May 2022 will see Northern Irish voters once again go to the polls to chose the makeup of its Assembly. You could forgive voters in the province for feeling a little weary of politics given two Assembly Elections, two General Elections, a referendum and constant controversy since 2016. There are, however, those of us who rarely tire of politics and May 2022’s poll provides the prospect of intrigue and excitement in abundance!
Northern Ireland’s Political Situation
According to the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the Executive drawn from the Assembly must be led by the largest party representing the two largest communities. For its first session, the executive was led by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Since then, the governing body has been led by the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.
At no time has a functioning executive in Northern Ireland been without a Unionist in the office of First Minister, but this may soon change. Since the implementation of Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, Unionists in particular have sharply and negatively reacted to the new status quo in Northern Ireland. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this may have created a backlash against the DUP.
Polling in Ulster is frustratingly scarce, even within a year of an Assembly election. In the few polls taken since the UK left the EU, there is a clear trend that the DUP are losing votes to their more moderate Unionist compatriots, the UUP, and to the immoderate and uncompromising Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). While the most recent poll shows the DUP reigning sole ground from their Unionist rivals, there is still reason for the DUP to worry about losing its status as the community’s leading voice.
The Rise of the TUV
Westminster commentators, unfamiliar with the intricacies of Northern Irish politics, squirmed and recoiled at the DUP’s views on religion, abortion, same-sex marriage and history when they formed a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives to keep Theresa May in office. In comparison, the DUP look positively milquetoast against their more hardline TUV opponents, who were founded in 2007, in a split from the DUP over their decision to enter the “mandatory” coalition with Sinn Féin in 2007.
The support for the TUV jumped sharply when the consequences of the Northern Ireland protocol became clear. Loyalist communities, particularly those closest to the Irish Sea, have looked on in dismay as a regulatory border has been erected between Britain and Northern Ireland in order to secure an open border on the island of Ireland.
The rise in support for the TUV has closely tracked the concurrent fall in DUP support, suggesting that more hardline Unionist communities may have lost faith in the DUP’s ability to represent Unionism effectively in Stormont and particularly Westminster.
The DUP’s Response
In response, new DUP leader, Sir Jeffery Donaldson has increased his rhetoric in opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, clearly stating that he does not believe the measure has the consent of the Unionist community. In addition, Donaldson has threatened to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive in order to continue putting pressure on UK Government negotiators attempting to strike a new arrangement on Northern Ireland with the EU.
With the possibility that many Irish Sea checks will be relaxed or done away with, Donaldson may well restore the DUP’s place at the forefront of Unionism by taking credit for any EU concessions. On the other hand, Donaldson has taken a risk by staking the DUP’s continued credibility on scrapping the protocol. Given the low likelihood of the total abolition of regulatory barriers down the Irish Sea, any progress may be deemed sub-par by Unionists. In addition, there are no guarantees that the British Government’s negotiations, led by Lord Frost, will end favorably for the UK by any measure.
The Return of the UUP
The risk for Donaldson, however, is compounded by the resurgent moderate wing of Ulster Unionism. After a sustained period of decline, which took them from the dominant Unionist force to relying on DUP and even SDLP transfers for seats, the UUP has regained its footing in Northern Irish politics.
New leader Doug Beattie, an army veteran elected in May, is well-respected across politics and carries a strong presence which the UUP has lacked in recent years. Beattie is also decidedly in the liberal wing of his party, having spoken openly about Irish elements of his own identity, opposed gay conversion therapy, and having overseen the selection of the first working-class, Roman Catholic UUP candidate in South Belfast.
The growth of the non-sectarian Alliance Party in recent years has been partially fuelled by younger voters from Unionist backgrounds who feel alienated from Unionism by social conservatism and hostility towards Europe and Ireland. Beattie’s progressive record may go some way to bringing moderate voters back into the Unionist fold, particularly those in the majority who support the principles of the Northern Ireland protocol. Additionally, a firm commitment to the Union, in spite of disagreements over Europe and the protocol, will appeal to firm Unionists who feel betrayed and let down by the DUP.
This dual threat to the DUP represents a critical crossroads for Ulster Unionism going forward. In May’s Assembly election, it’s almost certain that Sinn Fein will lead the executive for the first time. The party which the Unionist community will chose to lead them within the executive will set the tone on the constitutional debate for the next few years. This could result in more of the same with the DUP, a more progressive and broad-based approach with the UUP, or yet another increasing of the constitutional temperature with the TUV.
I expect, as the new LucidTalk poll suggests, that the DUP’s support will continue to consolidate as May’s election approaches, to what extent, I am less certain. What is clear is that the DUP can no longer bank on being the unified voice of Ulster Unionism and that it needs to embark on some degree of should searching to ward off the threat of moderates and radicals in the long term.