Thanks to the Brexit debate and tight arithmetic in the House of Commons, Northern Irish unionism has been in the national spotlight for the best part of three years. This scrutiny has intensified as Theresa May attempts to steer the draft Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, with commentators speculating as to whether the DUP can eventually be persuaded to back her deal.
The party softened its opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol in the period leading up to this week’s vote and some observers thought that it was looking for an excuse to support the agreement, without being seen to back down. Ultimately, the attorney general’s legal advice – that the UK could still become trapped in a backstop arrangement – persuaded the DUP to vote against the government again.
That doesn’t mean that the Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, for one, was wrong to question the party’s resolve, ahead of the House of Commons division. In an article in the Sunday Telegraph, Hannan asserted that the backstop should be opposed by all “MPs who believe in the Union”, but cautioned readers not to “underestimate the canny, materialistic aspect of unionism”.
The implication was that the DUP might exploit its position to make financial gains for Northern Ireland, rather than putting the integrity of the United Kingdom first. It wasn’t entirely a groundless suspicion either. The party took pride in extracting an estimated £1 billion in public spending commitments from the Conservatives, as its price for propping up the government.
Now it is back in discussions about yet another ‘meaningful vote’, with reports suggesting that the chilly relationship with Theresa May is ‘thawing’.
It can be confusing when the DUP, which expresses its Britishness so adamantly, defends the idea that Northern Ireland should be distinct from the rest of the UK when it comes to same-sex marriage, abortion, Corporation Tax or even just libel law. This attitude can’t be explained simply as an outbreak of localism or a commitment to the principles of devolution.
Even in tiny Northern Ireland, there are different flavours of unionism and that’s reflected in the confused messages the DUP sometimes projects. Academics like to distinguish between ‘cultural unionism’, which concentrates on defending a way of life associated with Protestants in Ulster, and ‘liberal’, ‘civic’ or ‘British’ unionism, which emphasises the merits of the UK as a whole.
These categories were always a little neat but there is truth to the distinction. Traditionally, the DUP was associated with the cultural form of unionism, while British unionism was more influential in the UUP, though both strands of thought are represented in both parties.
Many of the fiercest disputes among unionists become less confusing when they’re viewed through this lens. The founder of Ulster unionism, Edward Carson, followed the civic, British tradition and he was deeply sceptical about the creation of a home rule parliament in Northern Ireland. Yet many of his successors grew deeply attached to devolved powers and used them to assert dominance over the Catholic minority, rather than creating a modern, harmonious part of the UK.
After Edward Heath suspended the Northern Ireland government in 1972, the Ulster Unionist Party was divided between integrationists, who wanted the province to participate fully in Westminster politics, and devolutionists, who wanted to restore the parliament at Stormont. In the 1980s, the British unionist impulse powered a ‘campaign for equal citizenship’ that demanded a proper say for Northern Irish voters in choosing the UK government.
One of the most influential figures in that movement, Robert McCartney, formed the UK Unionist Party, which counted as a member the towering Irish intellectual, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and eventually found itself opposing the Belfast Agreement.
The DUP was just as firmly opposed to the 1998 agreement, but its politics was rooted in local cultural concerns and it even flirted with Ulster nationalism. Its then deputy leader, Peter Robinson, viewed Northern Irish independence as an option and its founding father, Ian Paisley, had a habit of referring to the Westminster government as “the Brits”.
As the party overtook the UUP and began to dominate unionism in Ulster, it absorbed several waves of defections and came to represent a broader coalition of interests. In 2016, the DUP threw itself into the nationwide Brexit campaign and argued for the whole UK to leave the EU. When it found itself holding the balance of power at Westminster, it formed a meaningful relationship with the Conservative party, when previously it had attacked the UUP for an electoral link with the Tories.
Despite these changes, the old Paisleyite wing of the DUP is still influential and the party maintains its opposition to reforming laws on social issues, to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. The lifestyle of many of its representatives is maintained by the devolved institutions at Stormont and it has a reputation for coveting British taxpayers’ money, reinforced by the RHI green energy scandal.
It’s thought that many Tory Brexiteers would drop their opposition to the Northern Ireland backstop, if Theresa May persuaded the DUP that her deal is not a threat to the Union. That’s a reasonable position. If the biggest Ulster unionist party isn’t concerned about being cut adrift from the rest of the country, why should Conservatives take a different view?
Then again, if the DUP does change its mind, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether it’s putting its own interests first, rather than prioritising the UK’s constitutional integrity.