To the monumental disinterest of the outside world, the people of Northern Ireland woke on June 18th to discover that Edwin Poots, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, had resigned. He had been in the job three weeks.
As far as we know, he was not forced out through a vote of no confidence but because he himself understood that the MLAs (members of the Northern Ireland Assembly) and MPs (in the British parliament at Westminster) who had narrowly elected him their leader last month had already turned against him. For a man whose father was one of the founding members of the party, and had long been one of its most prominent members himself, it was a spectacular fall from grace – akin to Justin Trudeau being kicked out of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Northern Ireland’s politics is notoriously localist. Its parties have no presence anywhere else in the UK, and only appear interested in Northern Irish concerns and issues irrelevant to the UK mainland. So why should anyone else care that one of its main parties has changed its leader so suddenly?
It is because of the way in which this happened. It is being presented a certain way in the media because everyone has a vested interest in explaining everything in out-dated terms their audience can understand – much like “Russian” used to equal “Communist” and now equals “Behaves Like The Communists Did”.
However there are signs that the reality is far from the rhetoric. The wider implications of that reality make this one of the stories like the incident in 1054 which allegedly created the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches – which was not mentioned by any contemporary commentator, but has come to take on an importance never realised at the time.
Maybe Northern Ireland is more progressive than anyone thought. We will only know this if the same trend starts appearing in other countries – so we can understand what we are looking at.
But if this supposition is correct, this apparently trivial incident will be studied for years to come to see what lessons can be learned from it, and how these can be applied to a world inevitably reorienting itself as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
More Less Than Thou
The removal of Poots is being presented as a palace revolution. Without the ordinary party membership being consulted, the party’s elected representatives have decided almost immediately that they made a mistake, which they also made without consulting the members.
Poots was elected to succeed Arlene Foster, who had led the party for seven years but was being accused of losing touch with both Unionist voters and the elected members she led. Though many party leaders are accused of this after a period in the job, this was fatal to Foster because the DUP was invented to stop this ever happening again.
The clue is in the title. The Democratic Unionist Party was founded during The Troubles because the official Ulster Unionist Party, the political extension of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, had let the genie out of the bottle, and was no longer seen as the way to put it back in.
Northern Ireland has two very distinct and contrary traditions, which are not merely political both social, ethnic and cultural. Throughout the history of Ireland as a whole, and of the UK, both traditions had claimed that they were being abused by the other – the Catholic Irish by having to live under British rule, and its imposition by the Protestant Ascendancy which dominated the six countries of the north, the Protestants by being a minority themselves, with their own needs which could never be a priority in an independent Ireland.
Democracy relies on a middle ground. In Northern Ireland there isn’t one. Even in times of peace and reconciliation between the two traditions, such as the present, the Protestants support some form of Unionist and the Catholics some form of Republican. There is a cross-community party, the Alliance Party, but it has only seven of the 90 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and its liberal centrism is regarded as dangerous lunacy by even moderate members of the traditions it seeks to transcend
Ulster Unionists long enjoyed unbroken power in Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament, as a result of this community division, though helped by gerrymandering in some notorious cases. Over time, this gave its elected representatives an increasing sense of security. They no longer felt the longstanding discrimination against Catholics in jobs and housing, let alone political life, was as necessary as before.
All this alarmed some Unionists, who felt that Northern Ireland was unravelling before their eyes, and the security they still enjoyed was being threatened. They felt the only way they could be heard was through a new force many regarded as bigoted and reactionary, but its members thought of as a natural extension of what they had always been, the identity the official Unionists had abandoned.
During The Troubles the reactionary and terrorist labels did stick to the party, but this made its members feel they were the tough guys, the diehards who would do anything to protect their community. When peace came, this image had positive connotations: with everyone wanting the best slice of a newly-attractive, co-operational cake, those felt to be the strongest advocates of those traditions, the DUP amongst Protestants and Sinn Fein on the Catholic side, took over as their major representatives – working together, but doing so from clear positions their communities could trust.
This proved the undoing of Arlene Foster. Under her, the mere act of working with other parties began to make DUP supporters feel they were being left behind by their own people again. The party remained socially conservative, and supported Brexit to create greater links with the UK and weaker ones with the Irish Republic. But it also had to agree with a lot of things Unionists had always rejected, like the new Brexit customs border in the Irish Sea, and increasing promotion of the Irish language, because that is the way politics works, they could get nothing done otherwise.
Edwin Poots was the man the MLAs and MPs thought would listen to Unionist concerns about the direction the world was taking. Whilst his opponent, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, was the natural successor to Foster, this was his undoing. Poots was seen as representing concerns the party had drifted away from by becoming the party of the majority of Protestants, not the minority of true believers.
Now Poots has lost his job because he immediately ignored the wishes of those members. He did nothing to reverse the positions his party had committed itself to, and alienated his supporters by nominating his ally Paul Givan as the new First Minister of Northern Ireland, in a deal struck with Sinn Fein and the British government, but rejected by his own party.
But there is more to it than this. Poots and Givan both represent something broader, and it is this which has been rejected. Far from this being another inward-looking Northern Irish squabble, the core of this issue is about what the modern world should look like, and how everyone can be a part of it.
Straw Men Can’t Become Real
For their supporters, Edwin Poots and Paul Givan are in the Trump and Johnson mould – they claim to represent the ordinary people neglected by the Establishment. As that is what the DUP itself was founded to be, in Unionist terms, it is hardly surprising that this presentation strikes a chord with its members in these difficult times.
This is why the removal of Poots is being described as a revolt by those supporters about him not meeting their expectations, after three weeks in the job. But Poots’ comments on the reasons for his forced resignation suggest a different picture.
The quote attributed to him is: “This has been a difficult period for the Party and the country and I have conveyed to the Chairman my determination to do everything I can to ensure both Unionism and Northern Ireland is able to move forward to a stronger place.” What exactly does this mean?
The DUP is in difficulties because Unionists are increasingly tired of it. By “the country” he means Northern Ireland, not the UK or a future united Ireland, seeing the party’s difficulties as symptomatic of a problem for the whole country – it is a long DUP tradition to see “Northern Ireland” as purely the Protestant majority.
Poots was appointed leader to move both forward. Now he is resigning to move both forward. Has he even had the chance to do that, in his three weeks in office?
Although its politics and communities are still divided by events of past centuries, and entrenched but diverging views of long past events, Northern Ireland really is trying to move forward. The inter-community violence has almost all gone, people of different traditions are now dedicated to working together, and the politicians are having to redefine the legitimacy of their traditions within this context.
If Edwin Poots had been leader of the DUP when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 to end the violence he might have got away with being himself. But he voted against that Agreement, wanting clear evidence that the IRA had decommissioned its weapons, without asking for a similar guarantee from Protestant paramilitary groups. This has gained him a certain following, but also it has come back to haunt him.
The Democratic Unionists have often been seen by the rest of the world as bigoted and mildly insane. Therefore, by extension, so are their voters. In the days of terrorist atrocities DUP representatives could always claim they were moderating this insanity by giving it political expression – there were always people worse than them, who stood outside the mainstream. But they can’t anymore, and are condemning their whole community in the process.
If Unionists are complaining the DUP doesn’t listen to them anymore, it is because those Unionists want guarantees from the new reality which they aren’t getting. As the new reality is welcomed by most Northern Irish and the rest of the world, such a position is seen as reactionary. Therefore these disgruntled left behinds need a voice which not only sounds like their own, but gives credibility to their own.
Edwin Poots made a succession of political gaffes in his various roles in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Amongst the worst was his comment that COVID-19 spread six times faster in Catholic areas than in Protestant ones, a claim reminiscent of the bad old days when the late George Seawright, a fellow Democratic Unionist at the time, told the Belfast Education and Library Board that it should purchase an incinerator to burn Catholics and their priests.
Even in 1984, when Seawright made these comments, they were too much for the DUP, which threw him out. When Poots wasn’t the party leader such behaviour won him friends amongst those who like to be in perpetual opposition because they enjoy believing they are being persecuted. But the DUP itself, and its supporters, cannot be that in the new era of community cooperation.
It isn’t anything Poots has done which has got him sacked, regardless of what is being said. It is that Unionists cannot bear to be identified by him if they want to be taken seriously. Already they feel they have few friends anywhere, and the political system has failed them. If they want it to work in the present day, they will have to find someone who wins them respect, not loses it so they can feel victims.
Consulting the Dictionaries For Once
What all this means for everyone else is that there no longer has to be the present divide between populism and establishment. The cry of populists is that traditional values are being ripped away by trendy ideas imposed upon people from above. Those who stick by the established order argue that such ideas are progressive and humane, and the populists are merely reactionaries out of touch with the modern world.
Northern Ireland is all about reaction, in one direction or another, steeped in the history it has. You have no future in its politics without upholding these ancient traditions. The DUP is there because Unionists began to think that the official Ulster Unionists weren’t doing that, and having supplanted them as the main Unionist party they have won that argument.
Now the DUP, of all parties, in Northern Ireland, of all places, has decided that tradition and populism are not the same thing. Its new leader is likely to be Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a man with much more respect within the political realm, even though his views are similar to those of Poots. That in itself is a manifestation of tradition, and one the DUP considers will serve it better than jobbery.
We would not have the present populist vs. establishment divide in the established politicians had conducted themselves in ethical ways the public could understand and admire. Then they would have taken the public with them on the trendy liberal issues like immigration and gay rights, because they would have been seen as their issues, which raised their own standards, as they were being espoused by those they aspired to be, not despised for being.
Northern Ireland’s reinvention since The Troubles has been about catching up with the rest of the world. Now it has begun a trend which can lead the world forward by showing how its orientations can be reinterpreted and its divisions healed. It may have done this by accident, as yet another reaction, but the achievement is all the more remarkable for that – if anyone is prepared to take any notice of it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.