeded their own. David Cameron called the referendum without giving a moment’s thought to what might happen if he lost. Theresa May normalised such empty, self-defeating slogans as ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ instead of managing expectations in the Leave camp from her short-lived position of strength. Boris Johnson demonstrated his sense of political responsibility when he crashed through a wall of boxes at the wheel of a JCB during the 2019 general election. Yet he won the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, with Tory gains in former Labour strongholds and a blank sheet on which to write the party’s legislative wish-list.
For the DUP, on the other hand, there has been nothing but electoral pain and a question mark over the future of the Union. The difference between the two parties is a matter of power. There were enough people in Britain with serious clout who were determined to preserve the Conservative Party as a going concern, from affluent retirees to newspaper proprietors. The DUP couldn’t fall back on an equivalent support system.
When Nigel Farage declared his intention to run a full slate of Brexit Party candidates against the Tories in the 2019 election, the Leave impresario Arron Banks swiftly whipped him into line: ‘The only way Brexit is going to get delivered is by a Boris majority.’ There was nobody willing or able to apply the same kind of pressure to Jim Allister, the leader of the TUV, which increased its vote share by 5 per cent at the DUP’s expense. Sammy Wilson of the DUP was reduced to complaining about the greater discipline of nationalist voters: ‘On the unionist side people still believe it’s OK to indulge their egos and pursue their selfish agenda and have been happy to see the vote fragmented.’
A different Brexit strategy from the DUP might not have resulted in a different outcome for the UK in general or Northern Ireland in particular. There would still have been a pro-Brexit majority in the referendum if every Northern Irish Leave voter had defected to the Remain camp. The Scottish National Party wasn’t able to stop Johnson’s hard-Brexit plan from going through with a much larger bloc of Westminster MPs than the DUP had at its disposal.
The big mistake that Donaldson’s party made was misdiagnosing the political moment of 2016 and after. They saw it as an opportunity for their brand of unionism, which would bring it closer to the British political mainstream. Instead it has proved to be a wedge between Northern Ireland and Britain, as was always likely with a project that rested on a specifically English nationalism.
There could still be bitter divisions between Johnson’s government and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. But they will not arise from a newfound sense of solidarity in London with Northern Irish unionism. Johnson may want a distraction from his domestic difficulties; Liz Truss may want to burnish her credentials ahead of a future leadership contest; their government as a whole may want to use the Protocol as leverage when haggling over trade relations with the rest of Europe. The DUP won’t be able to rely on any of them as it seeks to rebuild.