Ian Paisley Jr did not inherit his late father’s brutal eloquence. Earlier this week, in protest at post-Brexit trade agreements for Northern Ireland, loyalist paramilitary groups wrote to the prime minister informing him they no longer supported the Good Friday agreement. Paisley, the DUP MP for North Antrim, responded clunkily that he feared this was the “genie getting out of its bottle”. As if the genie just poked the cork out himself. Whereas Sinn Féin proudly declares its roots in the IRA, unionism never admitted a link with the paramilitaries who claimed to act in its name. But at times it has seemed happy enough for it to be known there were rougher brothers in the family. A unionist councillor put it well to me once. He said when they did not get their way, they’d say, “Well, if you don’t do it for me, there’s boys coming along after me in bigger boots than mine.”
During the British war on the IRA, certain loyalists were at times useful to the British. Consider for a mere moment the case of the Pat Finucane murder – an event that led to David Cameron apologising in 2010 on behalf of the state for “frankly shocking levels” of collusion. It is hard to see how that could now be the case. The ranks of older men from the gangs who have been on the TV news lately – for all that they visibly simmer with indignation – are, to start with, not the fittest looking. They talk of a furious younger generation, but it is a fantasy.
The paramilitaries are also trying to have their chips and eat them. They told the prime minister the Brexit protocol undermined the basis on which they agreed their ceasefire in 1994. This was the assurance that “the union is safe”. But they assured him that they weren’t saying they would return to violence. This would actually mean forfeiting the right to state funding designed to bring an end to paramilitarism.
During the peace process, some loyalist paramilitary leaders did support ending violence for good. It briefly seemed that a working-class leadership might emerge to break the grip of sectarianism as the organising principle of unionism. The DUP ridiculed these leaders and maintained the loyalty of factions that opposed the Good Friday agreement. Because, of course, the DUP itself opposed the agreement, and held out against it until 2007, when Paisley sat down on that Ikea sofa with Martin McGuinness, threw his head back and laughed.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also warned this week that unionist support for the Good Friday agreement was “diminishing rapidly”. That would be the same politician who, along with Arlene Foster, defected from the Ulster Unionist party to join the DUP in protest after that party negotiated and signed up to the agreement. The unionists are not wrong on one point. The union is no longer safe. On Thursday, the Welsh first minister, self-isolating in his garden shed in Cardiff, expressed this in the wider UK context to which Northern Irish unionists pay far too little attention. (When I asked the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, in 2020 about his view on the movement for independence in Scotland, he said that the Scots just liked “tweaking England’s tail”.)
Speaking to the Welsh affairs committee, Mark Drakeford said that the union was effectively over. There was “no institutional architecture” to make the UK work, and the current prime minister’s approach to the devolved nations was “ad hoc, random and made up as we go along”.
The DUP thought the Tories really liked them, when it seemed perfectly obvious to anyone paying attention that all Theresa May was after was their precious, precious votes to prop up her government after the disastrous 2017 election. Once Boris Johnson did not need those any more, the pretence could end. As conservative commentator Henry Hill put it in 2019, the DUP’s attitude to the government had been essentially mercenary “and an army does not die on the hill for the sake of its mercenaries”.
Drakeford spoke of how Brexit had polarised political opinion in Wales. In Northern Ireland polarisation is the default position – and that Brexit has exacerbated it was fully on show this week. The first minister and her equal partner in the Executive Office, deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, both wearing long black coats, walked side by side but looking in opposite directions to their podiums for their weekly briefing. Foster denounced the EU and the Irish foreign affairs minister. Simon Coveney had strongly criticised the UK for unilaterally altering the terms of the protocol. O’Neill said the UK had acted in bad faith and had shown, once again, that it was not to be trusted.
Foster said Coveney was not listening to unionists. Nor, for that matter, is the prime minister. Unionists should start listening to the other parties that share the narrow ground of Northern Ireland. They should pay attention to the fact that is up to the British secretary of state to decide when the moment is right to initiate a border poll. They should think about the question posed in 2001 by the unionist historian ATQ Stewart: “Would a single member of the Westminster parliament have voted for the union if he had the gift of prophecy?”