Over the past week, the island of Ireland has been united in Schadenfreude. Finally, the British public (well, mainly English…) is forced to pay attention to the Democratic Unionist Party, and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t like what it sees. However, the way the DUP has been handled across mainstream and social media has ranged from mildly infuriating to deeply upsetting even for those who wouldn’t touch their manifesto with a bargepole (full disclosure: I once shook hands with the late Rev. Ian Paisley, and neither of us burst into flames).
DUP-bashing is now a global sport. The worst offender I’ve come across so far is Jacobin Magazine, a self-described ‘leading voice of the American Left’, which issued a polemic against the “Faustian pact” between the Tories and the DUP, under the title “May’s Monsters” (please don’t read it). I don’t subscribe to Jacobin, but I usually give some credence to their political analysis and – more fool me – thought they might do something to challenge the one-dimensional portrayal of politics in Northern Ireland. Instead, they took it to such extremes that I was forced to go looking for the teachable moments.
Getting history right
To be clear: I don’t disagree with a Marxist interpretation of the conflict, or with the depiction of Paisley as a ‘conservative zealot’. I don’t deny that the DUP sanctioned loyalist paramilitary violence which claimed hundreds of lives, or that they marginalise women, sexual minorities and ethnic others. I do think the British public should know all these things. What I object to is the authors’ total disregard for changes that have come about within the DUP, from a party that vehemently opposed the Sunningdale (1974), Anglo-Irish (1985) and Good Friday/Belfast (1998) agreements, to one that backed St Andrews (2006) and Hillsborough (2010), and which has shared power with Sinn Féin (that’s Irish for ‘We Ourselves’, i.e. without the British) for most of the past decade.
Whether or not the DUP was dragged kicking and screaming into those arrangements, or how effective the institutions themselves are, is moot; the point is that the DUP accepted devolution and entered the power-sharing executive in Stormont, at times in a surprisingly amicable fashion. It did so representing not only Free Presbyterians but also significant numbers of progressive and moderate unionists, whose votes the party has been mopping up for years now. The authors of the Jacobin piece claim that “[t]he DUP’s politics haven’t changed since its founding.” Try telling that to Jim Allister, aka the Traditional Unionist Voice, who said of St Andrews that “[t]he deal hasn’t changed, only the snowmen of the DUP, who melted once the heat came on.”
The article is selective in its representation of history. It points out that in the 1960s, Paisley “inspired the Ulster Volunteer Force, then under Gusty Spence’s leadership, to launch a series of murders.” It is curious that they mention Spence by name, but not his abiding reputation as a paramilitary-turned-peacemaker (he began to move away from violence when imprisoned in the 1970s, and helped found the Progressive Unionist Party, a party with loyalist, working-class roots which failed to rival the DUP for reasons that probably would make an interesting study for Jacobin readers). It is also extremely disingenuous to highlight atrocities committed by the UVF, but claim that unionists “still conjure centuries-old Catholic massacres as living threats” (as if Bloody Friday was a forgotten tale of yore; as if the DUP isn’t currently led by a woman who as a child experienced direct violence).
This is not the tedious whataboutery that often stymies political debate in and about Northern Ireland (such as the circular conversation about whether Brokenshire is any less impartial a Secretary of State for NI than Peter Hain was under Labour). This is about acknowledging all past violence, recognising the trauma and legacy issues with which many people still live, and not taking for granted the tenuous progress that has been made both on the ground and in constitutional terms. Politics in Northern Ireland moves – painfully slow at times – according to a complex choreography, and local media (e.g. Belfast Telegraph, The Irish News, News Letter) play an integral role in developing the script. The sudden fascination from outside feels like an entire safari park is stampeding across the stage.
War by other means?
For many people, the fact that the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – moderate parties whose then leaders received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 – have been quietly effaced by political extremes has been a bitter pill to swallow (though it’s very possibly an unavoidable consequence of consociational government). A cynic would say that power-sharing works because both the DUP and SF exploit their own worst excesses, lowering public expectations in the process. However, to claim that “[m]ost Northern unionists categorize Irish Catholics as among Kipling’s “lesser breeds,” those who require imperial discipline” is sheer and utter nonsense. It’s not just unfounded, it’s a knife in the gut to anyone who has genuinely engaged in cross-community (unionist-nationalist-other) or cross-border (north-south) relations these past ten, twenty or fifty years. It spits in the faces of those who have stood and mourned at the funerals of victims and gone straight back to building the peace, and believe me, those people exist.
Acknowledging this does not mean giving the DUP licence to peddle homophobia or hatred anywhere in the UK, it does not mean whitewashing state collusion in loyalist terror (hey, thanks for noticing!), and nor does it mean throwing up our hands while “fanatics…run roughshod over the Good Friday Agreement.” It means that would-be commentators need to get a handle on the fact that peace can appear fragile or robust, depending on your position, and can be depicted either way, depending on your agenda…and that the media has got to be responsible for what it says about conflict. Portraying people you dislike as the devil (or worse) is a strategy that has only ever backfired in the long run. Even Paisley had to eat his words on that front. Given the tremendous efforts to humanise the face of intransigent unionism and republicanism since the 1990s, the wave of articles literally calling the DUP monsters really could set back the clock – if Northern Ireland wasn’t steeped in so much weary cynicism by now that this kind of thing just rolls off anyway.
What (else) does the British public need to know about the DUP? Well, they have a special brand of savvy-political-engineering-meets-bumbling-incompetence, and their success cannot be explained without entertaining a few paradoxes. They are a pro-Brexit party in a region that voted 56 to 44 to remain in the EU, yet they are the biggest party in Stormont (even if it is suspended at the moment) and they just won 10 out of 18 seats in a UK-wide election that was supposed to be about the mandate for Brexit negotiations. They are socially hyper-conservative, but economically populist, and they have a mixed voting record when it comes to previous UK governments. They allegedly did deals with Labour under Gordon Brown (who denied that a deal took place on counterterrorism in 2008, but apparently reached out to them again following the election in 2010). In 2015 they were prepared to support the Tories in the event of a hung parliament; they would do it for less at the moment because of how much they hate Corbyn. But to really understand how they work, look to the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, where they have hammered out deals with Sinn Féin – supposedly their arch enemies – in a glorious carve-up that both parties have sold back to the more sceptical members of their communities. This is a party that is adept at making compromise look like holding fast, and vice versa. It is a party that will not be shamed into changing its mind on anything – and a devil’s advocate would ask, why should they be?
What the future holds
No one knows what will happen next. The DUP wants out of the EU without any “special status” for Northern Ireland, but imposing a hard border with the Republic of Ireland would carry political and economical risks. “Bespoke arrangements” might be possible, but it’s ludicrous to imagine that these can be arrived at by sidelining the DUP altogether. At this point, there is no reason to suppose that anyone plans to tear up the Good Friday Agreement, though both the DUP and SF have a history of gambling on the peace process in a way that has so far paid them political dividends. What is needed now are solid and innovative ideas as to how the Agreement can be respected in the emerging political context, and semantic wrangling without the scare-mongering. Lately, I’ve been remembering what border-crossing was like when I was a child: my nervousness at the sight of armed men in uniform and the unarticulated fear that the people travelling in front of or behind us, or even my own parents, might suddenly turn out to be not who I thought they were. While a return of checkpoints would be injurious, let’s not conflate that with a past where people had reason to believe that worst thing they could possibly imagine was probably just about to happen.
As for reproductive rights: it is important that the public is alert and prepared to respond swiftly to any efforts to influence policy in the rest of the UK. To be honest, it would be hard to believe if the DUP didn’t make a show of wanting to encroach on abortion rights in Britain. Someone has to speak back to that, but bear in mind that this is part of a charade that the DUP is playing out for voters back home, where the party is staying true to its core in the face of a general shift in public opinion towards bringing in (limited) abortion rights – as is Labour’s sister party in NI, the SDLP. Again, not trying to excuse the DUP, just pointing out that this is a cross-party issue (as well as a cross-border one) and that you can’t cherry-pick your interventions. If you are horrified by the politics of forced pregnancy then donate to an organisation advocating change in Northern Ireland and supporting women from the island of Ireland who travel to Britain for terminations, e.g. Alliance for Choice, the Belfast Feminist Network, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, and Marie Stopes UK. And if you believe that abortion should be prohibited, then you’re entitled to that opinion, even if the UN human rights committee disagrees.
I suspect the hysteria about the DUP will die down just as quickly as it flared up, and I fear a lot of those outraged will come away with no deeper understanding of Britain or Ireland. Those who remain interested should take the opportunity to learn something about Northern Ireland, a place that the English tend to forget exists, while the Irish never forget but continually confuse reality and fantasy. If you’d prefer not to get into all that, fair enough (I can’t say it will bring you joy), but focus your criticism somewhere that it will make a difference. Potentially the best thing to come out of increased scrutiny of the DUP will be a focus on the money, including hundreds of thousands of pounds that were laundered through the DUP to finance the Leave campaign, and many more that will be forthcoming for NI in vote-buying efforts. The reasons for cultural amnesia about Northern Ireland are not the same as the reasons why many Tories will want people to stop asking awkward questions about the DUP. A responsible conversation will recognise the difference between dialogue and debate, and know when each is appropriate. It won’t be concluded in a day, a week or even a year. And it will require listening to those who don’t always shout the loudest – a tall order in the current political climate.