Following the DUP’s lack of engagement with the occupying Shipyard workers at Harland & Wolff, Conor McFall asks why the DUP are committed to irrelevance.
At Stormont this week, Sinn Fein leadership met with Harland & Wolff protesters who were calling for nationalisation of the embattled shipyard. The shipyard workers had been chanting alongside Irish language rights protesters. This was particularly symbolic as workers from shipyard, usually depicted as a symbol of unionist dominance of Belfast’s industrial heritage, stood with groups more associated with Irish nationalism. What’s more, this moment took place outside Stormont as the DUP met with new Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Some have identified this moment as the perfect symbol of Big House Unionism. However, perhaps it speaks even more to the DUP’s increasing irrelevance in political matters in Northern Ireland, even whilst they remain its largest party.
Since the collapse of the Stormont Executive and the Westminster elections in 2017, it is clear that the orientation of the DUP has shifted almost entirely towards London. Aside from brief and largely fruitless attempts to restore devolved government, Stormont politics has been a non-event for approaching three years. Instead, DUP MPs have been engaged in a game of constant brinksmanship with the Conservative government with which they are allied over the prospects of a no deal Brexit. Arlene Foster has spent much of her recent media appearances engaged in petty spats with Irish government ministers. But aside from the phantom billion pounds promised to the DUP as part of their initial agreement with the dearly departed Theresa May, it is unclear what they will have to show from the last two and a half years. Indeed, the best case scenario according to their own policy desires would be a complicated and unpopular no deal Brexit that threatens to cause chaos on the border.
The DUP’s presence at Westminster has also had the effect of waking up some English MPs to the much-ignored realities of Northern Irish life. This has resulted in milestone moments for longstanding activist groups in the North as parliament moved to extend legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion decriminalisation to the region. This is a complicated matter for the DUP; for their religious conservative base it may be considered a clear failure of their Westminster strategy as two of their key pillars have crumbled, while the deadlines attached to this legislation ensure that Stormont will remain on ice until at least 21st October. With the Brexit deadline just ten days later, the prospect of seeing any movement towards devolution in 2019 is the stuff of fantasy. A few years prior, it was speculated that such moves at Westminster could clear the space for more productive negotiations around Stormont without either side having to directly concede on these issues. However, with positions hardening on Brexit and increasing calls for a border poll from Sinn Fein, such negotiations seem remote.
On the ground, there are palpable signs that a political shift may be occurring. Last summer’s pitiful charm offensive from Foster led to nothing, in spite of enthusiasm from the more credulous liberals. This year, the DUP continued in their annual tradition of refusing to engage with Belfast Pride events, when all other major parties took part in a live discussion. The local elections witnessed a swing primarily towards Alliance in rural areas and towards the Greens and People Before Profit in Belfast and Derry. Naomi Long’s second place result in the European Election, ahead of Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson, further emphasised the rejection of sectarian tit for tat and the desire for some form of alternative from increasing numbers of the electorate.
Meanwhile, prominent trade union struggles could allow this shift to take on a more clear class character that would pose difficulties for many local parties. Aside from the actions from Harland and Wolff shipyard workers; the Royal College of Nurses (NI Members) are balloting for strike action for the first time in their history. NI Civil Servants still have a live ballot following their July 26th strike date. Indeed, certain NIPSA branches have already committed to further action. The Harland and Wolff struggle is particularly exposes the DUP, as they have the ear of the Conservative government and yet engaging with calls for nationalisation from this bastion of East Belfast history does not seem to be a priority. Indeed, not a single DUP counsellor was among the sponsors for an emergency sitting of Belfast City Council regarding the issue. There is an irony in that the DUP’s hard Brexit position could open up the opportunity for nationalisation if it came to pass, but their dogged determination to maintain a relationship with the Conservative Party means that there is no will to meet the opportunity.
All of this serves as a stark reminder that, even without representation, political struggle continues every day. Northern Ireland is in a dramatic state of flux, as victories for rights movements and increasing industrial struggle displays. This has come without a Stormont Executive or, in many ways, the engagement or endorsement of the two major parties. While the DUP has turned its attentions solely towards Westminster and has went all in on reorienting itself as a lobbying group for the hard Brexit right in the Conservative Party, the ground beneath their feet at home is shifting. The DUP were the ones who wined and dined with Johnson while activists of all hues stood outside at Stormont. However, it seems as if Foster’s party is the one increasingly being left out in the cold.