Following the resignation of Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Chris Bambery explains what’s behind the growing political crisis in the six counties
The resignation of Paul Givan, the Democratic Unionist Party politician, as Northern Ireland’s First Minister has created a fresh crisis which potentially could see Givan as the last unionist to hold the senior position within the six-county state.
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly election are already scheduled for May. Givan’s departure raises the prospect of that poll being brought forward several weeks. With factional warfare tearing the DUP apart, and its subsequent fall in support, speculation is mounting that Sinn Fein could become the largest party, with its vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, becoming First Minister.
With Sinn Fein having the greatest support of any party in the Republic of Ireland, there is also speculation that fresh elections there might see them take control of that government. If the Irish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly both voted for a referendum on Irish unity, then that has to happen under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
There are a number of ‘ifs’ there, but there is a palpable sense of disquiet among both the British and Irish elites who, despite nearly a quarter of a century since the IRA abandoned armed struggle and disarmed, view Sinn Fein with profound distaste. The current Irish government is a ‘keep-the-Shinners-out’ one: a coalition of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael (historically bitter rivals), and the Greens.
Givan’s resignation means Michelle O’Neill must step down as Deputy First Minister under the same Agreement’s terms. Other Stormont ministers can remain in post, but the Executive can no longer meet and is unable to take significant policy decisions.
Givan’s resignation came 24 hours after the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture, Edwin Poots, ordered an end to checks on freight entering the six counties from Britain. A move which is quite probably illegal. They were agreed to by the Boris Johnson government as part of a protocol with the European Union, effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea. That has angered unionists, including much of the DUP’s membership and core support. The party built itself on being the most hardline in defence of the union with Britain.
The party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, accused the British government of failing to “honour” its commitment to “protect Northern Ireland's place within the UK internal market.” He added:
“I warned that as leader of the DUP, I was not prepared to lend my hand to a protocol which so fundamentally undermines the union and the economic integrity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s position in it.”
That of course ignores the fact that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
Last April, the DUP leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, was ousted by the party’s Assembly members and some of its Westminster MPs. Her crime? To have abstained on an Assembly vote in favour of gay aversion “therapy”. That was too liberal for her colleagues who had all voted in favour.
That, of course, was only the trigger for her removal. The real issue of concern was the introduction of customs checks between Northern Ireland and Britain as part of Boris Johnson’s protocol with the EU. The Republic of Ireland remains an EU member and any hard border between it and the North would breach the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, something the EU and USA are duty bound to uphold. Boris Johnson had come to Belfast to promise the DUP conference he would never permit a border between Northern Ireland and Britain. The DUP would discover he lied.
Foster’s successor as party leader, Edwin Poots, lasted just 21 days as the DUP leader before he was ousted in another coup. Thereafter, the party leader became Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. He sits at Westminster and not in the Assembly, where he now wants to be, with his sights on being First Minister.
Prior to this week, with Poots scrapping the border checks and Givan’s resignation as First Minister, there had been a Byzantine inner party power struggle in which Poots lost out. He sits in the Assembly for Lagan Valley, which returns two DUP candidates (Givan is the other). Donaldson wants to stand there, and Poots claims he was encouraged by Donaldson to seek nomination in South Down, and was promised the leader’s support. But Poots failed to secure the nomination, vetoed by senior figures who made up the selection panel. Meanwhile, a veteran DUP MLA, former Speaker Robin Newton, has been deselected as an Assembly election candidate for the party in East Belfast.
The DUP looks to be engaged in civil war. Donaldson and Givan have every interest in creating a crisis to burnish their hardline credentials. Givan might fancy a long election campaign in the hope he can somehow rescue the DUP’s fortunes, particularly by focusing on that old unionist battle cry, ‘maintain the union’. Still following this? Boris Johnson criticised Poots’s decision over border checks, but might fancy that any fresh crisis would deflect from his problems at Westminster.
The decay of unionism
Expediency, however, cannot obscure the fact that there is a mounting constitutional crisis concerning Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. In the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted Remain, but the DUP backed Leave. The Republic remains within the EU. Everyone was agreed there should be no hard border between the north and the south, but how to square the circle that the Republic was in the Single Market but the North was de facto not? The solution, to create a border with Britain, was unacceptable to the DUP and those such as the Loyalist paramilitaries to its right.
The consequence was bitter infighting within the DUP. For most of its history the DUP was extremely stable, because it was essentially run by one man. That man was the Reverend Ian Paisley, who founded the party in 1971 and would lead it for the next 37 years. From 2008 until 2015 his deputy, Peter Robinson, was in charge. Traditionally, it had positioned itself to the right of the Official Unionist Party, the descendent of the old Unionist Party, which had run Northern Ireland as a one-party state from its creation in 1921 and the partition of Ireland, until Britain abolished the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1971.
Northern Ireland was a political and economic slum created on a crude, sectarian calculation of how much territory could be included which would guarantee a permanent unionist majority. The Catholic minority suffered systematic discrimination and state repression. Grandees drawn from the industrialists of Belfast and from the aristocracy ran the Unionist Party, receiving solid support from the Protestant middle class, and rather more fragile support from Protestant workers.
When, in 1968 and 1969, civil-rights marchers took to the streets, the unionist response was, as always, repression. The then Labour government did not want to get involved, even when armed police rioted in what was supposedly part of Britain, but the unionist government, realising the police could not contain an effective insurrection in Derry, asked British troops to be sent in. The Labour government complied.
However, as the Troubles developed it became apparent that the Northern Ireland government could not deal with the situation; it insisted on introducing internment without trial in August 1971, enflaming the situation further, and the unionist monolith began to crack apart. The old grandees prized the union with Britain above all, but petty-bourgeois elements like Paisley prioritised maintaining the old sectarian state which benefitted them. When, in 1972, Britain scrapped the unionist Northern Ireland government and Parliament, they were driven crazy.
Violent sectarianism or left Irish unity?
To cut a long story short, Paisley would, when the DUP became the largest party, drop his opposition to the Good Friday Agreement to become First Minister. However, since the Brexit referendum and the UK-EU Protocol, the DUP has come under pressure. Business in Northern Ireland does not want a border with the Republic and wishes access to the EU Single Market. It has become disillusioned with the DUP. Yet, the DUP also faces pressure from its right. The Loyalist Communities Council groups together Loyalist paramilitary organisations and rejects the Good Friday Agreement. It welcomed Givan’s resignation as a “decisive action”.
Its Chair, David Campbell, said:
“It is our considered view, however, that we are now being played for fools and no further time can be permitted. The actions by the DUP will reinforce the seriousness of the situation and it should be made clear that there can be no re-formation of a NI Executive until the breaches of the Belfast Agreement are repaired and normal trading within the United Kingdom is restored.”
Former DUP Assembly Member, Jim Allister, quit the party, when it formed a coalition government with Sinn Fein, to found the Traditional Unionist Voice; he is its sole MLA. He welcomed Givan’s resignation saying:
“We have long said that if the price of Stormont is the implementation of the protocol, that it was a price no unionist should pay, or ever should have paid. The protocol is so fundamentally destructive of our integral position within the United Kingdom that it must go in all its parts.”
These are voices which want to stir up sectarian tension. The Loyalist paramilitaries tried to whip up riots, targeting Catholic homes in West Belfast, last April. They have warned that violence “is not off the table.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has the longest hospital waiting lists in any NHS area, and, as elsewhere, its people face a hike in the cost of living caused by rising fuel prices, pushing thousands of families into poverty. There is little appetite for a return to the Troubles, but there is desire for change and for things to move on.
Sinn Fein has launched a publicity campaign in favour of Irish unity in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, but the issue is which sort of united Ireland? The NHS provides free health care in the north, but in the south that does not exist.
The radical-left People Before Profit, which has elected members in both the Irish parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly plus local councillors, stands for an all-Ireland National Health Service “that treats people according to medical need”.
That approach of a radical vision for a united Ireland is needed to win working people, north and south, Catholic and Protestant, to support unity.
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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.
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