Buried in the Past

The DUP’s Northern Ireland

“Not all people live in the same now.” Penned by Ernst Bloch to account for the rise of the Nazis, the 1935 truism could just as well apply to today’s Europe.

Yesterday is forever. Shankill Road, Belfast.

Ireland, to be precise, and the rejection of the Windsor Framework by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), even though the trade deal would help revive the north’s pre-Brexit economy.

Bloch’s statement is useful not only to frame the DUP’s nationalist politics but mark it as an anachronism, as a party that fails to live in the same present as other Europeans.

The DUP hardly merit being compared to the Nazis. However, the Loyalist obsession with the past – the Siege of Derry in 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, for example – and annual marches – underlines its backwards political culture.

Yet another such performance was the votes the party’s representatives cast at Westminster against the so-called Stormont Brake.

This was a trial balloon for the Windsor Framework, more generally, meant to illustrate that, although Northern Ireland would still be required to accommodate EU trade rules, they would have the option to stall them for consultation in Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly.

That is, of course, assuming that the legislature was actually in session.

That it has not been for more than a year and shows no signs of returning to life is another expression of the backwards-looking obsessions of the DUP.

The party’s votes in Westminster on Thursday were merely a shot across the bows of more sensible opinion, reminding Britain’s political echelon that the obscure fantasies of Loyalist paranoia remain to be served.

The Westminster poll was indicative of the larger situation. At 515 to 29, it was a resounding affirmation of a plan that, to be fair, had eminent sensibility as its primary selling point.

The usual waifs and strays were in the small group of “no” voters, alongside the DUP.

These included former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss and the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose most important role in British political life seems to be to remind everybody of the truth of the adage that a stopped clock is right at least twice a day.

What all of these august figures seem to have in common is a failure to understand the present moment and a desire to live in one that is long gone.

In the case of Truss and Johnson, this relates to their catastrophic premierships, that last time for either one when people actually cared what they thought.

For Rees-Mogg, it is the 1980s (or the 1780s, depending on what mood one finds him in).

As far as the DUP is concerned, the 1970s might be a better reference point. Back then, there was still some chance that the benefits of economic development in Northern Ireland might be contained within the Loyalist community.

In those days, the party’s economic power was entwined with its political power, and their maintenance of the latter was in maintaining economic circumstances bad enough in the nationalist enclaves to convince a large number of youth to emigrate.

Twenty-five years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the times have changed. Now a rising tide really does have the prospect of lifting all boats.

British security forces can no longer be counted as the physical avatars of a society of control. Young people show a marked disinterest in questions of maintaining the old order, and even the Ulster Unionists Party (UUP) has shown itself capable of pragmatism.

But the most startling piece of atavism in DUP thinking is their continued reliance on the bogey of a united Ireland to inspire fear and obeisance in their constituents.

Sadly, such anxieties still have the power to get out the vote, which is precisely what the DUP is hoping for in the next elections.

Ironically, the only people who really care about a united Ireland are the DUP.

Sinn Fein (SF) in the south is more concerned with day-to-day politics than with pie-in-the-sky projects like the 32-county republic.

While they may pay it occasional lip service, such topics are not the kind of thing that is going to lure voters to their cause, and thus not something on which any capital is to be spent.

Likewise, in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein continues to take a much more pragmatic approach. Reunification would be complex and expensive for all concerned.

SF has seen the light, so to speak, and is now content to confine itself to the bread-and-butter issues that its constituents care about.

The only question is if Stormont can be reconstituted.

A poll conducted by the Institute for Irish Studies last week found support for Sinn Fein and the DUP running at roughly the same levels they were before the Windsor Framework was approved.

If time is out of joint, it seems also to be in a condition of stasis. But the DUP are the only group without a way out.

For Rishi Sunak’s government, the calculus is simple. His way forward was made more explicit by the fact that he did not have to rely on any votes from Labour to get the measure passed.

The problem for the DUP is that it faces two equally unpalatable prospects.

Outside Stormont, the party has no way of affecting the process. If current polling data is anything to go by, the DUP will have to enter into a government with Sinn Fein in the lead.

This is, perhaps, the hardest pill to swallow and the main reason why Stormont has been shuttered all these months.

Interacting with SF in a reasonably civilised way was difficult enough when the old relationships of dominance and subordination were at least nominally in play.

Now that Sinn Fein will be able to take the bit in their collective teeth when Stormont might go back into operation, the DUP nightmare scenario is complete.

It is still too soon to see how this will all shake out. One is tempted to think that the large amounts of profit available from maintaining and expanding the current trade relations would eventually tell.

But, since the UK decided to vote for Brexit, even though it was clearly going to damage the country’s economy, that is not guaranteed.

What is clear is that the DUP is caught in a trap of its own making, in which it can’t move toward a viable solution without costing itself votes.

And so the question becomes, at what point does the DUP recognise what time it actually is?

The days when rubber bullets could keep nationalists in line are gone. No one worries about a united Ireland, except the small population of neurotics in Ulster still morbidly fascinated by it.

The crowning irony may be that their obsession with stopping the state from working may do more to bring about a united Ireland than anything in the years since the partition.

Photograph courtesy of David Brossard. Published under a Creative Commons license.