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“It’s the voice of Protestant desperation,” an Ulsterman who knows the Democratic Unionist Party well told ConHome this week.
Westminster grandees seldom turn a sympathetic ear to that voice. They instead preach “the redemptive power of dialogue over dogma”, and urge the DUP to “wise up” and accept “compromise for the common good”, as The Times put it in an eloquent leading article on Monday.
But as Sam McBride pointed out in Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph,
“In recent weeks there has been no discernible hint that the DUP has been preparing its supporters — or even its own elected members — for a major compromise.”
McBride remarked on “the astonishing ignorance of the party at the top of Rishi Sunak’s Government”.
Ignorance of the DUP is certainly widespread at Westminster, and enables prejudice to flourish. “Historically they are dying out,” a colleague in the Commons press gallery assured me yesterday.
The assumption of the Dinner Party – the brilliant name coined by the late Frank Johnson for fashionable metropolitan folk – is that the DUP are backward, troublesome and on the losing side of history.
At a recent meeting of the Dinner Party to which I happened, possibly by accident, to be invited, I found myself the only person at the table who did not believe in the inevitability, within our lifetimes, of a united Ireland.
If one makes that assumption, it follows that the DUP can be dismissed as a tribe of laughably primitive fundamentalists, clinging to outmoded beliefs about the Union, who in the short term may have to be bought off, but in the long term are doomed to extinction.
The Dinner Party takes the same view of the European Research Group of Conservative MPs: a bunch of cranks and losers who will soon die out.
In 2016, when the ERG turned out to be in tune with public opinion and Leave won the EU Referendum, the Dinner Party was not just shocked to the depths of its finger bowls, but incandescent with rage at the defiance of its authority.
The current closeness of the DUP and the ERG springs not just from calculation, but from a common sense of being spurned by a British Establishment which has long regarded principles such as sovereignty as a distraction from the serious business of reaching ever closer union with the Brussels Establishment.
An ERG MP reminded ConHome that “unlike any other party here, the DUP grew up in a war zone”, and spoke of the “massive cultural divide” between the Democratic Unionists and “the people who all read PPE at Oxford”, a group including Rishi Sunak.
Two cousins of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader since 2021 of the DUP, were killed by the IRA while serving in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and he himself, born in 1962, joined the Ulster Defence Regiment at the age of 18, reaching the rank of Corporal.
He served his political apprenticeship in the 1980s as election agent for Enoch Powell, who after leaving the Conservative Party in 1974 spent 13 years as the Ulster Unionist Party MP for South Down.
Donaldson then worked as personal assistant to Jim Molyneaux, Leader of the UUP, whose Commons seat of Lagan Valley he took on in 1997 and has represented ever since.
In 1998, Donaldson was on the UUP delegation for the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement, but walked out on the morning the GFA was reached and became a high-profile opponent of the Agreement and of David Trimble, the UUP leader, whose downfall he did much some years later to bring about.
The DUP, founded by Ian Paisley in 1971 and led by him for the next 37 years, replaced the UUP as the chief voice of Unionism, with Donaldson one of its most significant recruits.
So although to the casual observer Sunak, as Prime Minister, is clearly the senior figure in any negotiations with the DUP, in terms of political experience he is a mere child compared to Donaldson.
In order to avert a large-scale rebellion by the ERG, Sunak needs any deal he reaches to be endorsed by Donaldson, a man with both the ability and the motive to drive a hard bargain.
On Tuesday evening, Donaldson addressed the ERG at Westminster. He was, the ERG MP quoted earlier said, “really poised, very, very careful in his words, very careful not to say anything offensive to the Government”.
He said that when discussing the affairs of the Province with Americans, he explains the “democratic deficit” in Northern Ireland, which has to accept EU Single Market rules it has no part in passing, by asking if they have ever heard of the Boston Tea Party.
“No taxation without representation” was the cry of the American colonists who in 1773 threw the tea into Boston Harbour. This principle has an overwhelming appeal to Unionists, and to Brexiteers, in every part of the United Kingdom.
Just as the American colonists were unpersuaded by the argument that the duty on tea was a mere trifle by comparison with the great advantages they enjoyed from membership of the British Empire, so Unionists are unpersuaded by the argument that the various impositions they suffer under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol are a mere trifle by comparison with the great advantages they enjoy from membership of the European Single Market.
It is a question of principle. Justice, freedom and self-respect require one to make a stand whatever the cost may be.
One of the advantages of talking about history is that it reveals nothing about one’s negotiating position now. About that, Donaldson disclosed no detail whatever.
This is a problem for Sunak. He needs to know what the DUP’s bottom line is.
According to a well-placed source in Belfast, Sunak’s people “were talking to the wrong people in the DUP”.
Their conduit was Timothy Johnson, since 2017 the Chief Executive of the DUP. He has long been a powerful figure within the party, as he makes clear to anyone who reads the entry about him on its website, where we learn that he was
“appointed as the DUP’s Director of Communications in 2002, a position which he held until 2007 when he was appointed as Special Adviser to the First Minister of Northern Ireland, the late Dr Ian Paisley.
“Upon the retirement of Dr Paisley in 2008, Timothy was reappointed by Peter Robinson as Special Adviser to the First Minister, a position he held until Mr Robinson’s retirement in 2016. Arlene Foster subsequently reappointed him when she became First Minister in January 2016, a position he held until January 2017.
“Mr Johnston has been involved in all major talks processes over the last twenty years as well as assisting the party in the discussions leading to the Confidence and Supply Agreement between the DUP and the Conservative Party in June 2017.”
Altogether a useful man to talk to, but he wants to get the Stormont Assembly up and running again, and may have given Downing Street an unduly optimistic idea of how smoothly Sunak’s meeting with Donaldson last Friday in Belfast would go, and how quickly and easily agreement might be reached.
Donaldson brought with him to that meeting three moderate figures within the DUP, Emma Little-Pengelly, Gavin Robinson and Gordon Lyons.
The lesson of recent history in Ulster is that only a hard-line Unionist can make concessions and get away with it. Paisley brought 40 years of intransigeance to the table in 2007 when to general astonishment he mellowed and became First Minister in harness with Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, as Deputy First Minister.
Trimble too had strong credentials as an Orangeman who had marched at Drumcree, which enabled him for a few years to persuade a sufficient body of Unionists to follow his lead.
But some in Belfast think it would be “suicidal” for any DUP leader to do a deal with a Conservative leader just now, “having so recently been shafted by Boris Johnson, by Liz Truss, and indeed by Sunak himself, who was backing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, and now is not.”
Within the DUP, Assembly members tend to be keen on a deal which would get it back up and running, while DUP MPs and peers are altogether less concerned about that, figures such as Sammy Wilson, Chief Whip in the Commons, and Ian Paisley junior, who in 2010 succeeded his father as MP for North Antrim, striking a more intransigent note.
So does Lord Dodds, who now leads the DUP in the Lords, was Donaldson’s predecessor as leader in the Commons, and a few days ago told La Repubblica:
“Our part of the United Kingdom is basically colonised by the EU. Trade and laws and everything else diverge increasingly from the rest of the United Kingdom. That is an intolerable situation. No Unionist who believes in the Union will put their hands to such a situation.”
The DUP’s “seven tests” by which it will judge any deal have been drafted in order to leave room for interpretation, but any favourable gloss put on them by Donaldson, let alone Sunak, will not necessarily carry conviction with Unionist voters.
In the short term, Sunak needs to know what Donaldson and others in the DUP think, but it would be a mistake to ignore the reaction of those voters to any deal.
For they have other places to go. If they want a more hard-line alternative, they can vote for the Traditional Unionist Voice, set up by Jim Allister, a founder member of the DUP who in 2007 resigned from it in protest at its decision to share power with Sinn Fein.
Donaldson too was once a defector, as was his mentor, Powell. If the DUP makes too many concessions, it will suffer defections.
Any deal which fails to avert increasing divergence between regulations in Northern Ireland and on the mainland is likely to see the DUP blamed for a drip, drip, drip of infuriating stories about medicines, pets, sausages and other emotive subjects.
Unionists who find the DUP too strident can instead vote for the UUP, or for the Alliance Party, or simply abstain.
The Orange Order, a bastion of Unionism, is weaker than it was, as is Presbyterianism. Some Unionists nowadays strongly object to being described as Protestants, given how many of them are secular, and how embarrassed they are by the DUP’s Old Testament approach to questions such as homosexuality.
The UUP, founded in 1905, led from 1910 by Edward Carson, and from 1921-72 the governing party of Northern Ireland, drew its leaders from the landed gentry and the business and professional classes.
These have to a considerable extent withdrawn from politics, replaced by the DUP, to begin with a maverick, almost marginal force led by a preacher, Paisley, who thundered against the Pope and drew his support from the lower middle class of Protestantism, which continues to dig its heels in.
The British Government, with its insistence on compromise as the solution to all problems, made life almost impossible for moderate Unionists, the UUP, and moderate Nationalists, the SDLP, and helped, without meaning to, the rise of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
It is at least still negotiating with Unionists in suits. Beyond them can be found loyalists with tee-shirts, tattoos and petrol bombs.
At the last elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, held in May 2022, the DUP suffered the shock of defeat, its vote falling by almost seven percentage points, to just over 21 per cent, which brought it 25 seats, while Sinn Fein rose by a point to 29 per cent, winning 27 seats.
In 2021, the DUP had been led for 21 days by Edwin Poots, an even shorter period than Truss was to manage as Conservative leader in 2022. Voters tend not to admire such ludicrous behaviour.
If an election were held in the near future, the DUP would probably do better than that. But would it do better if it had endorsed a deal which failed to redress Unionist grievances?
“The situation Donaldson faces is essentially unmanageable,” one well-connected Unionist suggested. “There is deep confusion within Unionism because Unionism is being assaulted from many different directions and it honestly doesn’t know how to respond.”