Above: Arlene Foster speaking at the 2014 DUP Conference at La Mon House Hotel.
Explaining to anyone who isn’t from Northern Ireland who exactly the Democratic Unionist Party are – something that’s been asked all over the internet since Friday morning’s dramatic events – and what exactly their problem is (a follow up question usually delivered in the next breath), always feels slightly odd to Tommy Downshire. So, we drafted in the wee bollocks to give us a 101 on the DUP.
Being a millenial from ‘our wee cuntry’ means that the DUP are ‘always already’ there in the political imaginary, a bit like The Madwoman in the Attic from Bronte’s Jane Eyre: to outsiders they may resemble a grotesque monster, to us they’re more an ongoing Gothic domestic crisis to which we’ve become collectively desensitised.
It can take the harsh gaze of external media and public attention to really bring home just quite how out of touch with the modern political world they – and the wider culture of Unionism – are. In an era almost entirely dominated (at least pre-Trump) by a particular brand of bland technocratic neo-liberalism, the DUP remain profoundly and proudly out of step: homophobic, sexist, racist, climate change deniers, several of whom believe the world to be 4,000 years old.
This sort of Presbyterian fundamentalism has no analogy in mainstream British politics, with its closest analogue being the Christian fundamentalism that revived the right-wing of the US Republican Party from the 1980s onwards. Founded by inveterate anti-Catholic rabble rouser Ian Paisley in 1971 at the height of the Troubles, the DUP have for the past 4 decades or so built a political movement around being the ‘hardest’ and most anti-Nationalist of the Unionist parties. The party has openly courted Loyalist paramilitary groups, as with Paisley’s dabbling with Ulster Resistance in the 1980s, while new MP Emma Little Pengelly was the beneficiary of a warm endorsement from the UDA during her campaign.
Its modern electoral coalition is premised on a mixture of Free Presbyterians (the church founded by Paisley, and an evangelical and vocal minority in much of eastern Ulster); the upwardly mobile Protestant ‘new bourgeoisie’ in finance, construction, and real estate; middle managers and the petite bourgeoisie; and the ‘left behind’ Protestant working class in deindustrialised areas of Belfast, Derry, and mid-Ulster.
This cross-class, cross-geographic, ‘rainbow coalition’ is glued together by an overriding anti-Catholicism and nostalgic British nationalism, premised on the decomposition and failure of the project of modernising Official Unionism from the 1960s onwards as Northern Ireland experienced economic retraction and de facto civil war. The DUP finally eclipsed its major rival the UUP in 2003 following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement through its hardline anti-republican stance, with the defection of several high-profile representatives, including newly re-elected MP Jeffrey Donaldson.
The later success of Paisley’s own Damascene conversion to the merits of doing business with Sinn Fein, in bringing the vast majority of his party with him, can be attributed in large part to the sheer force of personality he possessed (as well as the threat by the then-Labour government to implement progressive reforms over his head).
Current leader Arlene Foster by contrast can probably be fairly characterised as the least charismatic senior politician in either Britain or Ireland. Her frequent gaffes – the mother of all being her central role in the recent ‘cash for ash’ scandal which brought down the Northern Assembly – are in large part responsible for the party’s recent poor performance in regional elections.
Its revival in Thursday’s contest owes more to a backlash triggered by Sinn Fein’s over-confidence in declaring their own result a mandate for a United Ireland.
Already the most egregious manifestations of the DUP’s embarrassing social conservatism – Edwin Poots’ ban on gay men donating blood, Peter Robinson’s defense of Islamophobic preacher Pastor McConnell, DUP leader Arlene Foster’s recent restatement of opposition to the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to NI – are now taking on a life of their own as social media memes, and as objects of scorn on the front pages of the London papers, as bemusement and anger at Theresa May’s new pals grips liberal (and even moderate conservative) England.
As the DUP and their support base are rudely discovering, the throwback Protestant supremacism it inculcates was superseded in the political culture of the metropole at least a half century ago, its conservative opposition to abortion and gay rights a generation ago, and even its contemporary support for the hardest of Brexits appears out of touch given UKIP’s dismal electoral result and the reviving fortunes of Labour across England.
May’s colossal bollock-drop in losing the Tory majority thus appears set to be compounded by the embarrassment and instability of relying on these political dinosaurs in order to keep her minority government in power through a ‘confidence and supply’ deal.
The DUP will most likely propose three core demands in return: first, that Brexit mean Brexit (that is, an exit from the Single Market combined with restrictions on Free Movement); second, that following Brexit there is no ‘hard’ border between NI and the South detrimental to commerce (combined with the demand that travel from NI to Great Britain should remain frictionless, a tall order); and that any talk of a poll on Irish unification is definitively quashed. While it is doubtful the DUP will attempt to export in legislative form their reactionary social views to ‘the mainland’, one element of quid pro quo could be that the government in London likewise not interfere in the ‘internal affairs’ of the six counties.
All of this means that as the preferred party of the British ruling class, the Tories are doing a terrible job. First, Cameron’s hubris precipitated crises in Scotland and the UK’s relationship with the EU, and now May’s miscalculation has left the party in a shotgun wedding with “the political wing of the 18th century” as one wag phrased it. And on top of this the Tories themselves remain divided into ‘ultra’ and centrist wings on the question of Brexit, with a destabilising leadership coup almost certain to occur in the near future.
No wonder the proposed Tory-DUP lash-up has provoked mass opposition in Britain, with hundreds of thousands signing a petition declaring the deal as illegitimate, while thousands more have taken to the streets in protest.
Given this tumultuous context, it seems extremely unlikely that any sort of functioning local Assembly will be resurrected in Northern Ireland any time soon. What possible incentive could Sinn Fein have to do a deal with the DUP, if that deal is supervised by a weak Tory government beholden to the parliamentary votes of the latter?
In addition, despite the hopes of some English progressives, it is equally unlikely that Sinn Fein might take their seven seats at Westminster to aid the pro-Corbyn legislative numbers. Instead the overwhelming likelihood is that the party will remain outside the corridors of power in Stormont and London for the foreseeable future, with continued agitation around the issue of a border poll (with all the tribal deflection and sectarian head-counting that tack entails) taking centre stage, premised on a hope for a short and unstable reign for the new British administration.
Of course there is a certain sense of Schadenfreude here, as England now has to make eye contact with the Frankenstein’s Monster it has enabled in its last colony. One also senses an underlying hypocrisy: seemingly, it’s fine for Northern Irish women to have to travel to Britain for abortions, but restrictions on abortion in Britain would of course be beyond the pale. Ditto, gay rights, or the party’s enduring anti-Irish Catholic bigotry.
On the latter subject there is a clear symptomatic absence in all this public and media furore: though the general banality of ‘terrorist-linked’ has been regularly invoked, any systematic accounting for the manner in which the most ultra-reactionary paramilitary-linked wing of Unionism has been enabled by successive British administrations, through collusion and cover-ups, is missing.
However these recriminations are ultimately uncharitable. The reality is that a profoundly unpopular fox-murdering, milk-snatching, dementia-taxing Tory has been dealt a critical blow by a risen people, the Corbyn coalition of old and young, working class and the downwardly mobile middle class, rallied around an egalitarian leftist programme.
The ‘national’ spotlight shone on the DUP’s redundant bigotry should only embolden progressives in Northern Ireland, and ideologically at least helpfully serves to undermine once and for all the always false narrative that there are ‘two tribes’ at war here, rather than one moderately liberal movement confronted by the remnants of an arch-reactionary supremacism.
That said, the centrist nationalism of Sinn Fein is ultimately inadequate in its own way. Offering little or nothing to working class Protestants, wedded to a neoliberal economic programme of tax cuts and giveaways, and monomaniacally focused on the border in a way that can only lead to further tribal division. Corbyn’s success demonstrates the innate attraction of a social democratic programme, and a radical approach to political activism, in a period of prolonged economic crisis for the working class and young.
A polarised General Election in the six counties has seen the eclipse of ‘moderate’ Nationalism and Unionism by Sinn Fein and the DUP, but this can serve as a clearing of the decks for activists willing to propose a class-based, progressive, political alternative pitched at those alienated by sectarian and corporate business as usual.
Have a read of Tommy Downshire’s take on the last election up North from back in April.