Quo vadis, Ulster?

This is what happens when you have the week off, and don’t feel like following the news – the world turns in uncomfortable directions. Where to begin? Let’s start with the one that has the farthest reaching consequences: Arlene Foster, First Minister of Northern Ireland, resigned today. Most famous in Northern Irish politics for the Cash for Ash scandal. Also leader of the DUP, the Democratic Unionist Party, in N’Ireland.

The DUP was founded by Rev Ian Paisley in 1971. Some consider him the best recruitment agent the IRA ever had – his anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, pro-England bile & rhetoric ensured a steady stream of able and ready volunteers to the Republican cause. Most likely the reason why he never was assassinated. The DUP was also the only political group during the peace process and subsequent referenda to oppose the Good Friday Agreement because of the mandatory power-sharing with Sinn Féin that’s built into the GFA. Even as late as 2006, Paisley wouldn’t go for it:

No unionist who is a unionist will go into partnership with IRA/Sinn Féin. They are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there.

But then something happened, and since Paisley didn’t die, the Holy Spirit must have come over him, or something: Barely a year later, he was First Minister of a devolved N’Ireland, with Martin McGuinness from Sinn Féin as Deputy First Minister. The two became later known as the “Chuckle Brothers,” because they actually made it work.

Foster was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment when the Renewable Heat Incentive was started in her ministry in 2012. In short, it paid users to heat with renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuel. But since no cost control was built in, people could and would claim £1.60 from the government for every £1 they spent on heating. It cost the N’Irish taxpayer close to £490m in the end. In December 2015, Arlene Foster got the job of fanatic-in-chief at the DUP and became First Minister of N’Ireland four weeks later – still with Martin McGuinness from Sinn Féin as Deputy FM. A year later, an investigation into Cash for Ash was launched. McGuinness asked Foster to step aside for the duration, so as to avoid the impression of impropriety. This wasn’t new; her predecessor as FM and DUP chief Peter Robinson was “on sabbatical” twice when his scandals needed to get cleared up. Foster refused, and McGuinness resigned in protest after ten years in his post. Sinn Féin wouldn’t name a successor, and since power-sharing is mandatory, the Stormont Executive collapsed and Foster lost her job as well. She called McGuinness’ action “unprincipled.” Yes, she did.

When May was UK Prime Minister and spectacularly lost her majority in June 2017, she turned to the DUP. But since no Irish or British government party can enter an official coalition with any party making up the Stormont Executive, it was called a demand-and-supply arrangement, and May paid the £1b (let me spell that out for you: one billion) bribe in the form of an investment guarantee to N’Ireland. Foster had nothing else to do, and believe or not, the 10 seats the DUP brought to the table did make the difference – Foster became King Maker. Boris Johnson’s general election in December 2019 gave the Conservatives an 80-seat majority in Westminster and he no longer needed the DUP ultras. And Arlene went back to Stormont four weeks later, as First Minister with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as Deputy FM.

But what do you do as an ultra-right unionist in N’Ireland post-Brexit? Correct – you stir up shit, any which way you can. And it all centres around the Northern Ireland Protocol, by far the easiest target. The same Protocol that the DUP openly supported when it was hashed out with the EU in 2019:

This is a serious and sensible way forward to have engagement with the European Union in a way that allows us all in the United Kingdom to leave the EU.

A little over a year later, the DUP and Foster are screaming bloody murder and want the NIP scrapped right now. And in a way, they are right, they did get shafted. Just not by the EU, but by their own government in Westminster.

Foster made the mistake of thinking that Johnson would value the union of the UK more than it’s worth and that he is just as batshit crazy about the Empire than she is. Thing is, Johnson doesn’t value anything, not even his word. And he might think about past glories of Britannia, but N’Ireland is definitely an afterthought. Too far away, and too troublesome. It could have been so easy: Boris Johnson swears on his life that there will not be a border down the Irish Sea. N’Ireland being in the EU Single Market, however, requires a border – either in the sea, or on land. Since N’Ireland/UK won’t be putting up a border either way, because Johnson said so, it would be up to the EU to protect their Single Market on the island of Ireland. So the EU would be responsible for putting up a border and thereby breaking the GFA. That is definitely one way to stick it to the bloody furriners. N’Ireland and the Republic would never have their border poll and unification, and Ulster would stay part of the UK forever – with Foster’s DUP on top and Sinn Féin outlawed again to a degree. And yes, the Troubles would return. But that is a small price to pay for dreams of olden glory, isn’t it?

Only – it didn’t work out that way. For starters, Boris Johnson is a liar, who will throw anyone under the bus. Anyone. Just ask his ex-colleagues, ex-wives, basically any exes you can find. I dare say his mandarins are not entirely stupid, so it was clear to anyone else that there is either no Withdrawal Agreement including the Protocol, or there will be a border down the Irish Sea. “Getting Brexit done” was more important to Johnson, and he didn’t have the balls for a hard Brexit, so he duped the DUP and threw N’Ireland under the proverbial bus. And second, it was the EU refusing to play its supposed part in this fantasy of Empire forever – they simply didn’t bite. No outrageous posturing, no threats of putting up border posts, no fanatic screaming across the fence. Instead, simple calculations in negotiations and a strict adherence to the rules from the only grown-ups in the room. Those bloody furriners, spoiling all the fun.

Union v Peace

Petulance is not only for small kids, as Foster has amply demonstrated already. Early February, she refused to meet a delegation from the Irish Parliament there to discuss the consequences and real life impact of the NIP. Foster even threatened the entire North-South cooperation, an important part of the GFA that allows for several governmental bodies in both N’Ireland and the Republic to work together. She made it clear that she will not talk to Dublin about the NIP, period.

Then there is the legal challenge Foster prepared to declare the NIP illegal.

Fundamental to the Act of Union is unfettered trade throughout the UK. At the core of the Belfast Agreement was the principle of consent yet the Northern Ireland protocol has driven a coach and horses through both the Act of Union and the Belfast Agreement. Neither the Northern Ireland assembly, the Northern Ireland executive nor the people of Northern Ireland consented to the protocol being put in place.

Just to clarify: That Act of Union is the one from 1800 and it’s not so much about trade and more about the joining of the Parliaments. Concerning consent, well, it was the Parliament in Westminster that pushed through the NIP, and since Arlene is constantly reminding us that N’Ireland is part of the UK, it follows that what the Westminster Parliament is doing will have to be good enough for Belfast. And since we’re talking consent, the people of N’Ireland voted 56% to 44% to remain in the EU. No-one has asked the 56% for their consent in this entire Brexshit.

But Arlene Foster is really good at stirring up shit. Around the same time she put her legal team together, she ordered a stop of construction for the permanent border posts required under the NIP. Import checks are supposed to take place here, when food stuff from the UK comes to N’Ireland across the Irish Sea. If you can’t bulldoze the Protocol, you can delay it’s implementation. And a month after the first ominous graffiti appeared around the border posts in Larne Port declaring “no border in the Irish Sea,” Foster met with the Loyalist Communities Council, a group that represents the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commandos – all unionist paramilitaries. Those talks were “absolutely necessary […] constructive and useful to discuss constitutional methods to have the protocol axed.” A week later, the LCC wrote a letter to both Boris Johnson and Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin withdrawing their support for the GFA:

We are concerned about the disruption to trade and commerce between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that is occurring, but our core objection is much more fundamental, the protocol has breached safeguards in the Belfast agreement, to protect the status of both [unionists and loyalist ] communities. Please do not underestimate the strength of feeling on this issue right across the unionist family … accordingly, I have been instructed to advise you that the loyalist groupings are herewith withdrawing their support for the Belfast agreement until our rights under the agreement are restored and the protocol is amended to ensure unfettered access for goods, services, and citizens throughout the United Kingdom. If you or the EU is not prepared to honour the entirety of the agreement then you will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the agreement.

Is it just me, or is this the same language Foster used decrying the NIP in her legal papers? And it did make me wonder: In the 1980s, Rev Paisley claimed to have 15,000 volunteers under arms. What happened to them? Officially, the paras are decommissioned. But as I’ve already learnt elsewhere, “officially” and “truthfully” are two different concepts, especially in politics.

Four weeks after that particular letter, over the Easter weekend, violence broke out in Derry, Belfast, Larne and other places, and lasted basically until Prince Philip’s funeral more than a fortnight later. I always knew the Royals were good for something. More than 80 PSNI officers wounded, damage in the hundreds of thousands from Molotov cocktails and bricks thrown into houses and vehicles, cars set alight, etc. Officially, there were two main reasons named for this unrest – the NIP, and the fact that Sinn Féin didn’t get prosecuted for attending a funeral a year earlier during Corona restrictions. Nobody gave a damn about the funeral, not the PSNI, not even the unionists. But Ms Foster couldn’t help herself and demanded the resignation of the PSNI chief for his “failure” to prosecute, at every opportunity.

LCC, IRA, GFA, NIP – who wins?

And now, she herself resigned. Normally, who’d give a damn. Someone in nominal power somewhere has had enough, and wants to enjoy retirement. Totally normal, nothing to see here. Only, this isn’t normal, neither the place nor the time. Arlene Foster was the fanatic-in-chief for unionism in N’Ireland, and there was no reason whatsoever for her to hand in her resignation. That woman is so power-hungry, she rather risked the collapse of the Northern Irish Executive than go on sabbatical during Cash for Ash. So why now? The official version is that Foster pre-empted a vote of no confidence from her own party. She wasn’t Unionist enough for their liking, they were about to demote her, and she saved herself the embarrassment.

Which is utter bollocks. Short of torching the Border Control Posts herself, she did just about everything to stymie the NIP and remind Boris Johnson of who is who in Ulster. Neither she nor the DUP contemplated Johnson not giving a shit about N’Ireland in the first place, though. But then again, maybe she actually had to do something: In mid-February, a poll showed that the DUP had slipped from 41% to 19% . Which would explain that flurry of activity at the end of the month. It seems that support for old-style unionism is slipping in N’Ireland. Not because people don’t like the Union as such any more, but because it is no longer a factor in how someone identifies. Especially not old-style unionism of “us against them.” Fifty years ago, your life depended on it, but today it’s far less relevant than other topics like abortion, or LGBT+ rights, or Brexit. Unless of course, you are Arlene Foster: N’Ireland has its assembly election in May 2022. If the DUP ultras slipped any further in the polls, they might not even make it onto the ballot paper. Foster’s political life literally depended on how much chaos she could wreak, and apparently she couldn’t cut it.

What her resignation now means first and foremost – Stormont collapses (again). N’Ireland is without political premiership, and therefore falls under Home Rule from Westminster. This has happened not so long ago, when Foster refused to resign from the FM job during Cash for Ash, and it’s exactly what is happening here – all the DUP has to do is to not name a successor as FM, and Stormont will collapse again. Stormont is the linchpin between the Republic of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement on one hand, and Westminster and the Northern Ireland Protocol on the other. The DUP and unionists in general don’t want the NIP, they made that clear on numerous occasions. But they cannot just get rid of it without the backing from the hardliners in Westminster. Yet the hardliners cannot openly declare the NIP null and void, because it was their own bloody PM who negotiated and signed that darn thing. The GFA, on the other hand, benefited the republicans in N’Ireland massively, and the rest of the island as well. But you cannot declare that one null and void, either, it being an international treaty with the USA as guarantor, and all that. So, what do you do? You do it through the backdoor: Break the linchpin. Without Stormont, neither the Republic and the GFA, nor Westminster and the NIP, have an institution to mitigate the consequences of either. Both the GFA and the NIP are in jeopardy without Stormont taking care of them, or at least observing what is written down in these documents. If N’Ireland falls under Home Rule again, there is no stopping the shitgibbons in Westminster riding roughshod with both the NIP and the Withdrawal Agreement, because they have nobody to answer to. And if that happens, the GFA is a goner.

A friend of mine asked me the other day about the situation in N’Ireland, whether it was just a storm in a teacup, or the preliminaries of another civil war. I was certain it was the former. A lot of rhetoric, a lot of posturing from the unionist side, sure, but in the end, both unionist and nationalist tribes know what they have with the GFA. However, considering recent developments, I’m not so sure any more. One, the LCC ending their support for the GFA. That happened on instigation from Foster and the DUP; it’s a different story but strangely fitting. The loyalists have just as much to lose if the Troubles return. Two, Stormont is definitely in danger of collapsing again. Which would mean Home Rule from Westminster, who have proven again and again that they don’t value the treaties they have signed. More importantly, policy and politics of N’Ireland are then no longer decided in Belfast, but in London – with no input from those governed and no accountability to those governed. Three, those rioting over Easter and beyond were teenagers, barely in their twenties, basically third generation paras. When the Troubles started in the 1970s, no-one was remembering the civil war in the 1920s and how it all began. They had heard the stories, sure, but they hadn’t lived it. Now, after more than 20 years of the GFA, there’s the third generation, who’ve heard the stories of the Troubles but never lived it, either. Who grew up on the legend but never had to smell the blood. And who are now practising the throwing of petrol bombs. The only reason this hasn’t escalated yet to full-out terror in the streets is that the IRA is keeping their feet still. For now. The IRA and the nationalists in general have gained a lot from the GFA – complete legitimation of Sinn Féin as a political party, power sharing in Stormont, an end to persecution and an end to violence. However, if the GFA falls, everything else falls as well and the IRA would have no reason whatsoever to hold their feet still any longer.

I dare not contemplate that future.