The big mistake that Jeffrey 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.
The British government has faced strong criticism in recent years for its unseemly partisanship in dealing with Northern Ireland’s political actors, as manifested in the confidence-and-supply agreement between Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist Party after the 2017 election. But Boris Johnson and his Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, have now united all of the region’s main parties, from Sinn Féin to the DUP, in opposition to their amnesty plan for Troubles-related killings.
In trying to make sense of the worst disturbances in Northern Ireland for years, there are two symmetrical pitfalls to be avoided. One is to present the recent violence as a simple reflex of Brexit, drawing a straight line between Boris Johnson’s campaign bus and a burning bus on the Shankill Road, while ignoring the local factors at work. The other is to overlook the many ways in which choices made at the highest levels of the British state have unsettled the region and added to the stock of combustible material.
The death of a notable figure is often a time for selective amnesia. Michael Gove is the Conservative politician with the keenest interest in Northern Irish affairs – a dubious blessing for the people of the region. After John Hume died on 3 August, Gove paid tribute to the Derry politician as ‘a man of great integrity and wisdom who stood against violence and for peace with courage and steadfastness’. You get a very different impression from Gove’s 2000 pamphlet denouncing the Good Friday Agreement, the principal fruit of Hume’s political labours. Gove compared the British government’s policy of engagement with Sinn Féin to the appeasement of Nazi Germany, and accused Hume of undermining confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
In the late 1990s, Catholics made up roughly 40 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland, but fewer than 10 per cent of RUC members. The rubber bullets that US police officers have been firing so freely were initially designed for use by the British security forces in Northern Ireland, where they killed 17 people. RUC patrols carried weapons, wore flak jackets and drove around in armour-plated vehicles, foreshadowing the militarisation of US policing.
Nobody expected this outcome, least of all Sinn Féin. The party leadership thought they’d struggle to hold onto some of the seats they won in 2016. Last year’s local and European elections saw Sinn Féin lose two of its three MEPs and nearly half of its councillors. Because of its defensive strategy, which seemed prudent when the election was called, the party won’t have a seat share that matches its vote: the Irish electoral system has multi-seat constituencies, and in many places Sinn Féin could have taken a second seat if it had run more than one candidate. They won’t make that mistake again.
As Britain woke on Friday morning to discover that Theresa May had flushed her Commons majority down the drain, people found themselves having to learn about an unfamiliar party on which May (or her successor) would be relying to get anything done. The titles of the hastily commissioned primers – ‘So, Who Are The DUP?’; ‘Who are the Democratic Unionists and what do they want?’ – told their own story. The Democratic Unionist Party is Northern Ireland’s largest political force and was until recently the principal coalition partner in one of the UK’s devolved governments. But most of the time, what happens in Belfast or Derry is deemed irrelevant to political life on the other side of the Irish Sea.
When Michael Noonan, the finance minister in Ireland’s outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition, said that ‘party allegiances are reverting back to what was the norm over the years,’ he might as well have been clicking his heels together and murmuring ‘there’s no place like home.’ The 2016 general election marked another stage in the disruption of the old political order, leaving Irish politics more fragmented and unpredictable than ever before.
It was meant to be the day on which normal service was resumed. Having followed the path of economic virtue mapped out by Draghi, Merkel and the IMF, Ireland’s governing parties would reap the rewards at the ballot box. Failing that, a strong performance by Fianna Fáil would show that the inherent conservatism of the Irish people had reasserted itself, as they lurched from one centre-right party to another and back again.
Irish politicians have spent the last few years telling anyone who cares to listen that ‘Ireland is not Greece,' but in some respects the country appears only too keen to imitate its fellow PIG. As soon as the news about 'Maria' made international headlines, concerned citizens were on the look-out for blonde-haired children living with Roma families; two children who matched the profile were taken into care by police in Dublin and Athlone before you could say ‘witch-hunt’.