Owen Polley: Unionism needs leaders who set the agenda

The DUP has dominated pro-Union politics in Northern Ireland for almost 20 years, but there are signs that voters have lost faith in the party.

Saturday, 4th September 2021, 5:07 am
Updated Saturday, 4th September 2021, 5:15 am
There has been a distinct lack of urgency over the Irish Sea border, given how seriously it damages the Union. For example, it is hard to pin-point exactly how the DUP strategy to get rid of the protocol has changed since Arlene Foster left

The latest poll into voting intentions suggests that its support has fallen by three points, to 13%, behind both the Ulster Unionists (16%) and the TUV (14%).

The survey was conducted by LucidTalk, whose methods have been questioned by both the News Letter and Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan recently. The DUP’s popularity, though, has fallen in comparison to polls conducted by the same company, which used the same techniques.

And the results are in line with anecdotal evidence about unionists becoming disillusioned with the party.

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Since the plot to oust Arlene Foster as leader, the DUP’s divisions have played out publicly.

This psychodrama has been something like Game of Thrones meets Fawlty Towers — a mixture of political ruthlessness and high farce. But although the spectacle has been unseemly, it is not the main reason for the party’s current misfortunes.

Put simply, unionist voters are not convinced that the DUP has a plan to oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol effectively.

When the party got rid of Arlene Foster in April, its anaemic response to the Irish Sea border was apparently an important part of its thinking.

Edwin Poots threatened to take a more rigorous approach, particularly when it came to north-south meetings, but it quickly became apparent that little had changed under his leadership.

He was replaced with dizzying speed by Jeffrey Donaldson.

At the time, sources close to the incoming leader claimed, “He will demand no barriers to trade and demand there is full respect for the Act of Union or he will pull the DUP out of the Assembly.”

This commitment seemed hard-headed and unambiguous, in comparison to Poots’ capitulation to Sinn Fein when it threatened to collapse Stormont after Paul Givan’s nomination as first minister.

Yet, two months into Sir Jeffrey’s leadership, the DUP continues to attend north-south meetings and, when the assembly returns, it is likely to tick over much as usual. Indeed, it’s difficult to pin-point exactly how the party’s strategy to get rid of the protocol has changed since Foster left.

The DUP, and, in fairness the UUP too, have been relatively muted in their criticisms of the protocol over the summer. The task of speaking out has been left largely to the TUV and loyalist protesters.

Donaldson did welcome the government’s ‘command paper’, which suggested solutions to mitigate some of the worst aspects of the sea border. But there’s been a distinct lack of urgency, given how seriously the protocol damages the Union.

Poots and Donaldson may represent different factions of the DUP, but neither man genuinely offered the party a fresh start. They’d both been senior figures in the party during many of its missteps.

During Poots’ leadership, he was in charge of an agriculture department that implemented aspects of the protocol even as he articulated his opposition to its provisions. Donaldson is associated closely with the DUP’s handling of negotiations on ‘legacy’.

For many unionists, the Stormont House Agreement, and its arrangements for dealing with the past, were at the heart of their disenchantment with the party.

In addition, Sir Jeffrey was deeply involved in the DUP’s dealings with the Conservatives at Westminster.

His party was well placed to capitalise when it held the balance of power in the House of Commons, after the general election of 2017 returned a hung parliament. But rather than forge an important role for Northern Irish MPs at the heart of government and strengthen the province’s place in the UK, its relationship with the Tories ended with a border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the country economically and politically.

In the aftermath of the LucidTalk poll, some commentators asked whether Donaldson still speaks for wider unionism. The DUP has provided a voice and articulated many unionist concerns, but their representatives failed to shape the agenda on a growing list of issues and seemed inclined to distract the public from the most important problems.

This week, the PSNI’s South Armagh policing review was a stark reminder that a prime objective of policing and justice in Northern Ireland is to keep republicans happy and engaged. Unionists are represented on the policing board too, of course, but either they are ignored or their representations are ineffective. The same point could be made of the genesis of the protocol and other issues when unionism’s interests seem always to be placed at the back of the queue.

For some years, unionists have expressed disillusionment with their current leaders and the lack of progress at Stormont. They are now considering different options and that can only be a healthy development.

The UUP hopes to gain voters by articulating modern social attitudes and creating a more approachable image. The TUV has the luxury of acting like an opposition and critiquing the failures of Stormont and the executive unionist parties.

The test will be whether either of them can start to put unionism’s interests at the heart of the political agenda in a way that the DUP has failed to do.

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