Poots and Faulkner

15 May

In 1970, James Chichester-Clark resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and as Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister.  He was being pulled in opposite political directions by two different political forces.

The first was Harold Wilson’s Government, which was set on wrestlng control of security policy away from Stormont.  The second was Iain Paisley’s new Protestant Unionist Party, which had recently won two Westminster by-elections.

Chichester-Clark was succeeded by Brian Faulkner, whose earlier resignation from Northern Ireland’s government had been a factor in forcing the resignation of Chichester-Clark’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill.

Faulkner had earlier stood against Chichester-Clark for the Ulster Unionist leadership, losing by a single vote – that cast by O’Neill for Chicester-Clark…his cousin.

Faulkner had served as Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs during the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he built his reputation as an energetic politician on the right of his party – one that his resignation from O’Neill’s government had done nothing to weaken.

Once Prime Minister, he duly found himself caught between the same pressures as his predecessor.  Forced to choose between a revolting Unionist base and Edward Heath’s Government, he plumped for the latter.

The consequence was his acceptance of the Sunningdale Agreement, a forerunner of the Belfast Agreement, which brought him down – or, rather, was itself brought down by the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council Strike.

Faulkner then lost the leadership of his party, formed the new Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which flopped, and left active politics in 1976, becoming Baron Faulkner of Downpatrick a year later.

There are many differences between Faulkner and Edwin Poots, yesterday elected as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.  For a start, Poots will not lead Northern Ireland’s government, as Faulkner did when he became Ulster Unionist leader.

The Alliance Party, which sits nearer the centre of Northern Ireland’s politics, is better developed than it was in 1970, and is well positioned to pick up more middle-class Unionist votes.

And unlike Chichester-Clark, Arlene Foster hasn’t resigned: she continues as First Minister.  Rather, she was ousted by her own party from its leadership.

For all that, and despite Northern Ireland’s changes over 50 years, it shouldn’t be assumed that politics in Northern Ireland must follow a pre-determined script.

Because Poots is a member of the Free Presbytarian Church of Ulster, a young earth creationist, and opposes blood donations from gay people, it is widely assumed that he will tread a very narrow path.

Certainly, he defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 partly, even largely, because the unionist base is again in revolt – over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the treatment of Bobby Storey’s funeral, and a general sense that its position is under threat.

The turbulence is not as spectacular as that of 1970, but those DUP politicians will hope that Poots’ election will help to reassure Unionist voters, and bolster their own position – as their Ulster Unionist predecessors did of Faulkner’s.

And the new DUP has begun his leadership with that task in mind. “I will be a leader in unionism who will be reaching out to other leaders in unionism. I want to see unionism working together,” he said yesterday.

More broadly, the lack of political leadership in Northern Ireland’s government, the non-sitting of the Assembly for three years, the stalling of the 2015 “Fresh Start for Northern Ireland” programme, and the problems caused by the Protocol are driving a wider destabilisation.

Elections are only a year away, and Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party – a prospect that does nothing to calm unionists.  So for all Boris Johnson’s lack of interest in Northern Ireland, don’t rule out a big political push from the Government later this year.

It would seek to bolster the Executive, take decisions that have been ducked on legacy, emblems, and the Irish language, and aim to hold Northern Ireland’s politicians to the commitments they signed up to in 2015.

These included the “fresh obligations on Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups” which the Executive then agreed to.

Poots will probably carry on where he is leaving off and, unlike Faulkner, refuse any compromises that London dangles before him.  But perhaps not.  With Northern Ireland, you never know.

Henry Hill: Why Foster’s exit most likely signals an even harder like against the Protocol from the DUP

29 Apr

Arlene Foster’s sudden resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland is the latest sign of how long a shadow the Protocol is casting over Ulster politics.

Whilst it isn’t the only thing that seems to have motivated the party to oust her – critics are also citing a decision to abstain on a vote on gay conversion therapy – it almost certainly played the decisive role.

Having been DUP leader throughout the Brexit process, Foster seemed initially disposed to try and own the outcome and make the new checks in the Irish Sea work, an outlook she would have shared with Michael Gove.

But the scale of the unionist and loyalist backlash against the ‘Sea Border’ has put paid to that, and the DUP are now scrambling to avoid haemorrhaging voters to more hardline parties at the next Stormont elections. Jim Allister and his hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) are well positioned to attack the DUP on this flank, and public anger is such that their usual defensive position (that splitting the unionist vote might let Sinn Fein claim the First Minister’s office) may not fly.

Given that the DUP, like Sinn Fein and the SNP, has traditionally had the culture of phalanx-like internal discipline that seems a hallmark of nationalist parties, those behind the putsch must have feared a truly dire electoral reckoning if action wasn’t taken.

Moreover, many senior DUP figures will be uncomfortably aware of the historical precedent, for such is pretty much exactly the same fate they inflicted on David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists after the latter did the heavy lifting to secure the Belfast Agreement. The rise of the DUP by contrast was followed by the St Andrews Agreement, which is widely regarded as having turned out to be a step backwards. Will history repeat itself with the TUV?

According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers are unenthusiastic about the prospect of a new DUP leader, who they expect will take a much harder line on the Protocol. But in theory at least the Government has already accepted the need for fundamental reform – that was the logic of David Frost’s appointment as explained to me last month.

The even more serious question is what happens to Northern Irish politics. Whilst a new and more hard-line leader could staunch the flow of voters to the TUV, it might also alienate more moderate voters who have rowed in behind the DUP as it cemented its position as the dominant Unionist party. In recent history this would almost certainly have profited the Alliance Party, but given that liberal unionists share many of the same concerns over the Protocol and a one-sided reading of the Belfast Agreement. So it could create an opening for the Ulster Unionists or even – with enough work, money, and time – the Conservatives.

But the devolved institutions could be on the line. One of the DUP’s most effective tactics for corralling pro-UK voters into their camp has been the fear that a divided unionist vote will see Sinn Fein win the First Minister’s office. Whilst this logic has helped to keep Ulster’s politics stuck in the sectarian cul-de-sac, there is truth to it. Would the DUP, under a more hard-line leader, consent to serve as Deputy First Minister. The alternative could be unionists doing what Sinn Fein did a few years before and bringing down Stormont, and this time it might not come back.

Of course, we should not rule out another possibility. Until just a few years ago the combined unionist parties had a fairly secure majority in the Assembly. Those voters haven’t all died or turned suddenly into nationalists, and circumstances may give the DUP a chance to lure them back.

During the negotiations that saw Stormont given an opportunity to reject (most of) the Protocol, the Irish/EU side insisted that it not be done on a cross-community basis. So long as unionists are in the minority, this will prevent them blocking the Protocol on the basis of their community vote alone. But in the event that they were to regain the majority they held only a few years ago, it means they could set it aside in the teeth of Sinn Fein’s opposition.

‘Unionist unity’ is a self-defeating long-term strategy. But it can deliver results in the short-term. A united anti-Protocol front might be the DUP’s best chance of retaining the leadership of unionism – regardless of the headaches it causes in Dublin, Brussels, or London.