Cracks in Northern Ireland?

Photograph Source: David Stanley – CC BY 2.0

“I’d say I’m Northern Irish and British. I’m not Irish. I don’t live in Ireland”.

Zara Ferguson, a navy reservist living in Northern Ireland

“I’m very pleased and proud to be in the UK and feel it’s the best way forward. It would have been better if all of Ireland had stayed in the UK”.

Tom Elliott, a former Ulster Unionist leader and MP

Northern Ireland (NI) celebrated the centenary of its foundation on Monday. The political situation in NI remains febrile, despite a pause in the rioting.

Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister, resigned after 6 turbulent years in that position. Foster would probably have been forced out if she had not resigned. She also resigned from her membership of the Stormont Assembly, and said she was leaving the DUP.

The main reason given for Foster’s departure is the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by Boris “BoJo” Johnson with the EU. Party activists blame Foster and her supporters for the hopelessly impractical trade barrier down the Irish Sea confected as part of the Protocol.

Unionists fear the Protocol undermines NI’s position as part of the UK and prods it towards reunification with its neighbour to the south.

The DUP applauded Brexit, and obstructed Theresa May’s attempts to mitigate its impact on NI on the grounds that her attempts were inadequate.

BoJo’s path to the prime ministership required May’s toppling from that position, so for a short time he and the DUP were obstructionist allies of convenience.

DUP Assembly members are concerned that vacillating voters on the party’s right will desert them for even more doctrinaire rival Unionist parties in May 2022’s Assembly elections. Removing Foster gives them a convenient foil and a chance to rebrand themselves in time for the elections. At the same time, a DUP move to the right as part of this rebranding may hasten the defection of moderates to the centrist Alliance party.

There is a real possibility that such shifts will undermine NI’s fragile and already acrimonious power-sharing executive. If the shifts are sufficiently destabilizing, a return to direct rule from Westminster could occur.

An important consideration here is the importance of a European identity for NI’s minority Catholic community. Blending their Irishness with this European identity functioned as a bulwark against notions of sovereignty subordinated to English domination— by saying “I’m a Northern Irish European”, a Northern Irish Catholic could achieve a distancing, cognitive or otherwise, not achievable by alternatives such as “I’m a Northern Irish member of the UK”.

The above-mentioned shifts are accompanied demographic changes and pressure from Sinn Féin’s on holding a referendum on Irish unity.

However, Foster’s failure to overthrow the NI Protocol was not the only reason for her downfall.

She was judged to have failed to stop or overturn an arrangement that led to an “economic United Ireland” in the view of her critics; they found her positions to be too lax on subjects such as gay rights and marriage and other social issues; she was said be too yielding in responding to Sinn Fein demands over use of the Irish language; as well as being too “inclusive” for the tastes of hardliners.

Free Presbyterians – Christian fundamentalists who despite declining numbers are still an important part of the DUP’s base – were angered when Foster and 2 DUP ministers abstained on an Assembly vote to ban gay conversion “therapy”.

The party’s founder, the late Revd Ian Paisley, always regarded it as part of his vocation to rescue Ulster from “sodomy”, and DUP die-hards with misty-eyed recollections of Paisley’s homophobia viewed Foster’s abstention as a betrayal. Paisley, speaking in an unending thunderous bray with an accompanying bulldog-like demeanour, was said to terrify household pets during his stints of house-to-house campaigning at election time. Reputedly, Rover or Fifi would scurry under the sofa as he boomed-out his campaign pitch. However, Paisley remains something of a beacon for the DUP, setting a mirage-like bar his successors will always find difficult to reach.

Several DUP politicians are vying to succeed Foster.

An early favourite is Edwin Poots, a Stormont Assembly member and agriculture minister who has expressed strong opposition to the Protocol. He is thought to have spearheaded the overthrow of Foster, and was the first to announce his candidacy.

Poots, aged 55, is a Free Presbyterian and young Earth creationist who believes the planet is only 6,000 years old. He also supported banning gay men from donating blood and opposed the adoption of children by gay couples. A man after Ian Paisley’s heart!

Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that cracks are starting to appear in Northern Irish Unionism.

Business and civic leaders are aware that change is going to be impossible to resist, especially if Scotland becomes independent, and the UK breaks up as a result.

If the UK crumbles, the prospect of a united Ireland or some other constitutional arrangement that will allow NI to have closer ties with the Republic while remaining notionally within the UK, may be difficult to counter.

Growing numbers of younger voters do not identify as either Nationalist or Unionist, and are less likely to be averse to such changes. Secularism is eating away at the Protestant soul of Unionism, just as it is gnawing at the Catholicism of its neighbour to the south.

Brexit has been a boon for the EU-member Irish Republic. Frustrated by the extra red tape involved as a result of Brexit, UK producers are no longer shipping their goods to NI (from where they are sent on to the Republic). Instead these manufacturers are sending their products straight to the Republic for subsequent re-export to the European mainland.

Rosslare Europort, the shortest shipping route from Ireland to both England and the European mainland, handles ferries and freight. Freight is up almost 500% as a result of Brexit. From Rosslare there are 18 direct sailings to Dunkirk, Cherbourg and to Bilbao in Spain. There are also new routes from Dublin to Rotterdam and Oostende with some of the biggest ferries in the world.

If the Republic’s gain in prosperity as a result of Brexit becomes even more tangible, and as London’s sheer indifference towards NI becomes more difficult to overlook, fewer Northern Irish are likely to share the above-quoted opinions of Zara Ferguson and Tom Elliott.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.