Why did they trust Johnson?

Daniel Finn

When Jeffrey Donaldson took to his feet in the House of Commons on Tuesday to respond to the Queen’s Speech, he must have asked himself how it had come to this. After a century of unionist superiority in Northern Irish elections, Donaldson was the first unionist leader to address his fellow MPs in the shadow of a larger nationalist rival. Even worse for the DUP leader, the rival party was Sinn Féin, whose leading figures still defend the IRA campaign that motivated Donaldson to become a politician in the first place.

His career as an MP began a quarter of a century ago, after a political apprenticeship working for Enoch Powell and James Molyneux. Their party, the Ulster Unionists, had been Northern Ireland’s largest throughout its history. Donaldson jumped ship to Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party in 2004, having spent several turbulent years opposing David Trimble’s approach to the peace process from within. The DUP took over as the dominant unionist party and Paisley cut a deal on power-sharing with Sinn Féin, which had meanwhile overtaken the SDLP to become the leading nationalist party.

On the eve of the Brexit referendum, things were still looking good for the DUP and the unionist cause. Despite suffering some modest attrition in the Assembly election of May 2016, the DUP had pulled further ahead of Sinn Féin, which appeared to be in worse shape than its governing partner. Donaldson may well have seen himself as an eventual candidate to replace Arlene Foster, another Ulster Unionist defector, when the time came for her to step down. But he cannot have imagined the circumstances in which it would happen.

Donaldson’s accession last June came at a moment of deep political turmoil. The DUP had experienced two leadership heaves in two months, after going half a century without one. The instability was a symptom of the party’s wider malaise. Polls already indicated that Sinn Féin would overtake it at the next Assembly election, and Donaldson’s brief was to stave that off. But nothing that he and his colleagues did in the run-up to last week’s vote could shift the balance of forces.

The final result wasn’t even close: a margin of almost 8 per cent, with an overall swing of 13 per cent from the DUP to Sinn Féin since 2016. Speaking in the House of Commons, the DUP leader plaintively accused Boris Johnson of breaking his word over Brexit and precipitating a crisis for unionism. He reminded Johnson of his solemn pledge to the DUP conference in 2018 that he would never allow a trade barrier in the Irish Sea.

At one level, Donaldson has every reason to feel aggrieved. Just before the Assembly election, Johnson’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, casually indicated that there would be nothing in the Queen’s Speech about scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol. Donaldson has been insisting on such a move as the sine qua non for progress, and Lewis may have given a last-minute boost to the main challenger on the DUP’s right flank, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

The real puzzle, however, is why Donaldson and his colleagues ever decided to entrust their fate to Johnson. Northern Irish unionism certainly isn’t primed to credit the pledges made by British politicians. The founding myth of modern unionism was the successful resistance it mounted to a Home Rule bill introduced by a British Liberal government in 1912. Unionist leaders like Edward Carson and James Craig declared their readiness to take up arms against legislation that had gone through the House of Commons.

Admittedly they engaged in this display of sabre-rattling with the support of the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, so we shouldn’t exaggerate the degree of unionist estrangement from the British political class at the time. But there has been no shortage of acrimony between unionist politicians and Tories in recent decades. It was a Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, who went over the head of Brian Faulkner to impose direct rule in 1972. The next Tory premier, Margaret Thatcher, rammed through the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the face of near-unanimous unionist opposition, and her successor, John Major, engaged in back-channel talks with the IRA while publicly insisting that he was doing no such thing. ‘Distrust and verify’ has been the guiding principle for unionist dealings with British governments of any political complexion for a very long time.

It is all the more extraordinary, then, that the DUP threw in its lot with Johnson after 2016. Some might be tempted to quote Edward Carson’s antagonist Oscar Wilde and say you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh, but the long-term ramifications could yet prove to be very serious for everyone in Northern Ireland. It is barely twelve months since the most protracted outbreak of street violence for years, in which post-Brexit tensions played their part. Loyalist paramilitaries are still active, and the DUP’s need to claw back support may lead it to adopt a confrontational stance, the consequences of which could escape the control of party leaders. And Johnson is still prime minister, which also detracts from the merriment.

Donaldson and his party must be struck by the asymmetry of outcomes on either side of the Irish Sea. The flippancy of Tory leaders when it came to Brexit comfortably exceeded their own. David Cameron called the referendum without giving a moment’s thought to what might happen if he lost. Theresa May normalised such empty, self-defeating slogans as ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ instead of managing expectations in the Leave camp from her short-lived position of strength. Boris Johnson demonstrated his sense of political responsibility when he crashed through a wall of boxes at the wheel of a JCB during the 2019 general election. Yet he won the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, with Tory gains in former Labour strongholds and a blank sheet on which to write the party’s legislative wish-list.

For the DUP, on the other hand, there has been nothing but electoral pain and a question mark over the future of the Union. The difference between the two parties is a matter of power. There were enough people in Britain with serious clout who were determined to preserve the Conservative Party as a going concern, from affluent retirees to newspaper proprietors. The DUP couldn’t fall back on an equivalent support system.

When Nigel Farage declared his intention to run a full slate of Brexit Party candidates against the Tories in the 2019 election, the Leave impresario Arron Banks swiftly whipped him into line: ‘The only way Brexit is going to get delivered is by a Boris majority.’ There was nobody willing or able to apply the same kind of pressure to Jim Allister, the leader of the TUV, which increased its vote share by 5 per cent at the DUP’s expense. Sammy Wilson of the DUP was reduced to complaining about the greater discipline of nationalist voters: ‘On the unionist side people still believe it’s OK to indulge their egos and pursue their selfish agenda and have been happy to see the vote fragmented.’

A different Brexit strategy from the DUP might not have resulted in a different outcome for the UK in general or Northern Ireland in particular. There would still have been a pro-Brexit majority in the referendum if every Northern Irish Leave voter had defected to the Remain camp. The Scottish National Party wasn’t able to stop Johnson’s hard-Brexit plan from going through with a much larger bloc of Westminster MPs than the DUP had at its disposal.

The big mistake that Donaldson’s party made was misdiagnosing the political moment of 2016 and after. They saw it as an opportunity for their brand of unionism, which would bring it closer to the British political mainstream. Instead it has proved to be a wedge between Northern Ireland and Britain, as was always likely with a project that rested on a specifically English nationalism.

There could still be bitter divisions between Johnson’s government and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. But they will not arise from a newfound sense of solidarity in London with Northern Irish unionism. Johnson may want a distraction from his domestic difficulties; Liz Truss may want to burnish her credentials ahead of a future leadership contest; their government as a whole may want to use the Protocol as leverage when haggling over trade relations with the rest of Europe. The DUP won’t be able to rely on any of them as it seeks to rebuild.


  • 12 May 2022 at 2:48pm
    Rory Allen says:
    I can't help thinking this situation is being over-analyzed. The question really has always been: where do you draw the border between the EU Single Market and Britain?

    There are two choices. One is down the Irish Sea, which the DUP hate but which retains the 'no hard border' provisions of the Good Friday Agreement plus Northern Ireland Protocol. The other is the Eire/Northern Ireland border, which the Americans would reject, meaning an end to prospects of a US/UK post-Brexit trade agreement, and we do not yet know what the EU would do, but they will not be happy about it.

    We wait to see whether Liz Truss goes ahead with triggering Article 16 of the Protocol. But I think we can be sure that the Conservatives will take a decision based on perceived self-interest, in which the DUP will feature rather low down on the priorities list.

    • 13 May 2022 at 12:45pm
      Reader says: @ Rory Allen
      People like you take all the fun out of politics. Where on earth would Britain be if we all tried to solve problems using logic and reasoning? It would deprive Brexit supporters of the pleasures of outrage which make their lives so meaningful.

  • 13 May 2022 at 5:41pm
    Gyekye Tanoh says:
    The majority of people in the 6 counties voted against Brexit and are opposed to removing the Irish Sea border - as are a significant majority the of MLAs. 53/37

    Against removal of the Irish Sea border
    Sinn Féin 27
    Alliance 17
    SDLP 8
    People before Profit 1

    In favour of removal of the Irish Sea border
    DUP 25
    UUP 9
    TUV 1
    Independents 2

    • 14 May 2022 at 10:34am
      steve kay says: @ Gyekye Tanoh
      Of the representatives of the six of the nine counties of Ulster who voted in favour of Brexit, and are now opposed to a border in the Irish Sea, do we know how they wish to replace it? And if indeed it is a hard land border, do we know who they expect to construct and operate it? And police it? If we can see any reason for optimism, it is the quoted if somewhat delayed self awareness and honesty of Sammy Wilson’s description of himself.

    • 16 May 2022 at 11:05am
      Rory Allen says: @ steve kay
      I have a theory about this. I think that Johnson, who is no fool, is hoping that the EU will be the ones to reimpose and police a hard border within Ireland. All Johnson has to do is resume free trade with Northern Ireland and do nothing about the Ireland border. This will in effect blow a hole in the tariff wall around the Single Market.

      If the EU wishes to protect itself, it will then need to put up a wall itself. In effect, it will need to do this at the border of the Republic. Thus, all the odium of undoing the work of the Good Friday Agreement in its border provisions will fall on the EU.

    • 16 May 2022 at 1:41pm
      cwritesstuff says: @ Rory Allen
      I agree that's what Johnson is counting on - there will be a hard border despite his lies to the contrary but he can claim (and trick some folk) that it wasn't his fault.

      That won't work with the EU, which will retaliate as it is permitted to, and the US, which will side with Ireland (which will put up the border) over the UK.

  • 14 May 2022 at 12:21pm
    Graucho says:
    "Why did they trust Johnson?" Because they had not read and understood his C.V. and his M.O.

    • 16 May 2022 at 11:11am
      Rory Allen says: @ Graucho
      And this is precisely what people fail to do, repeatedly, to their cost. Those who trusted Hitler had failed to read 'Mein Kampf'. Those who trusted Vladimir Putin had failed to read 'On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians', which by the way is freely available on the internet. It contains the words: 'Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.'

      Ein volk, ein reich.

  • 16 May 2022 at 5:37pm
    Coodler says:
    When your best (if not your only) political friend is Boris Johnson, you know you're in a bad spot.

    The slow unfolding of the full meaning of the peace process and the shuddering impact of Brexit have revealed how weak the union is and how powerless the Ulster unionists are in the broader scheme of UK politics and Anglo-Irish relations.

    The mature way forward for unionism is to open a new dialogue with the majority culture on the island of Ireland with a view to strengthening their position where it really counts - where they live- and no longer relying on the Tories to do them favours.

    Johnson's Tories, now fully aligned with populist English nationalism as personified by Nigel Farage, don't give a damn about Ireland, north or south.

    It's time for the unionists to think again.

Read more