Seriously, even I lasted longer than that. https://t.co/em6bn13KCk— Tim Farron (@timfarron) June 17, 2021
Not very long ago at all, I was writing about the DUP after Arlene. Now her successor has gone after less than three weeks.
The key issue here was not conversion therapy, but a hoarier chestnut: the question of passing an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland, which would put into law the commitments made by all political parties in January last year when devolution was restored. The details don't especially matter; the point is that the DUP have made an exceptionally poor choice of battleground here.
As I wrote two years ago (scanned here) the continued presence of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom requires the Union to retain the loyalty of voters in the convinceable middle. These voters could foreseeably be persuaded to join a united Ireland, if three things happen:
- Brexit turns out badly (✔️)
- Unionism continues to be worse than Nationalism at appealing to its own core vote and not engaging with the centre (✔️)
- There is a better offer on the table from Nationalists (currently quite far from being achieved, and in particular the need for Nationalists to find a convincing narrative on health services is even more acute after the last year).
But it's the second point that has produced many unforced errors from the DUP, including the current issue. There is no good reason to oppose an Irish Language Act. The sums of money involved are ridiculously small, especially compared with the amount of taxpayers' money lost through the Renewable Heating Initiative scandal, which was largely on the DUP's watch. But the money is not the important bit. The message is. And the message from the DUP is that anyone with the slightest hint of affection for the Irish language is not welcome in their vision of Northern Ireland.
I happen to live in a country with three official languages, and have looked at similar situations in a number of other places. We are no longer in the 1920s, when large parts of Europe (including the minority in Northern Ireland) found themselves under governments that they had not chosen, which a linguistic regime designed for the convenience of the locally ascendant faction. These are the 2020s. Enhanced language rights for minorities (or indeed sometimes for majorities) do not reduce the rights of anybody else. It is not a zero-sum game, unless you choose to make it so, as the DUP have done; and if you make that choice, you are probably going to end up on the wrong side of history.
To this strategic error, Poots added tactical clumsiness. We woke yesterday to the news that he had conceded that if the Assembly failed to pass an Irish Language Act, Westminster would step in and legislate, as it has done over abortion and equal marriage (also issues where the DUP were on the losing side). In other words, he stuck to a hardline position and failed to deliver, and does not even appear to have extracted any side concessions.
But the final straw appears to be that he totally failed to keep party colleagues in the loop as to what he was discussing. The Assembly convened to appoint Poots' nominee, Paul Givan, as the new First Minister, but only four of the DUP's MLAs actually supported the move. Party officers met in the evening and informed Poots that he had lost their confidence, and he resigned, the final act taking even less time than his defenestration of Arlene Foster (which now looks like a flash-in-the-pan tactical success rather than the fruition of a deep-seated strategic plan).
Some people saw this coming. I have had good relations with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson for twenty-five years, and I hope he will not mind my quoting a private communication here. When he lost the leadership election to Poots last month, I sent him a very brief sympathy note consisting of the two words "Next time!!!" His reply was "Could come sooner than expected……" He was right, and I guess he had a pretty clear view of the inherent weaknesses of Poots' leadership; he would hardly have contested the election against him otherwise.
The next DUP leader (whether Sir Jeffrey or not) has a fundamental choice to make: will they continue to fight the cultural battles of the past, leading the party to cater solely for a dwindling but still significant minority of voters, and hoping against hope that Irish Nationalists do not get their act together to make the centre ground a better offer? Or will they try and create a post-Brexit Northern Ireland that actually works for all of its citizens, showing willingness to listen to the business community on how to manage the new border situation and telling their supporters that bilingual signage doesn't take anything away from them and does make the Union more viable in the long term? It's a question not just of the survival of the DUP but (if you care about it) of Northern Ireland as a viable part of the UK.