What’s going on in Northern Ireland?

Unlike Scotland, Wales or England, there were no devolved assembly or local council elections in Northern Ireland on May 6th.  Yet elections to Stormont have to take place before May 2022.  But on May 14th there was an election for a new DUP leader, and another is planned soon for a new UUP leader.  Meanwhile, there has been a top-down shake up of Sinn Fein in Derry City, with its two current MLAs dropped as candidates for the next Stormont election. 

If the May 6th Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd election results reflected growing political difficulties focussed on national self-determination, then these other events in Northern Ireland  just add to the problems for the UK state.  The results of the two internal elections and the one non-election will have a bearing on how politics pan out across the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the EU.  This is the arena in which the conflicts between Right populist and neo-liberal politics are being conducted.  And struggles between constitutional nationalists, liberal, conservative and reactionary unionists, over the future of the UK, are all intertwined within this larger conflict.

Reactionary unionism made its first breakthrough in Northern Ireland

The dominant Right populist politics we have witnessed  at UK level, since Boris Johnson’s Tory victory in the 2019 Westminster election, have dominated Northern Ireland from the time the DUP took the lead from the neo-liberal UUP as early as 2003 at Stormont. The DUP followed this up by emerging as the leader  in the Northern Ireland local and Westminster elections in 2005.  Since then, despite losing their dominant position at Stormont in 2017 and Westminster in 2019, the DUP has only really responded to pressure from further Right reactionary unionists, both within the party, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) representing the paramilitary UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commandos.  

Sometimes there have been deals between the reactionary unionist DUP and the conservative unionist UUP, especially over Stormont and Westminster elections to keep out Irish nationalists.  Furthermore, members of both parties are to be found in the Orange Order.  However, many in the DUP are supporters of the Protestant fundamentalist Caleb Foundation, described by the British Centre for Social Science as “promoting Christian fascism”. This group has more DUP supporters than the Orange Order.  This provides valuable connections to the US hard right, particularly when it comes to the promotion of social reaction and creationist obscurantism.  Despite these links, though, the US House of Representatives gave unanimous support for the upholding of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) on December 4th, 2019, even under Trump’s presidency,

After originally opposing the GFA, the DUP, once it became the largest party in Northern Ireland, signed up and has pursued a long term strategy of undermining it from within.  The DUP want to restore as much as possible of the old Unionist supremacy, although even they appreciate that ‘No Surrender’ Loyalism is never going to fully restored.  But this has become a less viable strategy, now that the combined support for reactionary and conservative unionism no longer has majority support in Northern Ireland.  This is due to a combination of  demographic and political factors.

The changing balance of forces – the rise of constitutional nationalism and liberal unionism

As a consequence of these changes there has been an increase in support for constitutional nationalism (Sinn Fein and SDLP), but not enough to turn the tables on the unionists.  Sinn Fein does aspire to unite Northern Ireland with the existing Republic of Ireland (a retreat from the old notion of 32 counties reunification in a new Irish Republic).  The SDLP’s constitutional nationalist support for possible unification with the Republic of Ireland has long been something for a more distant future (a bit like the old British Labour Party’s Clause 4 socialism).  

The SDLP shares such thinking with the two main constitutional nationalist parties in the Republic of Ireland – Fianna Fail (which has some tentative SDLP links) and Fine Gael.  These two parties’ ideas of Irish reunification are consigned to a more distant future, when the majority of unionists agree, spurred on by Ireland re-joining the British Commonwealth and ending its official neutrality policy by fully signing up to NATO.

However, the post-GFA agreements have also led to the rise of the liberal unionist, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI).  It overtook the conservative unionist UUP in the 2019 Westminster election, and has sometimes won over DUP voters, worried about a return to sectarian violence.  APNI wants to create a non-sectarian Northern Ireland within the UK.  It refuses to call itself Ulster Unionist (a synonym for Protestant sectarian) or join their  official constitutionally recognised Unionist/Loyalist bloc at Stormont.  Nevertheless, APNI remains a strongly unionist party.  Its leader, Naomi Long, intervened during the Scottish Holyrood election campaign in the Herald on Sunday.  As a self-declared “liberal unionist”, she argued strongly against “the SNP and the Conservatives using divisions around the {UK} constitution to secure votes.”

Instead, APNI seeks a UK constitutional stability which is dependent on outside forces – the support of the UK government (along with the absence of  any national democratic challenges), the Republic of Ireland, the EU and US.  This support is needed to underpin the GFA, seen by APNI as providing an adequate constitutional vehicle for bringing about a non-sectarian Northern Ireland, supported by good relations with the Republic of Ireland.  APNI also reflects the interests of a layer of the Catholic middle class (although the large majority still support the SDLP), who have seen their prospects improve since the GFA was introduced.  It is the majority of the working class in Northern Ireland who have experienced little or no economic or social ‘peace dividend’ following the GFA.

Why the British ruling class hangs on to Northern Ireland 

The City of London and other British property interests have a heavy involvement in the Republic of Ireland (highlighted by Rees-Mogg’s transfer of hedge funds to Dublin during the period of possible economic instability around the Brexit negotiations).  Maintaining its influence in the ‘South’ has remained an important part of British ruling class thinking, ever since it enforced Partition and the Irish Free State in the early 1920s.  

Both parts of their two-sided Irish strategy, in Northern Ireland and now in the Republic of Ireland, have remained important to the British ruling class.  The GFA has formed a central part of the combined ‘Devolution-all-round’ and ‘Peace Process’, covering all of these islands, the better to maximise corporate profitability.  However, the post-2008 Financial Crisis has created strains in the neo-liberal UK, EU, USA alliance which underpinned the GFA.  But despite leaving the EU, the British ruling class and the City of London have no intention of abandoning their banking and property interests in the Republic of Ireland.  Indeed, the more optimistic Brexiteers envisage Northern Ireland still within the EU’s Single Market, as a potential base to penetrate the wider EU economy.  

These factors provide key reasons why the UK wants to retain Northern Ireland as part of the UK, despite the delusional thinking of some that the British ruling class no longer has a significant interest in holding on to Northern Ireland.  Losing state territory would very visibly underscore the UK’s decline to the third-rate imperial power it is.  The whole thrust of the Tories’ current Right populist offensive is to push in the opposite direction.  They have tried to boost the UK as the centre of a renewed Empire 2.0 or, with a bit more plausibility, as part of a ‘US First/Britain Second’ alliance in the world.  

So, although the UK state has its own very definite interests in propping up a semi-detached devolved Stormont –  the Tory government currently has no such interests in bolstering Scottish (or Welsh) devolution. This also undermines APNI leader’s Long’s hopes that constitutional issues will not come to the fore.

After Brexit – the arena of struggle widens undermining the DUP

The UK government and the EU bureaucracy (reflecting the power of member states Germany and France in particular) have already shown that, in the context of a post-Brexit Britain, neither the immediate interests of the ruling or would-be ruling groups in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland are of central concern.  This has been demonstrated first by the UK government’s Internal Market Bill with its contempt for international treaties.  But it has also been shown by the EU bureaucracy’s panicked attempt, flowing from their mishandling of Covid-19, to breach the agreed EU/UK Protocol, covering trade between the UK.  Under this Protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the Single Market along with the Republic of Ireland.  The UK government’s IMA breach caused much chagrin amongst Irish nationalists and some British liberals; whilst the Protocol and then its breach by the EU bureaucracy has caused much chagrin amongst the DUP and other Loyalists concerned about any undermining of their ‘true’ Britishness.  

“The UK government and the EU bureaucracy… have already shown that, in the context of a post-Brexit Britain, neither the immediate interests of the ruling or would-be ruling groups in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland are of central concern.”

The DUP has only been prepared to work within the GFA framework, so long as it has been in the dominant position on the Northern Ireland Executive (NIE) and at Stormont.  The DUP has reluctantly had to concede that the GFA is the British ruling class, UK state and Tory, Labour and Lib-Dems’ chosen method to maintain wider unionist rule in Northern Ireland.  To try and increase its influence, though, the DUP has on occasions withdrawn from the NIE and Stormont.  Behind-the-scenes it has backed LCC extra-parliamentary action to increase the pressure.  

Although it was Sinn Fein, which last collapsed the NIE in 2017 (in protest at DUP involvement over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal), DUP leader Arlene Foster was happy to go along with this.  She soon found an alternative tactic to exert the DUP’s influence by  propping up Teresa May’s minority government at Westminster, following the 2017 general election.  

However, despite DUP-backed Johnson taking over from May, the limits of their ‘prop-up the Tory government’ tactic soon began to appear.  The government used the suspension of the NIE and Stormont to pass a Westminster Act, so Direct Rule could continue.  But it also accepted two Labour amendments imposing same sex marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland.  This was agreed by the Tories to put pressure on the DUP to return to the NIE.  Initially the DUP took little notice, looking for the greater benefits a Johnson-led Hard Brexit would bring about in undermining the GFA.  This could eliminate EU influence and restore the border to further distance Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. Although the DUP were not amused, by the latest Westminster interference, they thought they could come back later, when the NIE and Stormont were reconstituted.  Ironically, they could also look to socially reactionary Catholic nationalist MLAs to undermine  those socially progressive aspects of the Act.  

The 2019 Westminster election results publicly demonstrated that the DUP  had overplayed their hand, though.  They also confirmed there is no longer a basis for restoring Ulster unionist supremacy.  This depended on the conservative reactionary unionist bloc of Unionism/Loyalism maintaining an overall demographic and voting majority in Northern Ireland.  

This Unionist/Loyalist bloc’s overall majority was first lost in the 2017 Stormont election, when the combined numbers of UUP (10 MLAs), unionist independent (1 MLA), DUP (28 MLAs) and TUV (1 MLA) only came to 40 out of a total of 90 MLAs.  The Nationalist/Republican bloc of the (SDLP (12 MLAs) Sinn Fein (27 MLAs) had 39 MLAs.  But the liberal unionist APNI now had 8 MLAs; and others, the Northern Ireland Greens (2MLAs) and People before Profit- PbP (1 MLA) had a total of 3 MLAs.  

And, after the 2019 Westminster election, the DUP was reduced from 10 to 8 out of the 19 Northern Ireland MPs.  The constitutional nationalist, Sinn Fein got 7 MPs (ironically very much over-represented by the Westminster FPTP system) and the SDLP 2 MPs, a total of 9.  The  liberal unionist APNI gained 1 MP (greatly under-represented by FPTP).  

The reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Executive – the Tory government calls the shots

The terms of the maintenance of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are decided by the British ruling class, not by their chosen minions in Northern Ireland.  Following Johnson’s success in the 2019 Westminster election, the Tories reinstated the Northern Ireland Executive (NIE) on January 11th, 2020.  (This policy, coupled to reconvening Stormont, had also formed part of Corbyn’s 2019 Labour manifesto, highlighting that, along with opposition to any Scottish IndyRef2 and support for Brexit, Labour shared much of the same constitutional approach to the UK as the Tories).  

The NIE’s reconstitution was done entirely on UK government terms.  For a while, the DUP was chastened by the results of its own recent hubris.  After its own poor Westminster vote, Sinn Fein covered its own acceptance of UK terms (no backing for an Irish language bill), with hyped-up talk of wide support for Irish unity.  But putative Irish unity candidates (Sinn Fein, SDLP, Aontu and PbP) only received 39.6% of the vote, compared to the combined unionist vote (DUP, APNI, UUP, NI Conservatives and UKIP) of 59.9%.  If that unionist alliance has become  increasingly fractured, due to the rise of the liberal unionism, all this is likely to show over time is that APNI is more willing to publicly cooperate with UK government to maintain the Union and hopefully a more peaceable Northern Ireland.

APNI re-entered the NIE it had resigned from (along with the UUP and SDLP in 2016). This highlights a GFA anomaly.  APNI is not recognised as belonging to one of the two official GFA camps, Nationalist/Republican or Unionist/Loyalist.  Yet when it suits British government purposes, APNI can be persuaded to join the NIE.  It is possible to envisage future circumstances where this role could be further enhanced to buttress the Union.  Since the UK state no longer needs to placate a now non-existent Unionist/Loyalist majority, it could in the future try to buttress a new constitutional nationalist/liberal-led alliance based on the SDLP and APNI, leaving Sinn Fein’s Irish unification prospects high and dry, and the DUP forced either deeper into promoting extra-constitutional mayhem or into reluctant accommodation. 

The crisis hits the DUP, UUP and Sinn Fein

Former DUP leader, Arlene Foster was made to carry the can for DUP hubris.  Party opponents used her refusal to vote in support of ‘gay conversion therapy’ (she abstained) in a Stormont vote, as an example of her failure to uphold ‘true’ Protestant unionist values.  She has been forced to resign as leader by the further Right in her party, led by Edwin Poots: a Free Presbyterian and Caleb Foundation member. 

Following the disaster of the DUP’s failure to prevent sex marriage and abortion rights being legally introduced into Northern Ireland (although the actual implementation of abortion rights, as in the Republic of Ireland, is still very limited), the party doesn’t envisage an immediate walking out of Stormont.  Instead, key leaders advocate a refusal to work with the GFA’s UK/Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland intergovernmental bodies, in an attempt to further undermine the GFA 

Whilst publicly dismissed by some as a largely symbolic gesture, many privately know that Poots and his allies’ actions are potentially far more serious.  Like Foster before the December 2019 general election, he is working with the LCC, with its a record of street violence and paramilitary activity.  Only the most naïve would believe that the eruption of mob violence on the Shankill Road and surrounding streets in April was solely the product of alienated local youths.  

However, the UK government has publicly gone along with this view.  Northern Ireland’s continued semi-detached position permits the UK government to adopt a kid-glove approach to policing Loyalist youths burning out buses and attempting to invade nationalist West Belfast.  This is in strong contrast to the government’s support for the police assault on  peaceable women protestors at Clapham Bandstand.  Conjuring up a wide range of political conspirators behind recent protests in England, Johnson’s government is introducing draconian new repressive policing legislation for England and Wales.

The election on May 14th for DUP leader (the first ever), was confined to their 28 MLAs and 7 MPs.  It reflected some of the tensions within the party. Poots only beat his challenger, Sir Geoffrey Donaldson, by 19 to 17 votes.  Donaldson is only a few lambeg drumbeats behind Poots but is not a member of the Ian Paisley-founded Presbyterian Free Church. He wanted to give the UK government a little more leeway with the Protocol, understanding that they want to maintain the Union too, but in their own way.  But the vote went for the representative of the ‘Provisional wing of the seventeenth century’! 

The UUP is also going to have an election, this time of their whole membership.  The front candidate is Doug Beattie MLA, a more UK government accommodating candidate.  He is also prepared to work with Irish nationalists (meaning the SDLP) and is for the disbanding the LCC.  But there is no sign that, unlike APNI, he would open up his party to Catholics.

The problem for both the DUP and UUP is that many ordinary Loyalists, unlike their party leaders, have experienced no economic benefits under the post GFA order.  Instead, they fall back on Loyalism’s psychological compensatory mechanisms – public celebrations of the British monarchy and empire, the Protestant establishment, union jack waving, marking out territory and holding triumphalist marches.  This is all they seem to have left.  The structure of the LCC and the Orange Order gives the ‘ex’-paramilitary groups and local lodges a lot of autonomy.  This means they can take their own action, which can also be publicly disowned. 

The next Stormont election must take place by May 2022, but if the current political situation further unravels, it could take place before then.  There is a possibility that the DUP could then cease to be the largest party at Stormont  and would therefore no longer be entitled to holding the First Minister’s job.  If such a situation came about, the DUP would very likely pull out of all aspects of the GFA.  The LCC could be fully unleashed. 

The DUP’s most recent NIE partner, Sinn Fein also lost out badly in the December 2019 Westminster election, dropping 8.8% in support, with the more moderate constitutional nationalist SDLP gaining an extra 3.1%, the socially reactionary Aontu 1.2% (standing for the first time) and the Left social democratic, PbP gaining an extra 0.2%, giving it 0.9%. of the vote.

“Accepting an Irish reunification referendum certainly forms no part of British ruling class or UK state thinking.  With a retreating British ruling class increasingly falling back on lost imperialist and closely related unionist grandeur, the loss of any UK territory is unacceptable.  The lengths they are prepared to go to maintain this state have long been evident in Ireland.”

It is this political situation that has panicked Sinn Fein, especially after its heavy losses to the SDLP in the symbolic city of Derry.  Unlike the DUP or UUP, there are no internal elections being held in Sinn Fein to address its problems.  Instead, there has been a major top-down reconstitution of the party machine in the city.  2 of its existing MLAs have been forced to stand down for  the next Stormont elections.  Other local leaders have been marginalised.  The situation in Derry is complex with Sinn Fein voter desertions to the SDLP, PbP, Aontu and dissident Republicans.  But, despite Sinn Fein’s official Irish re-unificaction bluster, since the greatest electoral threat comes from the SDLP, this could lead to an attempt to occupy some of the SDLP’s more openly moderate, constitutional nationalist, political space.

Accepting an Irish reunification referendum certainly forms no part of British ruling class or UK state thinking.  With a retreating British ruling class increasingly falling back on lost imperialist and closely related unionist grandeur, the loss of any UK territory is unacceptable.  The lengths they are prepared to go to maintain this state have long been evident in Ireland.  Successive UK governments have in the past shown that they are prepared to go to some lengths in giving the Loyalists leeway, before later reining them in.  The UK government has also used these unwanted riots to put their own pressure on Sinn Fein.  This being done to further lower Sinn Fein’s sights and to maintain their role in policing the current constitutional order in Northern Ireland. 

A possible new UK state strategy

British government thinking was originally based on forming a UUP/SDLP alliance, but this had to give way to their more reluctant  acceptance of a DUP/Sinn Fein-led NIE.  With today’s new political balance in Northern Ireland, and if the political situation deteriorates further, the UK government could turn to two measures.  It  could fall back on Direct Rule. The one British repressive institution that has been fully maintained throughout the post-GFA order is MI-5, which operates out of modernised facilities at Palace Barracks in Holywood, just outside Belfast.  MI-5 has taken the over the main security role in Northern Ireland.  Additionally, senior British civil servants have taken on much greater responsibility for public service provision, given the frequent suspensions of the supposed political overseers in the NIE, and the non-operation of any shared NI cabinet, when the NIE is operating. 

But the wider political costs of allowing unresolved Loyalist mayhem to continue for any length of time are well known.  So Direct Rule would be the British government’s less preferred option.  It is designed for emergency use only as shown by its continued support for a NIE.  So, in the new post-Unionist/Loyalist bloc minority situation, the UK state could try to reconfigure the political alliance it needs in Northern Ireland to maintain the Union.  This might mean cobbling together a new NIE alliance based around the SDLP constitutional nationalists and APNI liberal unionists, and whichever individuals from the UUP, and even possibly Sinn Fein, were  prepared to give it their support, if Loyalist intransigence leads to renewed violence.  

Such a deteriorating political situation might also necessitate the reintroduction of British troops to bolster the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) (now one third Catholic) and the Royal Irish Rangers (still overwhelmingly Protestant, but currently mainly deployed in a wider imperial role).  Sinn Fein has long gone along with supporting the PSNI.  But their Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill also issued a statement supporting the deployment of British troops in Northern Irish hospitals during the Covid-19 crisis. After this, “following the death of the British consort Philip [Sinn Fein offered] paeans of praise regarding the progressive role of the British Royal family.  [Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein leader] Mary Lou McDonald apologise[d] for the IRA assassination of Louis Mountbatten.” 

These political retreats flow from the compelling logic of Sinn Fein’s continued support for the UK state-controlled order in post-GFA Northern Ireland.  They see acceptance of this constitutional set-up as necessary for their own planned route to Irish unification. This goes  along with their acceptance of the Republic of Ireland’s constitutional order, to which they wish Northern Ireland to eventually become assimilated.


The British ruling class are very much aware of the difficulties they face in Northern Ireland.  Furthermore, the Right populists have developed a bureaucratic ‘internationalism from above  strategy’ for all the constituent units of the UK state – England, Scotland, Wales  and Northern Ireland – to address their problems.  They also utilise the overriding sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster and the UK state’s Crown Powers to maintain their control.  

Republicans need to respond by asserting our democratic sovereignty of the people. But we also need to overcome the ‘national exceptionalism’ of much of the Left, with not just an all-UK but an all-islands, England, Scotland, Walers and Ireland ‘internationalism from below’ strategy.  Understanding what is happening in Northern Ireland is very important in achieving this.

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