On 17 June, after less than three weeks in the role, Edwin Poots stepped down as leader of the main Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and requested a new leadership election. Prior to Poots, the DUP had been ruled by only three leaders in its 50-year history and by one leader (Ian Paisley) for the first 37 of those years. The party’s current inability to settle on a leader is a symptom of a much broader failure to come to terms with the changing society in which it operates.
The immediate cause of Poots' downfall was his apparent agreement to have an Irish language act applied to NI by the Westminster government. Achieving formal recognition for the Irish language has been a long-term aim of the main nationalist party Sinn Fein.
When the devolved Stormont assembly was re-established after a three-year suspension in 2020 it was as a result of an agreement between all parties known as the New Decade New Approach agreement (NDNA). The terms of this deal included a commitment to introduce most of the changes sought by nationalists in relation to the Irish language. It was regarded as a settled matter, and neither SF nor the UK government expected it to be a problem now.
Unionists have, however, developed a powerful sense of victimhood in recent years, convinced that the nationalist community (and in particular Sinn Fein) are getting things all their own way. With very little leverage to play with, the DUP knows that their consent is required before the NI government can agree a First and Deputy First Minister. They had hoped to use a threat to block Irish language reform to gain some concessions on other issues. That Poots seemed to concede on that without a whimper sealed his fate.
In reality, legal recognition of the Irish language is a threat to no one and would have no impact on the Unionist community. Its re-emergence as an issue is part of a general retreat into "no surrender" communal politics by the DUP. That, in turn, is a response to (and an attempt to distract attention from) the party’s inept handling of Brexit.
The previous DUP leader, Arlene Foster, lost her position largely as a result of this failure. Her strategy of working with hardline Brexiteers, including Johnson, and rejecting all compromises to deal with the Irish border problem led, in the end, to a new divide between NI and Britain. The NI Protocol agreed by Johnson, despite repeated promises to the contrary, creates a customs border down the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border with the Republic. It’s a humiliating outcome, and all the more embarrassing as the machinations of the DUP helped make it happen. The main demand of recent street disturbances in Loyalist areas was for the removal of the protocol. But the DUP are powerless to achieve this goal.
There will be a new leadership election in the DUP. The current favourite is Jeffrey Donaldson, an MP who lost to Poots three weeks ago. His main rival is likely to be the hardliner Sammy Wilson. Neither seem to have a convincing solution to the DUP’s problems.
The status of the Irish language really is a settled issue. That’s clear from the proposal of the UK government that they implement it if the Assembly won’t. The Protocol is in place by international treaty for at least four years.
The option of pulling down the NI administration by withdrawing or refusing to name a First Minister is not appealing to the DUP as they really don’t want a fresh election any time soon. They have the largest number of seats by just one, no party has been losing support at the rate they have, and there is every chance that SF would emerge as the largest party in a new election, gaining the right to occupy the First Minister post. It’s hard to see an option which doesn’t make the DUP’s problems worse.
There is a much deeper and broader leadership crisis in Unionism as a whole. Developments north and south of the Irish border point almost uniformly in the direction of an eventual reunited Ireland. The nationalist community is close to being a majority in NI and there is a greater willingness, especially among young and middle-class Protestants, to vote for non-sectarian parties with more ambivalent attitudes to the constitutional question. The Republic, on the other hand, is no longer the Catholic state for a Catholic people it undoubtedly was for many decades. At any point where it looks like it might succeed, a border poll can be called by the UK government.
None of that makes a united Ireland inevitable soon, nor guarantees that it will happen peacefully and without a lapse back into communal civil war. It does pose an existential challenge for Unionist politics, however, and the DUP are the least well-equipped to deal with it.
We who support a united Ireland need to start thinking more about what that will look like and how it will take account of the concerns of the Northern Unionist minority. And Unionism needs political leadership that is prepared to reach a political settlement with the Irish (and soon Northern Irish) majority.