- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
The Brexit crisis of the past few years turned the status of Northern Ireland into a vital matter for British and European politics. Negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU hinged on the question of how the region should relate to its southern neighbor and the rest of the United Kingdom. After Theresa May lost her majority in the 2017 general election, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) kept her in power at Westminster.
In the end, Boris Johnson signed up to a deal that contained the Northern Ireland Protocol, which created trade barriers in the Irish Sea to avoid the return of a hard border between the two parts of Ireland. The DUP was furious, but its efforts to overturn the Protocol have proved fruitless. The DUP recently brought down the regional power-sharing government in what seems like a last-ditch attempt to avoid being overtaken by Sinn Féin in the Assembly election due to be held this May.
Despite receiving more attention in the wider world over the past five years than at any point in living memory, Northern Irish unionism remains poorly understood as a social and political force. What are its internal dynamics, and how does it relate to a changing society where the safety of the union with Britain can no longer be taken for granted?
Peter Shirlow is the director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, and the author of several books on politics and society in Northern Ireland. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
There’s now a broad consensus that the outcome of the Brexit process has weakened the position of Northern Irish unionism. Why did the DUP support Brexit, first of all, and then align itself with Boris Johnson during the crisis that followed the referendum vote? Was it a question of poor leadership, or do you think there was something deeper at work there?
Political unionism got caught up in the narrative around “getting our country back” and very much fell for that sort of populist rhetoric. The DUP especially has always been very anti-EU, seeing it as encroaching upon British values and imposing laws and regulations that wouldn’t have been popular with them.
It wasn’t all of political unionism: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) campaigned to remain in the EU. If you look at the survey data, the majority of unionists either voted Remain or didn’t vote, although the majority who did vote supported Leave, so it’s all a bit more nuanced.
I think the DUP got caught up a little bit in the headlights. At one time they were upholding the Theresa May government at Westminster. They have completely misunderstood and misinterpreted Brexit and what it would mean, not understanding that English nationalism would hamper and impede the politics of defending the union.
I think they have also misread the Northern Ireland Protocol attached to Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement with EU. Northern Ireland has not been “annexed” from the UK in any way within domestic or international law. That’s just complete nonsense. The UK parliament is sovereign. It can decide the rules and regulations.
In terms of ratifying Brexit and international law, the UK government decided to take back control of the internal market. In doing that, they had to find, given the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), a way in which the border in Ireland was kept open. They weren’t particularly against the border being kept open: they understood the value of cross-border trade.
But the DUP seems to have got caught up in the politics of a form of nationalism, with egos somewhat filled by the confidence agreement with May’s government, and basically didn’t see what was coming. When the forces of English nationalism were unleashed, because of that and because of the Good Friday Agreement, the border had to be placed somewhere. The checks on trade that have come about due to the Protocol have basically brought into question the previous relationship, which was one based on completely unfettered and unchecked trade.
I suppose it was a rudimentary politics caught up in a very complex situation, not understanding it, and then not having the grace to accept that they got this wrong. That has now created a sort of vociferous politics around bringing down the Protocol, which cannot be brought down. They are understanding the Protocol as an event when it is actually a process.
But they are right in one way, which is very important. The peace process in Northern Ireland has been built upon economic prosperity. It has been built upon the new economy: fintech, cybercrime, the film industry, etc. Unemployment has declined and wages have risen. We’ve had a significant decline in violence.
Of course, the predominant economic relationship is east–west: 70 to 80 percent of our trade and the movement of goods and investment goes between Britain and Northern Ireland. Any fettering of that will cost jobs and could theoretically undermine investment, which challenges the whole edifice of the peace process in terms of economics. If you look at these islands, you’ve basically kept the border open in Ireland for what is equivalent to 20 percent of your income but brought in some conditions that would undermine 80 percent of your economy to a certain extent.
If we didn’t have identity politics and the threat of violence from Irish republicans, then this might have turned out very differently. The border might have been put on the island of Ireland — not that I would advocate that. But I think the overall lesson here is that the threat of violence at the start of Brexit from republicans led the Protocol to be designed in one way, keeping the border open, at the expense of another identity crisis which has created this anger within unionism.
Going back to the time of the Good Friday Agreement in the late 1990s, what were the principal gains and losses for unionism? Why do you think that unionist support for the Agreement was so much lower than nationalist support in the referendum — 57 percent in favor, by one estimate?
The big issue was prisoner releases: 90-odd percent of unionists opposed the release of paramilitary prisoners. That wasn’t just opposition to republican prisoners being released: there was also significant opposition to loyalist prisoners being released. The pro-union community did have a very strong rejection of paramilitary violence for whatever cause. That was the major issue at the time.
The Good Friday Agreement is a very pro-union document. The Republic of Ireland dropped Articles Two and Three of its constitution, which laid claim to the territory of Northern Ireland. Republicans had said they would never sign up to the principle of consent, which meant that a united Ireland could only happen with support from a majority in Northern Ireland, but they did. Republicans had said that they would never sit in a partitionist assembly, but they did.
It’s very important to make it clear that there is no such thing as the “unionist community” as such: there are people who are pro-union. Some of the most socially liberal people in Northern Ireland are pro-union, as are some of the most vociferously conservative people. It does have an internal dynamic, as do nationalism and republicanism. It’s not just one thing: it has different wings, traits, and personalities within it.
But at the time, I think the questions of prisoners and police reform were important. Even for somebody like me, who was and remains a great advocate of the GFA, many of my relatives were in the police, and we did go to the funerals. One of my best friends had joined the police and was killed by republicans. There were emotive issues like that, which Ian Paisley and his DUP supporters were able to push.
If you look at it now, in terms of the opinion surveys, there’s massive support within the unionist community for the institutions created by the Agreement, and especially for power-sharing. In a way, those unionists who did support the Agreement wanted the conflict to end. Don’t forget that loyalists signed up to the principles on non-violence set out by the US negotiator George Mitchell long before Sinn Féin. The UUP leader David Trimble ruined his career pushing through the GFA. I don’t think it’s just a simple question of yeas and nays.
We experienced conflict in our society differently. My wife’s a Catholic from Derry. She experienced loyalist and state violence, whereas as an Ulster Protestant, I experienced republican violence. That in itself framed a lot of the experience of the GFA.
One of the things that has happened in the pro-union community since 1998, which I think is critically important, is that it has come to be much more socially liberal than it was. We’ve also observed a mood change toward being able to accept power-sharing and park the past, in terms of Irish Republican Army (IRA) violence, to a certain extent. But Brexit has ruptured that consensus. For significant sections of the unionist community, this idea of an Irish Sea border has really hit at the heart of their identity dynamic.
We had in a way calmed people down. You could see this in the surveys: ten or fifteen years ago, most unionists felt that Catholics and republicans were being given concessions and were benefiting most from the peace process. In the surveys that we did before Brexit became what it was, that had grown to a neutral position that saw both sides as gaining from the peace process.
Why did David Trimble and the UUP lose their dominant position to Ian Paisley and the DUP after 1998? Do you think there was anything that Trimble could have done that would have affected the outcome?
The fundamental problem was the refusal of republicans to decommission their weapons or sign up to policing until very late in the day. In 1998, significant parts of the pro-union community came out and voted for the Agreement. They then disappeared.
Three-quarters of those who do not vote and who express a constitutional preference are pro-union. There’s a significant section of the pro-union community that has no desire to engage with political unionism: they see it as backward, right-wing, and not having the same values as that more socially liberal constituency. Part of Trimble’s problem was that this wing came out and voted for the Agreement, then they basically went home and didn’t want to engage.
Sinn Féin didn’t sign up to policing for a significant part of the process, which led to that question about whether republicans were going to respect the institutions of the state. That was very problematic. The two themes that had encouraged people to vote against the Agreement were the IRA and prisoner releases. The prisoners had been released without decommissioning and without a Sinn Féin endorsement of policing.
By the time those things came, it was too late for Trimble. In many ways, those who had voted for the Agreement who were unionist weren’t going to come out and help him because they had already withdrawn. The DUP was able to build up a head of steam by saying that republicans weren’t serious about this. They said to Trimble: “This is a folly, and the things that you promised haven’t materialized.” That very much undermined him.
There’s also an argument that the British government really wanted Sinn Féin and the DUP to be in charge because you already had John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionists on board. Of course, if you’re trying to solve a long-term conflict, you need the more vociferous groups to come in from the cold. I think a lot of the behind-the-scenes negotiations undermined both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists.
Don’t forget that the SDLP were also a casualty of the Good Friday Agreement in identity and political terms. What happened was that the DUP and Sinn Féin became much more prominent, because from the British government’s perspective, bringing the DUP and Sinn Féin into the institutions was a greater goal than bringing in those who they had already captured.
Why did the political parties associated with the loyalist paramilitaries, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, not pose a more significant challenge to the larger unionist parties?
I’m somebody who grew up in a Protestant working-class background. The vast majority of people who lived in the community in which I lived had no time for loyalist paramilitaries. Many of us had relatives in the police, and we understood that the monopoly of violence or policing and authority lay with the state and not the paramilitaries. Clearly by the later stages of paramilitarism, sections of it had morphed into criminality, which was also repugnant to many people.
Families like mine completely and utterly abhorred the killing of Catholics. It was seen as pernicious and nasty. In my own home, I remember every morning when I came down and my mother and father would be making breakfast, the radio would be on and there would be a report about a Catholic man shot in Ardoyne by loyalists. Both my parents would turn and say, “that was a disgrace, that’s somebody’s son or daughter.”
Within working-class communities, there were those who supported paramilitaries and there were those who found them completely and utterly repulsive and made that very clear. Whenever they used to come to the door collecting money, my mother would insist that they got away — she was not funding the persecution and killing of Catholics. In communities like mine, there were a lot of people who were steeped in trade unionism and steeped in anti-sectarian policy and practice.
Part of it was down to that. There was also the death of individuals such as David Irvine, who probably did speak more for that kind of working-class experience. He did show regret for what he had done in the past: I think the phrase he used was that he had been involved in “a dirty and pernicious little conflict.” They were also squeezed because they were seen as being pro-agreement in that period when the IRA was not decommissioning or signing up to policing.
What’s interesting is that loyalist politics of that kind has gone into the community sector. We do have a very significant loyalist community sector that engages in reconciliation work, anti-homophobia, anti-racism, and support for women’s rights. It may not be there in a political form, but it certainly is there in a very strong and robust community form.
That has also been very influential in recent years where dissident republicans have killed police officers, prison officers, or soldiers. That sector has ensured that there’s been no loyalist retaliation. There is something there which has been very successful in ensuring that type of violence has not reappeared.
What would you say is the political and psychological legacy of the IRA campaign for the unionist population as a whole?
Memory and experience, I think. My mother and I were in Belfast on the day of the Bloody Friday bombings by the IRA in 1972. We went into Oxford Street bus station, as it was then, and she’d forgotten her purse. She was talking to her second or third cousin, and she realized that she’d forgotten her purse, so she grabbed me by the hand and dragged me out of the bus station.
As she was doing it, the bomb went off and we were taken across the road by a man. My mother just broke down in front of me. I think I was seven or eight years of age. A man took us across — there was a coal yard, a bit of wasteland, across from the bus center, and he said: “Stand here. I don’t think they’ll plant any bombs here.” We stood there as the bombs were going off and the chaos was unfolding that day.
I’m not saying that to detract from the nasty, pernicious violence that was directed toward the Catholic community, but there was that experience of violence against your community, especially if you were working-class and lived near a sectarian interface. The vast majority of republican violence didn’t lead to prosecutions. I suppose that’s a very enduring and difficult relationship.
One of the ways that is healed is when those narratives are shared. Going back to my family, the people around me understood that if you lost a loved one, you’d have the same psychological and emotional reaction, whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant. I think the one thing that really did stick in people’s minds was the no-warning bombs. That wasn’t unique, of course, to republicans. But it most certainly has stuck with them.
At the same time, one of the other things you find doing survey and research work within the unionist community is that people are much more likely to wish to simply move on and park the past. Whenever I say that to republicans, they always say: “That’s because they don’t want to engage with what happened to the republican community.”
I actually don’t believe that. I do think there’s a very significant share of the pro-union community who just want legacy issues and investigations to stop. They want to move on and get on with their lives. That sentiment doesn’t really have a political form, but it does have a very strong emotional form.
What have been the main social and economic trends that have affected working-class unionists in particular since the late 1990s? Would you say their experience is different from the experience of working-class nationalists?
Very different, in the sense that working-class nationalists are much more likely to live in poverty and social exclusion. This is one of the enduring myths about the Protestant working class. If you look at the Super Output Areas or SOAs for short, out of the hundred most deprived places in Northern Ireland, roughly seventy are Catholic, ten are mixed, and the rest are Protestant.
We’ve been fed this narrative that the Protestant community has lost out during the peace process in economic terms. That’s factually incorrect: the greater levels of poverty and social disadvantage are within nationalist/republican communities. There’s an idea that’s been spread by republicans in the media that sections of unionism have been very happy to grab onto because it feeds into that alienation narrative. We often hear about a Protestant educational disadvantage, but numerically, more Catholic kids are leaving school without educational qualifications.
Of course, we shouldn’t be talking about poverty as Catholic and Protestant. We should be talking about it as poverty, social exclusion, and the forces of neoliberalism. But the idea that the Protestant community doesn’t have a community sector, or social mobility, or that it is much worse off than the Catholic community, is simply untrue. There’s no evidence for that.
What we do have evidence of is that both Protestant and Catholic working-class communities have not received the peace dividend in the same manner as the middle classes. The growth of the economy in Belfast has most certainly favored grammar school children.
If we want to really talk about these issues, we should get down to one reality. What affects your life choices in Northern Ireland is the following: Are your parents married? Do your parents work? Do your parents own your home? Did your parents go to university? It’s shaped by exactly the same social forces across these islands, and that’s the conversation we should be having.
When facts tell us that you’re more likely to be poor and socially marginalized in the Catholic community, it’s peculiar that we have this massive construct in the public domain which says completely the opposite. That fascinates me. If you look at the list of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of the top ten or twenty are Catholic areas.
Why don’t we hear about that? Why don’t we hear from the republican and nationalist communities about the poverty they experience? Because we do hear about it from the Protestant communities — they’re ever vigilant about the housing issues, job losses, etc., whereas in the republican and nationalist communities, we hear nothing about this.
We don’t hear anybody in Sinn Féin ever saying there’s massive poverty in our areas. We have this peculiar situation where nationalists and republicans present themselves as winners while unionists and loyalists present themselves as losers, when no evidence backs that up. But ideologically, that’s critical to the reproduction of both.
How important for unionism is the question of marches by the Orange Order and other organizations from Drumcree in the late 1990s to the present day?
You have to call them parades for a start: “marches” is seen as an offensive term within the Orange tradition. For some people, they’re critically important. The lodges are much smaller now. The growth in the last few decades has been in the bands. For those who don’t know, the bands aren’t the Orange Order — they’re autonomous and booked by the Orange lodges whenever they parade.
Membership of the Orange Order is very old, and any sort of middle-class involvement has virtually disappeared. It’s become very localized over time. Orangeism doesn’t have the power that it once had. It’s no longer allied to the state in the way that it once was.
It’s a ritual and cultural performance within communities that is very important to some people. But many people who are pro-union wouldn’t go near it. Most people I know haven’t been to an Orange parade in twenty, thirty, or even forty years, whereas I know other people who go to nearly every parade there is, so yet again, it’s nuanced.
During the Ardoyne controversy, I was approached by republicans who asked if I could get Protestant businesspeople into a room, because they wanted them to speak to the Orange Order and tell them that what they were doing was harming Belfast. I told them I could go and get these people, but they didn’t know anybody in Orangeism. They went “no, no, these guys direct and control the Orange Order — the bourgeoisie.” I told them these guys don’t know the Orange Order. They’ll have nothing to do with it.
We organized the meeting and sure enough, when the republicans walked into the room and started asking these people to use their influence to get the Orange Order to behave, everybody turned around and said they had no contact or links with the Orange Order. There was, even there, a sort of 1960s understanding of class forces which simply don’t exist as they once did.
There’s now a whole generation of loyalist paramilitaries who have come of age since the IRA ceasefire. Why are those groups still active? And what impact do they have on the ground?
Going back to the band culture, one of the things that the bands have been very useful for has been for that progressive type of loyalism, which has used them to promote anti-sectarianism, anti-racism, and to try to encourage young people to get involved in activity in their communities.
One of the reasons why you have generally lower crime rates in working-class Protestant areas compared to Catholic areas is that young men being in bands gives them an outlet — it gives them something to do. They learn an instrument; they collect money for charity. It gives them social capital and a sense of purpose. That’s an interesting facet to it.
Loyalism is in competition with itself. Look at somewhere like Lisburn and the Resurgam Trust: a massive social economy initiative, which employs people from across the sectarian divide, and people who are new immigrants to the area. It undertakes anti-racism and cross-community work. Now compare that to other loyalists who are engaged in crime and other nefarious activities.
“Loyalism” is used as a homogenous term when in fact the politics of loyalism are quite diverse. You saw that recently where sections of loyalism made it very clear that there shouldn’t be violence around the Protocol and that there should be dialogue and negotiation for better outcomes instead. Another section of loyalism was calling for street protests, ministerial disobedience, and the collapse of the Assembly.
The reason why they haven’t gone away, in their own terms, is that some within loyalism believe that if they disappear, you’ll end up with dissident loyalists, so you won’t be able to control violence. You’ll end up with the equivalent of the Continuity IRA: the Continuity Ulster Volunteer Force or the Real Ulster Volunteer Force or something like that. The other argument they make is that if they exist, they can apply pressure to build positive activity.
Yet again, it’s probably a folly of an argument. There is a point at which they should just go and leave the stage and make that full transformation into community politics. Of course, what also impedes that is the fear of a united Ireland. In the last few years, the growth in civic nationalism and the clamor for a united Ireland has spooked them.
I was told that when some political unionists recently tried to encourage a bit of “bringing the boys onto the streets,” sections of loyalism said no, that’s not going to happen. We’re not going to have a flag protest where we come out and engage in violence, and then our young men and women end up with criminal records. For anybody who doesn’t know loyalism, I think they should be aware that there is a positive, progressive wing, which is trying to do good things. There’s another, regressive wing, and those two wings are in conflict with one other.
Between 1998 and 2017, the combined vote share for unionist parties declined by roughly 5 percent. Unionist parties no longer have a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly since the last election. What factors do you think underpin that shift, and does that weakening of unionism in a party-political sense mean that the union itself is now in jeopardy?
The vote share for Sinn Féin and the SDLP has also declined. What’s happened, if you look at the most recent Westminster election, is that over the last decade, support for the Alliance Party has risen to nearly 20 percent of the electorate from less than 4 percent in 2005. There’s actually been a growth in that centrist alignment, which has affected the SDLP, Sinn Féin, and the Ulster Unionists and the DUP.
The point you’re making is correct: the decline in the unionist vote has mobilized that fear about there being a Sinn Féin first minister in this year’s Assembly election. There is a psychological issue with that in terms of loss and going backward. But the plates are shifting in Northern Ireland. People are slowly moving away from the two main parties. That also comes out in the surveys, with a growth in the number of people who won’t say that they’re unionist or nationalist. That’s something which is critically important.
The crisis of the DUP and the removal of Arlene Foster as party leader was very clearly linked to a sense that its next electoral performance would be poor. For the DUP, that in particular is difficult for them, because they know the people are moving away from them, especially those who are socially liberal. That sort of tribalistic politics just isn’t working in the way that it once did.
What they didn’t expect when they removed Arlene Foster was that at the same time, the Ulster Unionist Party would appoint a new leader, Doug Beattie, who had a bounce in terms of popularity. It’s not just that they’re against the forces of nationalism and republicanism: there’s also now a serious leader of the UUP who may make inroads into their vote.
Overall, Sinn Féin and the DUP both did badly in the last Westminster election. Sinn Féin only achieved growth in one constituency, North Belfast, because the SDLP stood aside. I think both of those parties were seen as being responsible for collapsing the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is very important and popular with the electorate. That’s part of it.
In terms of class politics, I think that the decline of the DUP and Sinn Féin is actually coming from working-class communities who are asking the question: “What are you doing for us beyond cultural identity wars and the fractious nature of the politics that you deliver? What have you achieved for our communities in terms of jobs and investment?” That’s a politics which is worth watching.
It will be very interesting next year to see how the Alliance Party does. We are in a process where, if you follow recent elections and the decline of the big four parties, there’s something happening here. There’s something changing within this society.
In the wake of the Brexit agreement that was negotiated by Boris Johnson, how would you describe the unionist perception of the current British government in particular, but also of the British political class in general?
I think in the first instance, when they negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol, to a certain extent, the British government acted in good faith. With regard to the Protocol’s article two, they maintained the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement from European law about the protection of rights. The British government gave the Equality Commission significant powers, through changes to the Northern Ireland Act of 1998, to prevent diminution of rights in Northern Ireland. With Article 11, which is concerned with the Irish border, they have mapped that out with the European Union to identify 149 areas of cooperation.
But I think for the political class in Britain, the goal was to “get Brexit done” in that populist furor of 2019. In doing so, they probably signed up to the Protocol without understanding that the east-west dynamic would lead to the situation we’re in today.
I do think this is probably the most pro-union British government we’ve had in a generation. It’ll be interesting to see what strategies they endorse, because I think people have misunderstood, or maybe not appreciated, that in taking back the internal market — which affects Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — the British government is a big player in the economy of Britain, now that it has left the European Union. With Scotland going in a certain direction or close to going in a certain direction, I think the British government is now probably trying to work out strategies for pro-union governance and for maintaining the cohesion of the UK.
But there’s no doubt that there was can-kicking. There was this bluff that we can sort issues out and Europe will do things on our terms. At the end of the day, for people like myself who were Remainers, it’s very much a case of “we told you so — we told you that this was going to be much more problematic than you promised.”
What challenges does the new leadership of the DUP face? Do you think the party will end up paying a lasting price for its entanglement with the politics of Brexit after 2016?
I think they’re in a crisis at the moment. First of all, there was the coup against Arlene Foster itself, which was not as popular as they thought among the DUP’s rank and file. That was the first problem. There was a coup without a plan for what came next in terms of strategy.
I know that whenever they went to speak to what they saw as their heartlands, people said to them very clearly: “Where’s the politics of jobs and investment?” I know that people from within those Protestant working-class areas in particular said: “We no longer want tribal politics. We work with our Catholic neighbors. Where’s the politics that makes Northern Ireland a shared and agreed place?” I think that came as a bit of a shock to them.
What also came as a shock to them, I think, was that people said: “We no longer want to hear you challenging marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose.” What you see there is that the DUP is coming up against an increasingly socially liberal unionist community and sections of it which are now very supportive of the peace process. I think that’s really important.
But one thing I do know they’ve also come up against is people saying: “Why don’t you sell the union? Why aren’t you pointing out that there are massive problems with the South of Ireland, which are reasons why you wouldn’t want to join it?” One issue that’s obviously mentioned is the health service: there’s no National Health Service in the South, and you have to pay for visits to a general practitioner. People are saying: “Where’s the politics around promoting the union?”
We’ve gone through a very fractious peace process in terms of politics, but in societal terms, the place was being healed and society was moving on, through growth in mixed marriages and mixed relationships and all of that. I think the DUP are now caught in that they maintain to some extent a politics of 1998, “no, no, no; never, never, never.”
They tried to hollow out the Good Friday Agreement. But on the ground, the majority of people were moving on and living in a very different society, and I think they were looking for a politics which recognized that. That’s the biggest challenge for them — and I think some of the things I’ve just said might also relate to Sinn Féin.