Tárlach Russell examines the various ways in which Northern Irish Unionists have navigated constitutional changes and argues that Brexit has become the latest battleground in a zero-sum game paradigm by the DUP where any concessions to greater secure the institutions of Northern Ireland are perceived as attempts to undermine the Union.

In 1921, Edward Carson warned his successor as the leader of Ulster Unionism, James Craig: “From the outset let us see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from Protestant majority.” Contrary to Carson’s advice, Craig was to boast in 1934 of having created in Northern Ireland “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People.” Outside Stormont’s devolved Parliament today stands a defiant Edward Carson. Yet Unionism adopted Craig’s mantra as the pedestal upon which Northern Ireland was to be operated. The DUP today inherited the same fear that Craig handed down 100 years ago: actions considered progressive and inclusive in Northern Ireland are concessions in a zero-sum game being fought against political actors in Dublin aiming to implement a united Ireland discreetly. Brexit has created the most recent schism in Unionist politics because it has expanded unification discourse beyond the traditional confines of Irish nationalism and republicanism.

With the risks arising to the Union as a result of a hard border in Ireland constituting Britain’s only land border with the EU, the DUP’s support for Brexit caused significant consternation amongst bastions of British Unionism. George Osborne, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, argued that Brexit has resulted in Northern Ireland “slowly becoming part of a united Ireland.” Not only did he tie Northern Ireland’s fate as closer to Dublin than London; he admitted to indifference. Northern Ireland is not as essential to the Union as Scotland, a reality for Unionists to contend with. Unlike Carson accusing the Conservatives of selling out Unionists in 1921 by incorporating Ulster “in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power”, DUP MP for East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, also called on unionists to prepare for a border poll. Robinson echoed the remarks of long-time DUP leader, Peter Robinson (no relation), who called for unionists to prepare for a border poll in 2018. For the first time, whether Unionists like it or not, elected Unionists acknowledged the elephant in the room: that a border poll is coming,

This political manoeuvring is a new phenomenon in the DUP. Their inability to force the Conservatives’ hand in their favour during Brexit negotiations, despite holding the Westminster balance of power like the Irish nationalists 100 years before, revealed the fatal flaw of the DUP’s ardent support for Brexit in 2016. They opposed every conceivable proposal and trade deal in practice because they could not reconcile the integrity of the Union with keeping Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market. This is part of a paradoxical historical trend: moves intended to greater entrench the permanence of Northern Ireland are perceived as concessions in a zero-sum game being fought against Dublin, beginning with Craig creating a Protestant ethno-state that was hostile to Irish nationalism and Catholics. As early as 1922, Catholic shipyard workers in Belfast were among those driven out during a sustained period of state-sponsored terror, disputably referred to as the Belfast Pogrom. An extensive security state was established, with the menacing ‘B Specials’ serving alongside the Royal Ulster Constabulary as the predominantly Protestant police force. Such extremism undermined support Northern Ireland could garner from working-class Catholics.

The moderate Unionist Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, attempted reforms, meeting his Irish counterpart in 1965, the first Prime Minister to do so. With Unionist opposition to O’Neill and RUC-orchestrated violence against campaigners, order deteriorated in Northern Ireland, which by 1969 saw British soldiers on the streets. Opposition to NICRA’s modest proposals and against protestors created increasingly entrenched viewpoints within both unionism and nationalism. The Provisional IRA evolved from largely dormant in 1969 to the capability of sustaining a war of attrition against the security forces in a short period. Would such events, considered unfathomable beforehand, have arisen with a more conciliatory approach from Unionism as a whole? It is difficult to say for certain, but throughout the Troubles efforts to curtail violence and reach a political solution were stymied by ardent DUP opposition with significant grassroot and paramilitary enforcement powers.

The Sunningdale Agreement, signed in 1973 by the British and Irish governments as an attempt to introduce power-sharing into Northern Ireland, was opposed by the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC). A workers’ strike in May 1974 undermined the agreement. The threat of encroachment into Northern Irish affairs by the Government of Ireland drew opposition again after the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Ian Paisley coined “Ulster Says No,” drawing on Unionist inspiration from Randolph Churchill in 1886: “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right.” Through opposition to both Agreements, the DUP overlooked the significance of Irish governments acknowledging the legitimacy of partition and strengthening the permanence of Northern Ireland, incidentally why republicans opposed the latter agreement. The DUP’s later opposition to the Good Friday Agreement misread public perceptions, which were concerned with the establishment of post-conflict institutions over the revision of the constitutional question. DUP First Minister Arlene Foster considers the Agreement as ‘not sacrosanct.’

The DUP misinterpreted these legitimacy-enhancing Agreements for Northern Ireland as regressive, despite being supported by the population of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments. In 1998, the people of Ireland overwhelmingly voted to relinquish claims to ownership over the entirety of Ireland, whilst simultaneous British and Irish membership of the EU allowed for the once heavily militarised border to operate freely. These opportunities allowed for coexistence and integration of the two communities in Northern Ireland. Similar cross-community consensus existed for remaining in the EU, with 56% of Northern Ireland voting to Remain. The DUP resisted the efforts of pressure groups like Border Communities Against Brexit in opposing the legislative impact of Brexit. Similarly, the DUP’s opposition to an Irish Language Act means opportunities to place Northern Ireland closer in tandem with Scottish and Welsh devolved governments and the UK continue to be missed.

Today, the position of the DUP’s elected politicians fluctuates from Robinson’s realism with the traditional position of suppressing any possibility of the prospect of a united Ireland. Sammy Wilson, MP for East Antrim, argues that Brexit does not risk Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. That is counter to British and Irish public opinion. YouGov polls show that just 37% outright support Northern Ireland remaining in the Union, and 53% of Conservative voters would be indifferent to Northern Ireland leaving the UK. 100 years since the opening of the first Stormont government in June 1921, questions arise over what this centenary means. Foster continues to call a border poll ‘reckless,’ but one must question whether Brexit will be the straw to break the camel’s back. This centenary is a cause for re-evaluating where Northern Ireland exists in the future of both the UK and Ireland.

In misinterpreting moves to remove Protestant and Unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland, the DUP have created a zero-sum game paradigm that is increasingly escaping from their grasp. Through alienating not only nationalists in Northern Ireland, but also public opinion in the rest of the UK and Ireland, it may be too late for the DUP to acknowledge Carson’s foresight, so soon ignored by Craig and subsequent generations of political unionist leadership.


Tárlach Russell recently graduated from the BSc International Relations and MSc History of International Relations programmes at the LSE. His research interests focus on Northern Ireland, Irish history and Irish foreign policy.

Featured Image: Northern Ireland Parliamentary Buildings (Stormont) (Wikimedia Commons)