By Jamie Bryson
The error laden commentary around the election has been unsurprising due to the increasingly partisan nature of much of the media in NI, but the failure to even try and conceal the salivating over Sinn Fein and subtle misrepresentation of unionism has been breathtaking.
The main trope is that the DUP now have “room to maneuver” because they have “seen off the TUV”. This fundamentally misunderstands the DUP position, and what is going on within unionism/loyalism.
Around 200,000 voted for the DUP/TUV and, on the substance of what is required to represent a solution, there is little between those two anti-Protocol parties.
Therefore, the DUP vote is emphatically not a vote to weaken the position, but rather the vote endorses the continued strong stance and is, in effect, an endorsement of the joint-unionist declaration of 2021, which the DUP, TUV and PUP have remained faithful to.
As to the substance of the narrative being promoted that the DUP’s mandate is somehow a vote for compromise or a weakening of the position, let us just remind ourselves of the clear and unequivocal commitments made by the DUP to the electorate in this election:
- Article VI of the Acts of Union must be fully restored in domestic law. It has further been made clear that this must be achieved not just symbolically, but in substance. This means NI must be on an equal trading footing with the rest of the UK, and to remedy the present breach of the Acts of Union, domestic legislation is required to reverse that which the Supreme Court confirmed had occurred: namely that Article VI, and thus NI’s full place in the UK internal market, had been “subjugated” and “suspended”.
- EU law can only apply in NI to those trading with the EU. This is the ‘opt-in’ concept which has been pioneered and now endorsed by all sections of unionism/loyalism.
- The principle of consent must operate to protect the substance not merely the symbolism of the Union. In short form, you can’t change everything but the last thing in relation to NI’s place in the Union, with the last thing being merely the final formal handover of sovereignty.
These are clear commitments, and the DUP have said time and time again (and either some in the media aren’t listening, or they just don’t want to accept reality) that there will be no return to power sharing until these issues are addressed.
Those who voted for the DUP, voted for this principled stand. They didn’t vote to go back to Stormont without these issues being resolved. Had they wanted to vote for a unionist party who would implement the subjugation and suspension of the Union, then they had the UUP who proudly waved the white flag.
I think the unionist electorate spoke loud and clear. They want strength, not weakness. The DUP vote held, and didn’t drift to the TUV, because- at the moment- the DUP is holding the line. It is far from the case that unionists have rejected the TUV message; rather they are content that the DUP is holding true to the same message. If they backslide, then the TUV remains a potent spine-stiffener.
The media are forever desperate to go behind the clear commitments made by the DUP and somehow find a way to ‘explain’ them away. A favorite trope is that the DUP can’t really mean the words they say, they are just pandering to the likes of me and Jim Allister, or that the hundreds of thousands of those who vote for the DUP don’t really want the DUP to do what they have said they will do.
All of this is rooted in the disconnect between the media, and particularly the imbalanced ‘commentariat’, and unionism/loyalism. And this disconnect leads to a constant search for a way to explain that which the ‘elite bubble’ can’t comprehend: surely unionists don’t actually think the way they vote, surely they don’t actually care about the Union; surely they don’t actually agree with the brand of unionism articulated by those of whom twitter and the ‘liberal elite’ disapprove.
How could anyone possibly think different than the enlightened prevailing twitter and commentariat narrative?
Therein lies the fundamental problem, and it was a problem which infected all the media analysis of the election.
Yes, Sinn Fein had a good election in terms of consolidating the nationalist vote- but the nationalist vote itself didn’t rise. It remains stuck around 40%, on nationalism’s best day.
The UUP’s constitutional confusion fatally damaged them. They could not motivate socially liberal unionists- who oppose the DUP/TUV conservative social positions- to come out and vote UUP, because socially liberal unionism doesn’t equate to constitutional liberal unionism.
The UUP failed to appreciate that and in their delusion- largely fueled by their endorsements on twitter from nationalists and non-unionists- they believed, it seems, that if they watered down their unionism to the weakest level humanly possible that all those twitter supporters would somehow abandon their own political tribes and flock to the UUP?
In doing so, they (i) shattered their own traditional loyal conservative unionist base; (ii) failed to motivate socially liberal unionists who instead stayed at home because despite liking the UUP’s social liberalism, couldn’t vote for the weakness on the Union the UUP espoused; and most predictably perhaps (iii) despite their best efforts, they couldn’t manage to out-yellow Alliance.
In contrast, the DUP’s vote held firm. This vote can’t be taken for anything other than an endorsement of the clear and unequivocal commitments made; and the consequences of those commitments not being met.
Put simply; if the Union is not restored, then there will be no power sharing. It is as blunt as that. For those in the elite commentariat pouring over their lattes, stroking their chins trying to find the hidden room where the fudge is being cooked, in the same way as they sit in sandals and white socks, on their wood stained decking, toasting mallows over the fire-pit, then their search is in vain.
There is no compromise on the fundamental issues. The Acts of Union, and thus the NI’s place in the Union, must be restored. That can’t be fudged.
This election was the most conducive context ever for SF. They effectively had the full weight of the media, the NIO, the US, the EU and the self-appointed liberal elite (and, not to forget, nationalism’s ‘online activists’, known as trolls to the rest of us) promoting their message day in, day out. A relentless siege against the DUP, and strong unionism more generally.
Lecturing, barracking, bullying- every single day. Repeatedly. Again, and again. Presidents and Prime Ministers (past and present), pan nationalism, the NIO, the Irish Government.
The full might of all the powerful coalitions turned their guns on strong unionism, demanding the DUP capitulate. Demanding that they, on behalf of unionism, wave the white flag. The DUP wouldn’t do so; confident they knew their own people better than the disconnected elite bubble who spent their lives preaching at unionists about what we must do, how we must behave.
It reminded me of a scene out of the film ‘Darkest Hour’. It recounts Churchill, during the darkest days of WW2 being barracked, bullied, and lectured by the ‘elite’: they ordered him to surrender, to compromise and to seek terms with Adolf Hitler. That is what the people want, he was told.
But Churchill knew better; he took the tube and spoke to a range of people. He literally went out to the grassroots, and heard the real feeling on the ground, rather than trusting the self-proclaimed enlightened elite who purport to ‘explain’ what the ‘stupid’ people really think.
And the message he heard was loud and clear: never surrender, never give in.
Jeffrey Donaldson and his team know the unionist people better than non-unionists pontificating from their commentariat ivory tower. And he knows that unionism will never support a return to power sharing unless power sharing is based on fair and equitable arrangements which respect unionists every bit as much as nationalists.
That requires NI’s place in the Union to be restored, and respected going forward.
And the Government know that if they want power sharing involving unionists and nationalists, rather than ‘a nationalist state for a nationalist people’, then they must deliver on their promises to unionism. They must undo the constitutional damage inflicted by the Protocol Framework.
Once those issues are resolved, then suddenly the context changes. All Sinn Fein’s honeyed words and promises of ‘working for all’ and the amazing job they will do for Northern Ireland. The time is coming when they will have to deliver on those grand promises, and when they will also have to make hard decisions.
They will have to work in partnership with unionists to make Northern Ireland work. And it is at that point that Sinn Fein’s purported commitment to this place will be truly tested; because if they do what they’ve promised, then every day they make Northern Ireland the thriving place of milk and honey they’ve promised, then ever further away their objective of a United Ireland becomes.
And so, if Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is restored, and if power sharing is based on fairness to all (rather than ‘unionists must give, and nationalists must get’) then Sinn Fein will be forced to work against their own ideological interests by making Northern Ireland a thriving part of the Union.
That moment of maximum peril is ahead for them, and they may not see it now, but it is coming.
If I once again borrow a metaphorical image from WW2. Unionism is currently going through the Dunkirk phase. Bombardment and relentless pressure. A clamor to bully unionism into surrendering. But unionism has not and will not. We will come through.
Despite nationalism’s best ever run, in the most conducive political context you could possibly imagine, the numbers for leaving the Union remain as low as they did 25 years ago.
The pathway through this phase is clear, it is found in domestic law to restore NI’s place to the Union (judged by reference to the Acts of Union) and an end of the application of EU law other than to those who trade with the EU.
And unionism just needs to remain firm and determined to get to the end of that pathway. The end is in sight.
Dunkirk may be now, but Normandy is coming. Never give in, keep going.
We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.