On​ 3 February the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Jeffrey Donaldson, instructed the first minister of Northern Ireland, Paul Givan, to resign. This automatically also removed the deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, from office, effectively bringing about the collapse of the power-sharing administration. Donaldson claimed to be protesting at the failure of the latest EU-UK negotiations to remove the Northern Ireland protocol, which imposes checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea as part of the Brexit deal. He said Boris Johnson had told him there was only a ‘20 to 30 per cent chance’ of replacing the protocol; the EU, for its part, insists the protocol is integral to Brexit but has conceded changes to reduce disruption. Talks continue, but when the Irish foreign minister visited Belfast on 17 February he said an imminent resolution was unlikely. Unionists want the removal of the border in the Irish Sea, which they see as a step towards a united Ireland, and want instead a border across Ireland, which the EU insists would be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

The day before Donaldson’s move, the DUP agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, had ordered customs officials to stop inspecting goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The workers took legal advice, unsure whether to break the protocol: a judge ruled they should continue to carry out checks until a full court hearing is held (it’s expected to start shortly). It isn’t clear if Poots and Donaldson co-ordinated their actions. They represent rival DUP factions. After the party deposed Arlene Foster, Poots defeated Donaldson to replace her, but lasted only eight weeks before Donaldson ousted him. While the DUP is riven with infighting, Sinn Féin looks set to become the largest party in the assembly following elections on 5 May. O’Neill may well become first minister – the first nationalist to hold the post. Donaldson has said this would be a ‘real problem’ for unionists.

In times of crisis, unionism reverts to the Lundy principle. This has its roots in a simplified account of the siege of Derry. In the winter of 1688 the Catholic forces of the recently deposed James II surrounded the largely Protestant city. Its governor, Robert Lundy, wanted to negotiate surrender as they didn’t have the resources to withstand a prolonged siege. But thirteen apprentice boys defied him and closed the gates. Lundy was banished, replaced by a stauncher man. The siege lasted 105 days. Derry’s inhabitants were reduced to eating dogs ‘fattened on the flesh of the slain Irish’, horses, rats and tallow. Fever swept through the city. Thousands died. But there was no surrender, and the city was finally relieved by the new king, William of Orange. Every year, the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys and others celebrate the victory by burning an effigy of Lundy to shouts of ‘no surrender!’ Pinned to its chest is a sign that says: ‘Lundy the Traitor’. When Foster realised she was going to be deposed last year, she noted unionism’s tendency to ‘look for Lundies’ to blame for its troubles.

Lundy hunting was underway at a unionist protest in Markethill, County Armagh, two weeks after Givan stood down. It was cold – Storm Eunice was sending flurries of hailstones into the faces of the crowd – so I took shelter with a group of women huddling by an overgrown hedge. I recognised one of them from the Drumcree protests in nearby Portadown in the late 1990s (at one level these were over the entitlement of the Orange Order to march through Catholic areas, at another they were about the peace process), and from a more recent ‘anti Betrayal Act’ rally over Brexit. ‘I’ve been to a right lot of rallies over the years,’ she said. She thought things had got worse. ‘Bit by bit they have taken it all off the Protestant people. We have nothing left. They say we are still in the UK, but are we? Just about. And for how long?’ Portadown had changed too. The Protestant houses in the town centre had been taken by Catholics ‘and foreigners’. She could see trouble returning. ‘When your back is against the wall,’ she said and paused. The unspoken words were ‘you fight.’ I asked her what she thought should be done. ‘Oh, I’m not the brains behind this,’ she said. ‘But I tell you one thing. They got rid of Billy Wright. That was a big mistake.’

Wright was a terrifying figure, a prolific sectarian killer who rejected the loyalist ceasefires and set up his own paramilitary group which played a prominent role at Drumcree and continued to kill Catholics. In December 1997, while in jail for intimidating a Protestant woman, he was shot dead by republican inmates. In recent years, graffiti saying ‘Billy was Wright’ have appeared in Mid Ulster towns. Markethill (where Wright went to school) is in what used to be known as the ‘murder triangle’. The names of nearby towns and villages evoke memories of atrocities, some carried out by republicans, others by loyalists, sometimes in collusion with the British army: Poyntzpass, Glenanne, Darkley, Kingsmill, Tandragee.

At the first thump of the Lambeg drum, the woman lit up. ‘No matter how tired I am, once I hear the drums I could walk for miles,’ she said. Her sons played in the bands and were in the Orange Order, like her grandfather, her father and her husband before them. The parade began to pass, the flute and accordion players, the big Lambeg drummers swaggering, bare-armed. The Armagh True Blues, Markethill Protestant Boys, Red Hand Defenders, the Pride of Ballymacash: most of the marchers were from the east of Northern Ireland, the part of the province that voted Leave. Banners commemorated First World War battles and the UVF, which was formed in 1912 to resist Home Rule. One had the slogan ‘prepared for peace, ready for war’, the words of a mural in an area of Belfast dominated by the reincarnated UVF during the Troubles. The Banbridge band was led by two men carrying unsheathed swords. Someone came round with a booklet opposing Covid vaccination. ‘The Protestant people need to sit back and think there’s a man above,’ the Drumcree woman said to me. ‘How many politicians mention God’s name?’ I asked her if she thought God would have agreed with Billy Wright killing people. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘Definitely not.’

A narrow platform had been set up outside a hardware, tackle and gun shop. Several hundred bandsmen and other marchers stayed for the speeches. A few swigged Buckfast from bottles, but there was little drunkenness. Some of the men wore face masks that looked like paramilitary balaclavas. The first speaker was an Orange Order district master. ‘Under the canopy of heaven, the enemy has come in like a flood,’ he said. ‘Thou, God, will help and deliver us from the dangers within which we are encompassed.’ Snow began to fall from the canopy. It soaked my notebook and formed a drift around the rim of the bowler hat worn by an elderly Orangeman.

The arrival of Jim Allister, leader and sole member of the assembly for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), was greeted with a roar of approval. He left the DUP in 2007 after Ian Paisley made his peace with power-sharing. Having vowed to ‘smash’ the Good Friday Agreement, Paisley instead became first minister, with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Though the roles are of equal standing, Paisley referred to McGuinness, apparently affectionately, as ‘my deputy’ and the former IRA leader laughed it off. Allister now acts as the ghost of Paisley past, calling his people to defend their separate destiny in ‘our beloved province’.

Allister referred to the visit to Belfast the previous day by the Irish foreign minister. He called him a foreigner. ‘They have put us into a foreign region subject to foreign rules and a foreign court. We have been colonised into the EU.’ That morning Allister had been on BBC Radio Ulster’s rowdy Stephen Nolan show. Most of his guests and callers are indignant unionist men. Nolan seemed to have been briefed by DUP sources that Donaldson was considering a version of the EU’s customs regime (the party has an inconsistent record on the protocol) and repeatedly played a clip of Donaldson talking about a solution that would be the ‘best of both worlds’. ‘There is no such thing,’ Allister told the crowd in Markethill. ‘No one should be deceived. That world is the EU world. We want the British world … If we don’t stop the protocol the union is over.’

The DUP MP Sammy Wilson was up next. He too had been on the Nolan show, claiming that schoolchildren should not be made to wear masks because they lead to oxygen deprivation. His ridiculing of public health advice during the pandemic led the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Doug Beattie, to describe him as a ‘juvenile, pathetic, moronic, self-indulgent, narcissistic fool who jokes … as people die’. Wilson is one of the DUP’s longest serving politicians, close to Eurosceptic Tories in the European Research Group. He urged the British government to take the hardest possible stance during Brexit negotiations with the EU. ‘If the gloves are off, it is time we went into the fray with a no surrender attitude.’ Wilson is used to being indulged by hardliners, but the Markethill crowd, whipped up by the TUV leader, turned on him. His opening words were drowned out by boos and shouts of ‘you’re not welcome.’ He tried to claim that such shows of division would ‘give succour’ to ‘our enemies’, among which he included the BBC, but Allister had to come back onto the platform and ask the crowd to let Wilson be heard. ‘If our government can stand up for the Ukraine it should stand up for the union,’ Wilson went on, but the crowd wasn’t impressed. ‘Will you take up the deputy first ministership?’ someone roared. The joint office of the first and deputy first ministers is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement but Allister claims any unionist leader willing to tolerate a Sinn Féin first minister would be a ‘stooge’. There were shouts of ‘Lundy’ and ‘traitor’. Wilson finished by repeating ‘no surrender’, but was drowned out by jeers and curses. He had been Lundified.

The parade of men to the podium continued. One of them was a former UVF member who had also served in the security forces and sat on the Loyalist Communities Council. This was set up in 2015 as an old boys’ association for paramilitaries, but the DUP has recently begun to behave as though it speaks for working-class communities. The man paid tribute to the role the paramilitaries played in what he described as the defeat of the IRA in the early 1990s. ‘Some have lectured me for supposedly threatening violence,’ he said, and went on to repeat the unionist claim that Leo Varadkar’s reference to the risk of republican violence if a hard border was instituted with the south amounted to a threat. Loyalists now like to speak of the ‘violence rewarding protocol’.

Standing in front of a makeshift platform, listening to men roar about betrayal and treachery and abandonment and the need to stand firm for Ulster, I felt I was watching a scene that had been played out on street corners in this part of Ireland for centuries. Many men have gone out and killed their fellow citizens after listening to their rabble-rousing leaders. Then those leaders have denounced them. One man told me the Orange Order hadn’t won a battle since the Boyne in 1690. Another, a Free Presbyterian Orange Order chaplain, said the unionist family hadn’t been united since the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, which brought Northern Ireland to a standstill in 1974 and led to the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement, an early model for power-sharing. Paramilitaries provided the muscle in that strike.

Unionism is weaker now than at any point in its history, raddled with self-pity. When an Irish language group at Queen’s University Belfast announced a plan to open a hall of residence for Irish speakers, the Orange Order complained that it was ‘cultural apartheid’, though an Orange society at the university has its own student residences and a growing number of people from Protestant backgrounds are now learning Irish. Posters have been put up in majority unionist towns claiming that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been doing Sinn Féin’s bidding since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The police service is still predominantly Protestant, and subject to scrutiny by a policing board and a police ombudsman. Kate Hoey, a prominent supporter of Brexit and a former Labour MP, recently wrote that there were justified concerns among loyalists that ‘professional vocations such as journalism, law and public service’ had become ‘dominated by those of a nationalist persuasion and this positioning of activists is then used to exert influence on those in power’. She was responding to a report from a ‘think tank’ run by a loyalist blogger. Donaldson stepped up to praise the report. The NUJ and the Bar Council expressed concern.

Givan’s resignation failed to make the front pages of British newspapers and wasn’t mentioned by the prime minister. Ian Paisley Junior told an almost empty chamber at Westminster that he feared the Conservative Party was ‘an English nationalist party … betraying the union and the unionist people’. This is hardly news. A poll in 2019 showed that almost 60 per cent of Tory party members were willing to ditch Northern Ireland in order to secure Brexit. Theresa May’s softer Brexit deal would not have required a protocol, but the DUP, whose votes she needed, rejected it.

Donaldson now claims the protocol is costing Northern Ireland £2.5 million a day. The figure has been widely disputed and business leaders argue that it is in fact protecting Northern Ireland from some of the negative economic effects of Brexit. The real problem is the political instability brought about by the DUP. It has used the protocol as a figleaf for its Brexit mistakes, and is claiming victimhood while displaying an aggressive nostalgia for dominance. It has failed to face the cold reality of Tory indifference. The collapsing of the democratic institutions is deterring investment in what would otherwise be an attractive location for businesses keen to benefit from joint access to EU and UK markets.

Almost two-thirds of voters in Northern Ireland, including an overwhelming majority of nationalists, backed Remain. Yet the DUP claims that, according to the Good Friday Agreement, the protocol should not have been implemented without cross community consent. It has been (illegally) boycotting joint north-south bodies. Unionism, meanwhile, maintains its own border in the Irish Sea, refusing to implement British legislation it dislikes, notably on abortion provision. The UUP is tentatively moving in a more progressive direction, but Beattie also fears the loss of his traditionalist supporters. Like Donaldson, he has not declared if he will accept a Sinn Féin first minister. The loyalist paramilitaries are a spent force; attempts to stir up riots last year drew minor crowds and petered out. Despite its appeal to intransigents, such as the people who showed up in Markethill, Allister’s TUV has so far failed to attract electable candidates. If unionism refuses to implement the Good Friday Agreement it is no wonder more and more people, including some from a unionist background, are wondering if Northern Ireland can work as a political state. There is growing interest in the prospect of a border poll. But unionists just keep on looking for Lundies.

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Vol. 44 No. 8 · 21 April 2022

Susan McKay’s Diary about the political situation in Northern Ireland took me back to the mid-1980s, when I was living in the centre of Belfast while trying to make a film (LRB, 10 March). I had rented an office near the Lisburn Road and commuted from my digs on a borrowed bike. It was the marching season and the Drumcree stand-off was imminent. The bike didn’t have lights. It was midsummer, but starting to get dark, so I decided to pack up and cycle home. I could hear the flutes and drums of an Orange march nearby. When I turned onto the Lisburn Road the parade, about eighty strong, stretched out in front of me. Mindful that I had no lights and that the RUC were strung along the road, I swung out and cycled past the parade. I came up to the Lambeg drums at the front. Beside them was ‘security’: two or three men with tattoos, rings, leather and muscle. The next thing I knew I was thrown off the bike and given a good kicking. All the while the parade marched past. Lying on the roadside, I uncurled myself and opened my eyes. A policeman was looking down at me. ‘Never overtake the Orange Order,’ he said and strode away after the parade.

Gerry Harrison
Lewes, East Sussex

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