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The turmoil within unionism must be tackled

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Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The late Reverend Ian Paisley’s time as leader of the DUP was memorable for a doctrine of “Never Never Never”. Which was his response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Not hard to see how he became known as ‘Dr No’.

Arlene Foster, who steps down as DUP leader, may be remembered as a ‘Dr Maybe’. Her initial acceptance of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the “unique opportunities” given to the North post-Brexit, would be followed by a complete volte face once opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol caught fire. Her abstention on a vote banning “conversion therapy”, it seems, was taken as betrayal of the Bible belt followers. The introduction of the Irish Sea border had already brought unionist anger to boiling point.

Such was the pent-up frustration that provoked plans for the defenestration of Ms Foster; her opposition to the protocol was deemed less than wholehearted. The fact that the measure was agreed to by the UK government as part of a Brexit campaigned for by her own party speaks volumes about the loss of direction and cohesion at the core of loyalism.

While she was the first woman and youngest person to lead Northern Ireland, and the DUP, her five years in charge have been star-crossed. The Cash for Ash controversy, collapse of the Assembly, and interminable recriminations over Brexit and Covid, made for a torrid tenure. Yet her uncompromising nature was hardly surprising, given that her father survived an IRA gun attack.

Asked on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement: “If the majority did want to join the Republic of Ireland, how would it feel to be a unionist, outside of the UK?” her answer was straight: “If it were to happen, I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here, I would feel so strongly about it. I would probably have to move.”

It is hard to know just how much more hardcore the party faithful expect their leader to be. Even Dr Paisley, speaking in 1991, said: “I would never repudiate the fact that I am an Irishman.”

The turmoil within unionism needs to be addressed. As stated elsewhere in these pages by Dr Graham Spencer and Rev Chris Hudson, unionist politicians have not been able to sell change positively. Inevitably each move is regarded as “concessionary to republicans and without any reciprocal benefit”. Grievance culture is not particular to unionists. But politics stands still for no party. The world moves on.

To add a final insult to mortal injury, her decision to step down came on the same day the post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and UK was brought to its four-year conclusion. It is intended to re-establish a new relationship between London and Brussels. It says much that even such a positive step, when put through the prism of northern politics, has once again pushed loyalism to the brink.

As Boris Johnson welcomed the ratification, in the North Ms Foster was resigning. Brussels has called on the UK to show good faith in something in which the DUP has no faith at all. But as Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said: the EU and Ireland are seeking to reach out to unionism, the EU cannot deliver “everything that is being asked” of it by unionists, or set aside the protocol, but there are “flexibilities”.

An ability to bend is never a weakness in order to avoid a break.

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