This is the first of a series of six posts on GE2019 in Northern Ireland each of which will highlight one party and one constituency. This post features the DUP and the North Belfast constituency. The second on Sinn Féin and Foyle is available here.
Subsequent posts will highlight Sinn Féin (SF), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI/Alliance) and a key associated constituency in each case. The final post will take an overarching view, make predictions and recommendations from the “Remain” tactical voting viewpoint.
Northern Ireland was never meant to be a permanent feature, as illustrated in Fig. 1 (Punch); the hope was that partition would be shortlived. There is some interesting insight into the thinking of the period from the Liberal historian, Dr Roy Douglas, in Lloyd George and the Partition of Ireland.
It was a time of Imperial hubris and many arbitrary lines were drawn in the Middle East around the same time, with the carving up of the former Ottoman Empire and of course c. 25y later with the botched partition of India.
NI still exists nearly 100 years later. Initially, a nine-county Ulster was considered, but in 1920-1 ideas progressed rapidly. Rather than a nine-county Ulster as in Fig. 1, a six-county one was chosen as the Unionists wanted a stable Protestant and Unionist majority (approx. 2/3 Protestant and 1/3 Catholic).
This Protestant and Unionist majority in NI has lasted for the best part of a century. This has now changed, with the Nationalist and Unionist communities being about the same size and a growing group of “significant others”. It is inevitable that Catholic voters will outnumber Protestants over the next years, but unlikely that either group will ever constitute a majority in NI again.
In 2017, 10 seats were won by the DUP, 7 by Sinn Féin and one by the independent Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon. The best DUP result ever.
The DUP has featured numerous times on this blog, for example in A More Definitive guide to the DUP.
The DUP had an excellent election in 2017, winning 10 of the 18 NI seats. Because of Westminster parliamentary arithmetic, they formed a confidence and supply arrangement with May’s Government. This has been their pinnacle of power and influence. They were very proud of extracting an extra $1bn from the British Treasury.
Geographically the DUP heartlands are concentrated in the NE of Northern Ireland. None of their constituencies touch the border (Fig. 2).
The DUP is a passionate Unionist party. The Union comes first, as does their perceived divine right to rule over NI. These come well above the economic or political wellbeing of NI. Their motto might well be: better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), however, is a Sword of Damocles hanging over the Union. The GFA stipulates that a Border Poll should be called, should it seem likely a majority will vote for a United Ireland. Only a simple majority (50%+1) is needed. Because of the demographic change noted above, a United Ireland seems inevitable. Indeed, recent opinion polls indicate this majority may already have been reached.
A more inclusive party might ask: “How can NI change such that Nationalists feel welcome and they are content with the status quo? How can we make NI a place that works for everyone?” The honest answer, however, requires a balanced state, parity of esteem, an Irish Language Act and that Unionists are no longer privileged. This is unacceptable to the DUP – when you are accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression.
To keep Unionist dominance, DUP “strategists” supported Brexit with the specific intent of destroying the GFA (which they never signed) and to force a hard border on the island of Ireland. This was a high-risk strategy and not one that could be expressed openly. In the oft used poker analogy of EU Brexit negotiations, does the “Orange Card” prove a top-trump as in the past, or will it be more like the “fool”?
The latter, it turns out. Destroying the GFA was never going to work. The Irish government was never going to allow it. Ultimately it is a matter of power. Because of rock-solid GFA support from both the EU and US, defeat was inevitable. The DUP is, however, not known for its humility or strategic competence, and totally overestimate not just their importance and influence, but have a mindset in which Westminster’s power still bestrides the globe.
The DUP were initially very successful at Westminster and May tried extraordinarily hard to accommodate them, in their wish to have no border in the Irish Sea and for NI to leave the EU, in as far as possible, on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
Rather than accepting May’s deal (which was v. good for NI), they are now in a position that Johnson’s deal will place a border down the Irish sea. May did try very hard to accommodate the DUP and the ingratitude must have been hard to bear. When they were “thrown under the bus” there may well have been an element of revenge is a dish best served cold.
The DUP has also been rocked with scandals. The worst of which is the “Cash for Ash” affair. The official report has been shelved till after the GE but Sam McBride’s recently published book Burned, documents what has been described by Rory Carroll in the Guardian as:
“A compelling exposé of a system gone rotten. It’s about greed, sleaze & dysfunction, a saga of incompetence, nitwittedness & knavery by those who ran Northern Ireland until the scandal broke”.
Pastor Jimbaroo (who has kindly offered to write a review of Burned for PP) commented: The root cause of RHI & Govt dysfunction, is a design flaw in devolution itself: being based on grant dependence. Why would we expect good government based on spending other peoples money? Until that changes there will be more dysfunction.
There is also the funnelling of dark money through the DUP at the time of the Brexit referendum and links with two of the “Bad Boys of Brexit” most famously perhaps in the infamous lunch after Wigmore and Banks stormed out of a select committee as captured in Fig. 3.
The DUP’s ongoing links with Loyalist terror groups have also come to the fore, with the UUP being bullied from standing against them in N Belfast by the UDA. The optics are dreadful. The DUP make endless political capital of historic Sinn Féin IRA links, while their very much alive Loyalist links are hypocritically ignored. In the past, they have been aided and abetted in this by the right-wing UK press, but this could turn.
Nevertheless, many DUP supporters are extremely loyal and their base and will apparently forgive them any misdemeanour. Their USP is that they are the true party of the mythical Union. An Ulster where Protestant are in their rightful place as masters, where it is forever a sepia-tinted 1950’s and Catholics knew their place. A position where the slightest concession to “them’uns” is a betrayal.
The more fanatical supports are accused of having a 17th cent. mentality, forever reliving their victory over Catholics in 1690. They believe Catholics burn in hell immediately after they die. They have also taken on board some of the 19th Cent. Scientific Racism ideas as illustrated in Fig 4. and believe they are indeed a superior race, destined to rule over their Catholic inferiors.
It is probably unkind, but nonetheless true to describe NI as an economic basket case, with a moribund economy; totally dependent on monetary handouts from Britain. In the deep recesses of the DUP mind is fear of betrayal by Westminster. This is exacerbated by the fact that Brexit is, in essence, an English Nationalist project. Loyalty has its limits and the love the DUP has for Britain is largely unrequited.
There is no question that the Union is in its most perilous state since the foundation of NI. There is a real possibility that NI is seen as a liability rather than an asset, full of parasitic Irish people, who are certainly not British. The DUP should be asking the questions “How can we make NI a vibrant net contributor to the UK? Is there a game-changer out there which might enable NI to become a shining jewel rather than a dead weight?“
There are many like Charles Tannock (a former Tory MEP) who argue that May’s deal provided exactly that opportunity. It seems likely, however, that civil unrest and riots in Loyalist communities may be the reaction. This is will be counterproductive.
The DUP almost seem to be regressing. Their founder Ian Paisley Snr. was very happy to call himself a proud Irishman. The modern DUP seem to have developed a laager mentality – an Afrikaner term for circling wagons to form a ring fort. They are British, most certainly not Irish. Even after hundreds of years, they are colonists forever in fear of the natives.
There is a near refusal to have any form of true engagement with their southern neighbour. Hurling insults and belittling the “South” is seen as a daily sport or a “lark.” Fervent loyalty to the Union is expressed at every opportunity, with a level of passionate flag-waving that would make a UKIP supporter blush. The slightest hint from IE that it might be worth contemplating that United Ireland is a remote possibility is treated as an ultimate insult. This is a behaviour pattern that would be diagnosed as psychopathy if it were to occur in an individual.
I am not a Unionist, but if I were I would be ashamed of the DUP. I looked at Lady Sylvia Herman as an exemplar as to what Unionism could and should be, honourable, evidence-based, inclusive and professional. The DUP seem none of these things.
They may well have done more to destroy the Union in the past three and a half years than Sinn Féin and the IRA have done in the past thirty five.
North Belfast suffered the highest level of violence of any constituency in NI during The Troubles and covers many areas synonymous with the conflict – the New Lodge, Ardoyne, Rathcoole, Ballysillan and Woodvale. The overall tenor of the constituency is working-class, with a high proportion of residents in public housing, and concentrations of low-income single people. Sectarian divisions are stark, with a number of Peace lines cutting through the constituency and occasional outbursts of sectarian street violence, and were the focus of post-ceasefire incidents such as the Holy Cross dispute.
The 2017 results are shown in Fig. 5. The constituency was won by Nigel Dodds, the Westminster parliamentary leader, by a reasonable majority.
The fight will be much closer this time. Both the SDLP and Greens have stood down urging support for the Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane, in disgust at the way the UUP candidate was terrorised into not standing by the UDA. The Unionist and Nationalist voting share are nearly identical as shown in Fig. 6.
Finucane is also the Remain Alliance candidate and has support from for example Our Future Our Choice NI. Many tactically-voting Alliance supporters are likely to support Finucane. It is also a constituency where the ratchet of democratic change is at work. There are likely to be c. 1k more Catholic nationalist voters than in 2017.
The Lead Candidates
It’s a race between Nigel Dodds and John Finucane, two very high-profile candidates.
Nigel Dodds is the DUP’s Westminster Party leader. He has a 1st in Law from Cambridge and has the reputation of being a very effective parliamentarian. His reputation, however, will be forever tarnished by his connection with Loyalist Paramilitaries, most openly perhaps with Ulster Resistance, but also most recently with UDA support intimidating the UUP candidate into not standing against him. Nigel Dodds is a Free Presbyterian (some of their beliefs are listed here). He for good and bad an exemplar of DUP thinking and the natural successor of Ian Paisley Snr. (Ian Paisley Jnr. may have the name but little of his father’s brains or charisma).
John Finucane is the current Lord Mayor of Belfast, but his outlook may be coloured by having seen his father Pat murdered in front of him, as an 8-year-old, in one of the most notorious cases during the troubles. Pat was shot fourteen times as he sat eating a meal at his Belfast home with his three children and his wife, who was also wounded during the attack. His father was a very high profile human rights lawyer. The British security forces and MI5 were heavily implicated in the murder and David Cameron felt it necessary to offer an apology.
John has followed in his father’ s footsteps as a lawyer but his career is currently on hold as Mayoral duties take precedence. Unlike Arlene Foster, whose father was similarly shot by the IRA (he survived), he has not shrunk into his own community, but rather sees the necessity to reach out to Unionists and forge a better future NI.
It is difficult to see Dodds retaining the seat. However, it will be a hard-fought race and the DUP are likely to pour in disproportionate resources. Belfast South is a near-certain loss for the DUP and personnel are likely to be transferred en-masse to N. Belfast. Mobilisation will be the key and turnout, as well as postal and proxy voting are likely to be extremely high. Bookmakers Paddy Power still give the DUP a slight edge: 4/5 DUP against 5/6 SF (17th Nov). This is one to watch on election night. I suspect many Alliance supporters will vote tactically for Finucane. If they do, the odds that Dodds will survive as an MP are small indeed.