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Who Are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists?

As the United Kingdom marches, shuffles, even stumbles towards the exit door of the European Union a small Northern Ireland party commands an increasing share of media attention. The name Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has become associated with a new lexicon of the exiting process; hard border, backstop, supply and demand.

But what is the DUP?

As Ireland’s long struggle to be independent from its neighbour makes its own history there has been an accompanying counter move to maintain a connection, now called the union, with the political structure that today the world knows as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Like the tip of an iceberg drifting towards warmer, southern climes, unionism occasionally exhibits signs of meltdown. Although, at periods throughout is history it encounters colder currents which help consolidate it in a solid state.

Towards the end of the 19th century the struggle for Irish independence took on a parliamentary character. This movement rose under the banner of Irish Home Rule. For some it was seen as a dangerous threat to the integrity of Britain and its empire. The island of Ireland was to have its own parliament, still with the British crown at its head. Home Rule was perceived by some as a clever mechanism to maintain that imperial integrity, thereby maintaining the integrity of British capital.

Others saw Home Rule as a stepping stone to an independent Irish republic. The republics of the USA and France had gained a special place in the psyche of many Irish men and women. From this witches cauldron of confusion, conflict and God forbid, consensus, was distilled the perfect antidote, Unionism.

At the heart of this concoction was sectarianism. For centuries Ireland had been blighted by sectarianism. It’s a word much used at every level, twixt street and state legislature. Yet there is no universally accepted definition. Why should there be? Definitions have a tendency to be definitive. Stark clarity can be scary.

One thing which is clear is that sectarianism refers to attitudes and behavior that are antagonistic and which involves religious and national identities. That is, particularly between the catholic population, generally associated with Irish nationalism and the protectants who are generally associated with Brutishness. In the 21st century Ireland is becoming home for new ethnic minority communities, so sectarianism faces new threats and challenges. Not a welcoming environment for new comers.

There had been three Home Rule bills put before the British parliament at Westminster. Parliamentary procedure and strife among the political parties of the British Establishment saw the demise of two of them and the eminent threat of the World War 1 saw the end of the third.

In 1921 the partition of Ireland into a largely catholic southern state and the largely protestant north came into effect. Unionism became formally integrated into the British state and entered its golden era. The ground for this had already been prepared.

Lord Randolph Churchill, a leading Conservative and father of Winston Churchill, in a successful attempt to thwart Home Rule decided to “play the orange card.” This meant inciting militant Protestants and unionists members of the Orange Order, to rebel against the British authorities to prevent Irish Home Rule becoming a reality.

In this way the unionists golden era became more of an age of orange oligarchy. For the best part of 50 years an Ulster Unionist party ruled over six northeastern Irish counties, sometimes known as Ulster, from its parliamentary seat on Stormont hill on the outskirts of Belfast.

Trust between the Ulster Unionist and British Conservatives was always on shaky ground. After all, Churchill writing to another British conservative declared, “these foul Ulster Tories have always ruined our party,”

The shaky ground did in fact give way in 1971 with the formation of the new Democratic Unionist Party. Treated as something of a joke at the time this rebrand of unionism was more strident in its British identity, more evangelical in its Protestantism, more vocal it its opposition in anything connected to Rome.

It was also a damned sight more effective in energizing its electoral base. Its antipathy toward Rome went beyond the Catholic Church, even extending to the 1957 European Treaty of Rome, bed plate of the European Union.

For the DUP the ground is still shaking. The UK might have a one way ticket out of the EU. But the last time the DUP sat in government at Stormont, which, incidentally was two years ago this month, it had to do so as partners with the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein. The strained entente cordiale turned rancid and the Northern Ireland Assembly ceased to assemble.

These two forms of nationalism (British and Irish) don’t really get along together. Sinn Fein is a nationalist, all-Ireland party which has come out in support of gay rights, a woman’s right to control her own fertility, including legal access to pregnancy termination. And it wants to remain in the EU. The DUP opposes the right to abortion and wants to leave the EU.

Since it came to a “supply and demand” agreement– something few of us had ever heard of before – with fellow conservatives’ at Westminster the DUP has become a crutch propping up a weak Tory government. For this Northern Ireland’s Stormont administration gets 1 billion British pounds sterling (almost 1.3 billion US$)

That came out of the petty cash box. The real problem lies with the international border between the two Irelands. At present it’s an open border, with more or less hassle free crossing points, as exists between all EU states.

A so called “hard border” between the two Irelands would mean customs posts, searches and additional bureaucracy. Nobody seems to want that. It could also mean bombs. Customs posts have been a traditional target for those Irish republican who are intent on armed struggle. So a soft border has been proposed, less bureaucratic, less bomb enticing.

To avoid such nastiness “backstop” has attained top media attention. So what is the backstop? It seems to be even more indefinable than sectarianism.

But it is likely to be a legal agreement. Except that there is no agreement. As some in Ireland say, “may the saints preserve us”, so the backstop would preserve peace on the troubled island and the less- than- marvelous economies of both jurisdictions.

The exit door is an ever diminishing time span away but it is not yet clearly in focus. The DUP, described by enlightened commentators as socially conservative and economically liberal – remember the billion quid pay off –is having none of the proposed backstop and border variants.

Perhaps the enlightened are being over generous in their commentary. The DUP stalwarts are more intent on holding onto whatever resources, material and spiritual, their grip on political office affords them.