The DUP should apologise to the pro-Union people of Northern Ireland for their reckless pursuit of damaging policies, leading to this constitutional catastrophe
In the 2016 assembly election, a month before the EU referendum, unionists gained a slight increase in their overall vote share, while nationalists lost over five percentage points; unionists retained all their seats, while nationalists lost three seats to non-aligned parties.
For the first time in generations, it appeared that politics were stabilising and nationalism was going into decline.
Less than a year later, with Brexit, RHI and the DUP’s cutting of funding for the Irish language having intervened, unionists — for the first time in history — had lost their majority; and at this year’s European election they registered an all-time low vote of 43% and one of their two seats.
This is the outcome of the DUP’s stewardship of unionism.
Before the referendum, the UUP warned that Brexit was an ‘existential threat’ to the Union.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph in March 2016, Mike Nesbitt warned about the prospect of an Irish Sea border: ‘Our land border is too long and complicated to seal’, if we Brexit, there is ‘every reason to believe a return to a hard border will be required. If it isn’t along the geographical line that separates us from the Republic of Ireland, where will it be? It is likely to be at Stranraer and Liverpool and Heathrow and Gatwick — at the ports and airports.’
The DUP ignored or dismissed these warnings during the campaign. And after the result, they failed to assess the risks to the Union of the various Brexit options. Any risk assessment would have identified that the harder the Brexit, the greater the threat to the Union.
The more the UK diverges from the EU, the greater the resistance from the Republic of Ireland and thus the EU to a land border, and in turn the greater the pressure to accept the Irish Sea border about which the UUP warned. But even if, as the DUP argued, the EU would have backed down in fear of no deal, the outcome of that would have presented an equally severe risk to the Union by antagonising nationalist and middle-ground opinion in Northern Ireland.
When the power to end the Union is vested in the people of Northern Ireland via a referendum, it doesn’t make sense to pursue deeply unpopular policies. The mere prospect of a hard border has already shifted opinion significantly towards support for ending of the Union, as several opinion polls have shown.
Finding itself in a unique position of power following the 2017 general election, the DUP could have used its influence to push the government towards a UK-wide soft Brexit, but instead it became increasingly associated with the Tory right.
Again, the DUP were warned about the unreliability of many of these figures but, even when opinion polling showed that Brexiteers would be willing to sacrifice Northern Ireland for a GB-only hard Brexit, they pressed on. Even after Johnson and Rees-Mogg voted for the backstop, still the DUP dismissed all the warnings and said that they could be trusted.
They were wrong. As predicted, the DUP was betrayed and the Union is in peril.
The DUP should apologise to the pro-Union people of Northern Ireland for their appalling lack of judgement and their reckless pursuit of damaging policies.
All we can hope for now is a general election defeat for Johnson and his betrayal deal, and a second referendum to put an end to this constitutional catastrophe.
J. Martin, Belfast