NORTHERN Ireland’s power-sharing Government, created by the Good Friday Agreement, has collapsed for the third time in its 24 year history. This time over unionist demands for an end to a so-called ‘border in the Irish Sea’. The system of paperwork and spot-checks was agreed by the UK and EU in 2019 in an effort to avoid a land border. Most observers view the Democratic Unionist Party’s decision to scupper the Executive as a cynical ploy to boost its fortunes in May’s Assembly election. To political historians it’s just the old Orange card that has been in play since Randolph Churchill first coined the phrase in 1886.
The tactic is based on the belief that a Conservative and Unionist Party and public opinion in Britain will back Ulster’s unionists if they create disruption to frustrate change in Ireland. Its greatest triumph was in 1921 when Edward Carson secured partition and it succeeded again in 1974 when Ian Paisley brought down Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing administration. But on the last two occasions, it has failed. Loyalists took to the streets in 1977 to demand a return of a unionist regime at Stormont and were met with firm resistance by Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. They did so again in 1985 over the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Diktat’ went ahead despite a series of stunts which included the formation of an armed group, Ulster Resistance.
Forty years ago DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was constituency agent for the great imperialist Enoch Powell, when he was MP for South Down, and is steeped in old school Conservative and unionist thinking. He will be familiar with The Guardian newspaper’s opinion of 2010: “When it comes to Ireland and the Union, the Conservative party has form. On occasion, very serious form indeed. It is no exaggeration to say that the readiness to mobilise unionism against the British national interest has been one of the darkest and most atavistic Tory vices from the 1880s on. Think of Lord Randolph Churchill, FE Smith, Bonar Law and Enoch Powell.”
But today’s Tory party is in a volatile state of change not seen since the days of Thatcher’s ruthless cull of moderate ‘wets.’ It is hard to forecast which way it will jump.
The Conservative name was adopted in the Tamworth Manifesto of 1835 and the party was the dominant one in Britain during the 20th century. It was out of office for only 17 years between 1945 and 1997. Historically it spoke for the interests of landed aristocrats but has come to be associated with the business community – though it can count on the support of many working class people in England. Radical policies during the 1980s and 1990s, and a series of scandals, destroyed its support in some parts of the UK. It became a minority party in Scotland and Wales. It has never enjoyed success at the polls in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist Party’s brief alliance with the Conservatives at the 2011 general election proved a disaster. The traditional Conservative is opposed to political and social change and a strong believer in law and order. Lord Hailsham’s 1947 book, The Case for Conservatism, defined the modern party: “The role of Conservatism is not to oppose all change but to resist and balance the volatility of current political fads and ideology, and to defend a middle position that enshrines a slowly-changing organic humane traditionalism. The essence of Conservatism is not resistance to change, but a conviction that successful change is built on the foundations of the past.”
Donaldson is gambling that he can rely upon the support of a Hailshamesque Conservative government in its long Jihad with Brussels because this is a popular crusade in England, even though the DUP was misled by Boris Johnson in 2018 when he told them no British government ‘could or should’ put trade barriers in the Irish Sea. The reality is Tory support for the Orange card depends upon whether it will secure power, it always has. Leaders may bluster about the ‘sacred Union’ but if the pursuit of office at Westminster requires them to abandon Ulster’s unionists they also have form.
The complexion of British society is changing too and voters are less predictable. According to the Office of National Statistics at least 20% or the population of England and Wales does not consider itself ‘white or British’ a figure which rises to over 50% in London. The wartime generation is in the grave, the Baby Boomers are receiving their pensions and the Millennials have fewer ties of religion, community and culture. Understanding of Irish issues has always been poor. I recall research undertaken for Ulster Television in the 1990s which revealed many British company executives who believed there was a time difference between the two islands and that Northern Ireland had a different currency from the rest of the UK. I’ve stood in British banks and failed to persuade staff that I do not require an exchange rate for Bank of Ireland notes because they are Sterling. This ignorance extends to the political classes. Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley admitted she did not know that Irish nationalists would not vote for unionist parties.
Much has changed in UK politics in the last five years. English nationalism sounded the death knell of the ‘one nation’ Tory party at the 2019 general election. Scottish nationalism, which backs the Northern Ireland protocol, may yet achieve the break-up of the UK. The old ruling elite are in flux. The values espoused by Powell and Hailsham have been pushed aside by a populist agenda and Trumpian tactics. Public opinion is dominated by nationalism and the concept of Britishness is ebbing away with the Queen. If support for the Union with Northern Ireland is put to the test today there is no guarantee it will deliver the outcome Jeffrey Donaldson expects.
The old Orange card may prove little more than a Joker in this game.