Jeffrey Donaldson speaking at 2014 DUP conference Jeffrey Donaldson speaking at 2014 DUP conference. Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The growing crisis in Northern Ireland can be seen in the escalating infighting in the DUP, writes Chris Bambery

Northern Ireland is in the midst of a political storm. It follows the resignation of Edwin Poots as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party after just 21 days and his replacement by the man he had beaten in a leadership election, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who took the post unopposed.

Brian Clough once lasted longer as manager of Leeds United than Edwin Poots did as leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Poots (who sounds like some sinister character in a Charles Dickens novel) was thrown under the bus three weeks after winning a leadership election because the DUP acted upon widespread Unionist and Loyalist anger over the UK-EU Protocol on Northern Ireland, which effectively created a border with Britain in the Irish sea, and over Westminster finally implementing an agreed measure to foster and protect the Irish language in the six county state.

The parliamentary agreement, brokered by the British, Irish and US governments, requires agreement between the main Unionist and the main nationalist parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The DUP’s Arlene Foster had been First Minister until earlier this year when she was ousted as DUP leader (seen as soft on opposing LGBT rights) with Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill as her Deputy.

Sinn Fein refused to re-nominate O’Neill because the DUP was obstructing agreed legislation to protect the rights of Irish language speakers. By doing so they blocked Potts from nominating his protégé, Paul Givan as First Minister.

In what appeared to be a breakthrough, the British government stepped in and agreed to move the necessary legislation on the Irish language at Westminster to help the formation of a new government.

Sinn Fein agreed to re-nominate O’Neill and Poots nominated Givan, as well as accepting the new legislation as a fait accompli.

But while Poots was in the Assembly nominating Givan as First Minister, his own party was voting 26-4 in a room next door not to nominate him. Opposition to the Irish language had quickly ousted their acceptance of the Northern Ireland peace accords.

By the end of the day, party officers had given Poots an ultimatum – jump or be pushed – he promptly resigned.

Poots’ won the leadership because he was on the right of the party and was expected to take a harder line on things like the protocol and so stem growing disaffection among the grassroots.

A poll in February, showed the DUP’s popularity fell 4 percentage points to 19 percent and the Traditional Unionist Voice, which attacked it from the right, increasing its support to 10 percent. Concern over the rise of the TUV pushed the DUP into a harder stance against the Northern Ireland Protocol, and was a factor in the coup which forced out Arlene at the end of April.

Yet by late May the figures were even worse with a poll having the DUP at 16 percent – lagging well behind Sinn Féin on 25 percent – and with its rivals the Ulster Unionists on 14 percent, and the TUV up again to 11 percent.

The TUV is led by Jim Allister who resigned from the DUP in 2007 in protest over power-sharing with Sinn Féin, and was a strong critic of the then leader Ian Paisley. Allister is a reminder that the DUP changed its position to enter government with Sinn Fein.

At a street level, the Loyalist paramilitaries, grouped in the Loyalist Communities Council, has said Irish Government ministers and officials would not be welcome as long as difficulties over the Northern Ireland Protocol remain and urged the DUP to collapse Stormont “to stop the constant flow of concessions to Sinn Fein”.

A strategy designed to wreck the Northern Ireland Peace Process is one which finds support among the DUP’s membership.

Accordingly, on becoming DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson immediately began demanding the British government enforce changes to the Protocol and that the European Union accept that. Opposition to the Protocol translated into Loyalist led riots in April.

The Protocol was designed to keep Northern Ireland aligned with the EU single market for goods during the Brexit process, ensuring free trade across the Irish border, with no border on the island of Ireland.

Yet Donaldson was one of the DUP leaders, including the then party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister, Arlene Foster, who agreed to Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal including that very Protocol. His hardline Unionist and Loyalist opponents will not forget that.

Yet he is no moderate. Prior to joining the Democratic Unionists in 2004 Donaldson had been in the Ulster Unionist Party, the party which had ruled Northern Ireland via a gerrymandered electoral system, which created a one party state from its creation in 1921 until 1972. Within the UUP he had opposed its then leader, David Trimble’s support for the Good Friday Agreement, in particular the participation of Sinn Fein in a power sharing Northern Ireland government. He led a walkout of the 1998 peace talks after opposing the early release of republican and loyalist prisoners.

In March 2019, Donaldson voted against LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education in English schools, despite this being a matter Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MP’s usually did not vote on, being a matter for England only. That same year he opposed the legalisation by the British government of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended because the DUP refused to co-operate with Sinn Fein).

His website boasts that:

“At the age of 16, I followed in the family tradition by becoming a member of the Orange Order, in which I was later to serve as an Assistant Grand Master for 3 years.”

It also evokes the name of one of the “greatest names” of Ulster Unionism:

“Between 1982 and 1984 I worked as Enoch Powell’s constituency agent, successfully spearheading Mr. [Enoch] Powell’s election campaigns of 1983 and 1986.”

Powell’s racism had seen him pushed out of the Conservative Party and he decamped to Northern Ireland and the Unionist fold.

Donaldson is formally committed to a reformed Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement but will find it difficult to silence the raucous chorus of Unionist and Loyalist voices championing destroying both as a way of making Brussels (and Westminster) bow to their demands.

In all this, it is important to remember a few things about Northern Ireland. Peace is popular and only a minority on the Unionist and Loyalist side would champion endangering it. People are aware too that the Loyalist gangs’ threats can very easily translate into the murder of Catholics – any Catholic they can target. 

Five years ago, Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain in the EU – a small fact that generally gets overlooked. The DUP were in the minority backing Leave.

Business leaders in Northern Ireland support the Protocol. They have criticism but they would have no truck with a wrecking strategy and do not see the DUP as representing their interests.

Once the old Ulster Unionist Party was backed by industrialists and landowners and via the Orange Lodge could mobilise the support of large numbers of Protestant workers. But Humpty Dumpty fell and shattered, and all the king’s men cannot put it together again.

The current infighting within the DUP only increases the fragmentation.

After Theresa May called an election in 2017 and then lost her parliamentary majority, she needed the DUP to stay in office but that was a cynical one-off. The British ruling class no longer has any economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland; indeed it is a drain on Whitehall’s coffers.

Boris Johnson lied to the DUP when he told them there would be no border with Britain. At Westminster it is clear there are many looking on at events in Northern Ireland and questioning is it worth all this hassle to hang on to these six counties.

The various Unionist and Loyalist groupings are thrashing around like a wounded animal. Yet wounded animals are often at their most dangerous.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.