Northern Ireland and the crisis of unionism

Issue: 171

Kieran Allen

In February 2021, a poll was published which triggered a dramatic chain of events in Northern Ireland. It showed that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the main voice of Ulster unionism, had slumped to 19 percent, behind Sinn Féin at 24 percent. Immediately, speculation began about two potential scenarios. Firstly, could the position of first minister of the six county statelet fall to a Sinn Féin representative, pledged to overthrow it? Secondly, if the DUP fell into third placed behind the moderate cross-community Alliance Party, how would this impact on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which states that both the first minister and deputy first minister must come from two “opposing” communities?

The DUP is a strange organisation for those not familiar with the intricacies of Irish politics. It began in the outer fringes of fundamentalist evangelicalism when Ian Paisley, the party’s founder, claimed that the leaders of the main Protestant churches were failing to stand up to “romanism” and “papism”. From an early stage, Paisley developed a style of fomenting physical attacks on Catholics and then departing the scene. Well before the Troubles began in 1968, he addressed a rally in a Protestant area of West Belfast with the words:

You people of the Shankill Road, what’s the matter with you? Number 425 Shankill Road, do you know who lives there? Pope’s men, that’s who. Forte’s ice cream shop, Italian papists on the Shankill Road. How about 56 Aden Street. For 97 years a Protestant lived in that house and now there’s a papisher in it. Crimea Street, number 38. Some 25 years that house has been up—24 years a Protestant lived there, but there’s a papisher there now.1

When a violent “Taigs Out” march followed, Paisley was nowhere to be seen.2 It was a pattern repeated many times in the decade that followed.

Christian fundamentalists still play a big role in the party, and their religious views coincide neatly with their right-wing political positions. One recent study found that 40 percent of the DUP’s councillors and a third of its elected representatives in the Legislative Assembly are members of the Free Presbyterian church—a denomination that makes up only 0.6 percent of the total population.3 This helps to explain the vehement opposition of the DUP to the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion.4 Not surprisingly, the DUP was an avid supporter of Donald Trump. Three of its prominent MPs—Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley Jr and Paul Girvan—posed outside the Houses of Parliament with a banner reading, “Trump 2020, Keep America Great”.5

The 1998 Belfast Agreement was supposed to bring peace to the province.6 In reality, it institutionalised sectarianism by setting up a consociational regime, which, like Lebanon, rewards the hardest communal politicians.7 DUP rhetoric about standing up to nationalists and the betrayals of “big house unionism” made it sound like the best negotiator for the Protestant side.8 This allowed the DUP to become the dominant force in unionism, replacing the Ulster Unionist Party, which had ruled over the six counties since the state’s foundation.

There can be periods when right-wing parties gain working class support, mainly by deflecting class anger onto scapegoats such as migrants and minorities. In Northern Ireland, this was easier because it was set up as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people”. As its first prime minister, James Craig, put it, its exact borders were drawn around six counties to ensure a “decisive Protestant majority in which unionist power would be guaranteed, in perpetuity”.9 However, working-class consciousness is contradictory, and the right wing cannot solve exploitation and poverty. No matter how deep its roots in working-class communities, right-wing political forces thus contain certain weaknesses.

In the case of the DUP, this weakness lies in the very nature of its claim to a British identity. At the core of its politics is a veneration of the queen as a defender of the Protestant faith and the imperial past. At one stage, Robert Saulters, a former Grand Master of the Orange Order, cited British army involvement in the war in Iraq as playing a part in defining contemporary Britishness.10 However, as a not unsympathetic observer notes, this loyalty is to a “form of national-imperial Britishness whose origins remain strongly associated with a bygone age”.11 Modern Britain is a multicultural society—despite efforts to promote nostalgia for empire—where most of the population have little relationship to the Protestant churches. As Linda Colley points out, Protestantism and even Christianity has only a “residual influence” on modern British culture, with more Muslims living in the country than Methodists.12 The queen is more widely seen as a soap opera matriarch than as the “defender of the faith”. The “Britishness” that plays such a central role in loyalist ideology barely exists in reality.

Nonetheless, this never stops the DUP yearning for a restoration of old imperial glory. On this basis it aligned itself with the hardest Brexiteers in the Tory Party during the 2016 European Union referendum campaign and propped up Theresa May’s government after the 2017 general election in Britain. The DUP backed Brexit for two reasons. Firstly, it thought that a clean break with the EU would put an end to any drift towards a 32 county Ireland, because the two parts of the country would be governed by different economic arrangements. Secondly, it supported the Tory fantasy that a fully sovereign Britain would be better able to restore both its “greatness” and its imperial tradition.

The DUP gave Boris Johnson an ecstatic reception when he appeared at their party conference in 2018. He told them that there could be no customs border in the Irish Sea because that would leave Northern Ireland as an “economic semi-colony of the EU”. He added: “We would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland… I have to tell you no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement”.13

Eleven months later, Johnson signed a deal that did precisely that. It gave the rest of Britain the freedom to withdraw from a customs union but at the expense of special arrangements for Northern Ireland. To get his deal, Johnson agreed to a new Northern Ireland Protocol whereby the province would remain in closer economic alignment with the EU to prevent a hard border between the two parts of the island. The result is that the North will be separated from what unionists consider the “mainland” by a border in the Irish Sea. As if to confirm this, the British government submitted applications for border control posts at Northern Ireland’s ports, and these will be used to check animals and food arriving in the EU’s single market.

Unionism’s organic crisis

Loyalism has often shouted “betrayal” as a way of pushing the British elite into living up to its imperial obligations. But this “betrayal” was different because it revealed, in the most dramatic fashion possible, the contempt with which the Tories treat their unionist allies. When it came a dispute over the interests of British capitalism—or at least Johnson’s perception of that interest—and pledges to the DUP, there was no contest. The DUP were unceremoniously dropped by even the hardline Brexiteers. The result has been that the long-term decline and crisis within unionism have accelerated.

A number of factors have exacerbated that crisis. Firstly, there is growing discussion on a future break-up of Britain, not least because the Tory embrace of Brexit is increasingly linked to an English nationalism. As the Financial Times spells out:

Research in 2018 by Edinburgh University’s Centre on Constitutional Change indicated that nearly three quarters of English Conservative voters would accept Scotland’s departure as a price worth paying for Brexit. A 2019 YouGov survey found 63 percent of Tory party activists would sacrifice the Union to leave the EU.14

This is deepening the fault lines between England and Scotland. If Scotland breaks from the British state, the talk is that Northern Ireland will be next.

Secondly, has been the growth of social movements in the South that have challenged and defeated the Catholic Church. In 2015, Southern Ireland was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage equality through a popular vote. It then voted overwhelmingly to legalise abortion in 2018 despite the full resources of the Catholic Church being deployed to resist. All this means unionist claims that the South is a “priest-ridden, papist state” no longer hold water. There is still much to be done to uproot Catholic Church control of hospitals and schools, but there are now vibrant social movements in place.

Thirdly, in 2017, unionists lost their majority in the Assembly at Stormont, Belfast, for the first time. The 2021 census will show that Protestants have become a minority within a state established for a Protestant people. In a relatively normal society, this would have no significance, but the original justification of partition was that the Protestant minority in Ireland needed the protection of their own state. If they are now a minority in that state, and if 20 percent of the population now refuse to designate themselves “nationalist” or unionist, then what is the point of partition? All this means that the pressure for a border poll to end partition is growing.

Let’s return then to the decline in DUP support. It occurs against a background of growing uncertainty and profound unease amongst Protestant workers. Faced with a decline in their support, the DUP has responded in the only way it can—by whipping up sectarianism to shore up their base. The result was a series of riots in April and promises of further clashes over the summer. The DUP met with the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group of paramilitaries, in order to encourage them to mount a campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol. Soon, graffiti went up and marches of masked men started. The DUP gave them cover by claiming that the protests would “not be violent”. This, however, is a traditional game played by DUP leaders ever since the days of Ian Paisley; the party gives a signal for actions that it knows will escalate, but then rushes back to its respectable middle-class positions, “appealing for calm” and hoping to benefit from the turmoil.

The next episode in the DUP’s crisis was the resignation of its leader, Arlene Foster, after three quarters of its representatives at Stormont and Westminister urged her to go. The immediate trigger for Foster’s resignation was the fact that several DUP constituency associations had written letters expressing concern at her abstention on a motion that called for a ban on gay conversion therapy. Repeat: these letters objected because she abstained on an absurd evangelical position not that she voted against it. Of course, the wider issue was the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, the fact that the revolt within the DUP took this form indicates that its response to the crisis of unionism will be a further drift to the bizarre fringes of the evangelical right. Foster’s initial replacement as DUP leader, Edwin Poots, is a creationist who thinks that Earth began 4,000 years ago and has asserted that Catholics are six time more likely to be infected with Covid-19. Within a mere three weeks, Poots was deposed after he accepted a compromise whereby Westminister, rather than Stormont, would legislate for an Irish language act. Some naive observers had thought that his successor, Jeffrey Donaldson, represented a more liberal face of the DUP. In reality, he secured the leadership by appearing even more sectarian and hardline than Poots.

This hardcore evangelical, right-wing message is not likely to impress Protestant workers—unless the DUP can polarise enough sectarian feeling to present themselves as defenders of “their” community. Even then all the talk about defending a “British identity” cannot cover for the calamitous decline in living standards affecting both Catholic and Protestant workers. The Northern Irish state originally promised Protestant workers well-paid jobs in a manufacturing industry that exported to a thriving British empire. A system of discrimination, often organised through the Orange Order’s local lodges, meant Protestants were first off the dole queue and into work. Even then, however, discrimination was unable to eliminate Protestant poverty. The gap between Protestant and Catholic workers was never similar to that between white and black people in apartheid South Africa; despite facile comparisons, few Protestants had a swimming pool in their back garden or a Catholic domestic servant. Nevertheless, as the veteran Northern Irish socialist Eamonn McCann put it, “When tuppence halfpenny is looking down on tuppence, the halfpenny difference can assume an importance out of all proportion to its actual size”.15

Today, even these differences have almost disappeared. The restructuring of industry and the introduction of “fair employment” legislation were both factors, and there can be little dispute about the change. The Northern Irish Executive produces a regular Labour Force Survey that compares the situation of Protestants and Catholics. In 1992, the unemployment rate for Catholics (18 percent) was double that of Protestants (9 percent), but by 2017 the unemployment rate of both groups was 4 percent.16 Both had almost an equal number categorised as self-employed rather than directly employed—16 percent for Protestants and 15 percent for Catholics.17

Indeed, when these figures are looked at in more detail, there are some surprises. In the “skilled trades”, where the Orange Order was originally most successful in its exclusionary tactics, composition is only marginally in favour of Protestants, who now hold 51 percent of jobs compared to 49 percent for Catholics.18 However, among the “associate professional and technical occupations”, Catholics make up 57 percent of employees compared to 43 percent of Protestants.19 This is a significant gap and probably reflects a pattern of Protestants being more likely to study in Britain and then subsequently stay there. It is no longer the case that Catholics are concentrated in lower grades; the categories of “managers, directors and senior officials” and “professional occupations” are evenly divided at 50–50.20 The biggest differential in occupation is now in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, where Protestants account for 65 percent of employment compared to 35 percent for Catholics.21

However, although there is now a certain equality between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, it is often an equality of poverty. The median wage of Protestants and Catholics is now exactly equal—workers from both denominations earned an average of £10.58 an hour in 2017.22 This means that the average wage for workers in Northern Ireland is 9 percent below the British average. The comparison is complicated by the fact that public sector wages are roughly equivalent to those in Britain, which helps to even up the picture. In 2019, Northern Irish public sector earnings were just £7 lower than in Britain, but earnings of private sector employees were £92 lower than in Britain.23 This means that private sector wages are shockingly low—at least for those outside the top managerial grades. So, although “managers, directors and senior officials” earn around £800 a week, workers in call centres get about £360 a week, and those in social care receive roughly £388.24 Poverty is widespread for both working-class communities. A recent audit of education inequality shows that 100,000 young people, a third of the total youth population, are entitled to free school meals. Those receiving these meals have a 17 percent attainment gap in achieving five good GCSE grades compared to students who do not. Within those figures, young Protestant male students fare worst.25

After 2003, the Belfast Agreement brought the most vociferous communal representatives—Sinn Féin and the DUP—to power, replacing their more “moderate” rivals, respectively, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Unionist Party. Behind the public rows and periodic crises, both parties have implemented a neoliberal agenda designed to move the North away from a reliance on the public sector. Despite its use of a left-wing rhetoric in the South, Sinn Féin embraced the Private Finance Initiative policy that locks the state into contracts with companies to design, build and operate major infrastructure projects for over 20 years. This is a Thatcherite programme that aims to extend the scope of privatisation and has led to a major fleecing of the public purse, with costs running four time higher than the initial projections. The DUP have also been enthusiastic advocates of privatisation. The aim of both parties was to “rebalance” the North’s economy away from a reliance on the public sector.

The Sinn Féin–DUP economic project has indeed brought about a modest shrinkage in public sector employment. Public sector employment has declined from 37 percent of the workforce in the mid-1990s to 27 percent today. However, the private sector has not grown as quickly as was hoped, because investment is still spectacularly slow. One way of seeing that is to look at the respective share of investment in output in Northern Ireland compared to Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. Investment amounted to 17 percent of output in Scotland and Britain as a whole, and was 20 percent in the Republic; but in the North, it was a mere 10 percent. In their study of the Northern Ireland economy, two economists made the pointed comment that it was normal throughout the EU to devote 20 percent to investment to “maintain a reasonable level of growth”.26 On that measure Northern Ireland is a capitalist failure. The burden of that failure has fallen on the working class, both Catholic and Protestant.

Lessons from the past, hopes for the future

The equalisation of poverty does not in itself lead automatically to working class unity. Faced with the growing crisis of unionism, the DUP and loyalist paramilitaries will channel their full resources into whipping up sectarianism. They will claim that the reason for Protestant poverty is the Catholics “getting everything”. In the past, this type of rhetoric had every chance of success. To see how, let’s look at a key moment from the past.

The 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots, when thousands of Catholics and Protestants rioted together against the exploitation of unemployed workers, are often held up as an example of working-class unity. The agitation that culminated in these riots had been led by the Revolutionary Workers Groups, which would go on to found the Communist Party of Ireland in 1933. However, it is often forgotten that three years afterwards there was terrible sectarian rioting. The loyalist Ulster Protestant League (UPL) had been marginal at the height of the agitation in 1932, but soon after it grew quickly in some of the poorest Protestant districts. Its rise was fuelled by the same anger that had led to the Outdoor Relief Riots. However, where that campaign had pointed the finger of blame at the unionist government, the UPL instead accused their Catholic neighbours.27 Tragically, the balance of forces between the left and Protestant sectarianism was overwhelmingly in favour of the latter, not least because of the implicit support of many Orange employers who controlled access to jobs. Although the UPL represented the extreme end of popular sectarianism, it could also draw on an official state ideology to support its message that Catholics were disloyal. The UPL knew they could count on some support from the Unionist Party, which ran the state—indeed, prominent politicians such as Basil Brooke, the future Northern Irish prime minister, spoke at their meetings. Moreover, their demands that Protestants should get first offers for jobs was backed up with real political and economic power.

Thus, in the 1930s, there was a material base and a real experience from which Orange sectarians could draw in order to defeat left-wing ideas. Loyalist leaders could point to a whole swathe of workplaces, run by Orange bosses, where they could demand “Protestants first”. They could act as unruly extremists, knowing that they could win support inside the ranks of the respectable Unionist Party. Above all, they operated on a terrain where they saw the state as their own, and so the contest between a left-wing, working-class outlook and Orangeism was decidedly uneven. It was not simply that the UPL were better organised or more determined to promote their sectarian message—they had a material foundation on which to grow their influence.

Today, this material base has eroded. The one-party unionist regime at Stormont has long gone. The Orange Order declined from 93,447 members in 1968 to 35,000 in 2007, which was the year it last disclosed such figures. The structures of discrimination that gave out jobs and housing have been dismantled. The police force is no longer an exclusively Protestant force. Moreover, the alliance that the DUP forged with the Tories has come back like a boomerang, highlighting the difference that the British elite see between the “mainland” and its outer fringe.

This is not to say that the DUP will not succeed in its efforts to blame the “other side”; there is enough history and tradition for it to draw on. It is merely to say that a space—modest as it may be—is opening for the radical left to address Protestant workers who feel betrayed by the DUP. However, this can only occur if the left presents an entirely different message to Sinn Féin.

Although Irish republicanism was born with the motto of representing “Protestant, Catholic and dissenter”, today’s Sinn Féin in the North is a communal party. It has presented itself as the best representative of Catholic workers. It historically dismissed Protestant workers as a “labour aristocracy” that is simply too steeped in sectarianism to play any progressive role. Indeed, it suggested that Protestant workers could only play such a role after British withdrawal and Irish unification. In its earlier phase, this dismissal of Protestants did not prevent Sinn Féin embracing a left-wing rhetoric for a period. Back in the late 1970s, in a paper written for the IRA known as the “grey document”, Gerry Adams argued:

Furthermore, with James Connolly, we believe that the present system of society is based on the robbery of the working class and that capitalist property cannot exist without the plundering of labour. We desire to see capitalism abolished and a democratic system of common or public ownership. This democratic system, which is called socialism, will come as a result of the continuous increase in working class power.28

However, after agreeing to work through the institutions of the Northern state, Sinn Féin dropped its left-wing rhetoric and became the vehicle of choice for middle-class Catholics. By 2005, Adams had begun to advocate a very different programme:

Its conomic policy would take all practical steps to encourage indigenous enterprise and investment. It would welcome foreign capital while ensuring that foreign economic and financial interests did not become too powerful an influence on national economic policy.29

This switch in strategy is now mirrored in the party’s concept of what a united Ireland might look like. A recent policy document suggests that a united Ireland could become “a global leader in attracting foreign direct investment in sectors with good growth prospects”.30 In Towards a United Ireland, Sinn Féin states that it is now open to “transitional arrangements” that could include a confederal Ireland.31 This could entail “continued devolution to Stormont and a power-sharing executive in the North within an all-Ireland structure”.32 Even within this all-Ireland structure, the party suggests there could be “weighted majorities in relation to legislation on fundamental issues”.33 In line with the emphasis on respecting “Britishness”, Sinn Féin suggests that “expression be given to the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy”.34 It also proposes a “recognition of the loyal orders (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation”.35 This represents a considerable shift within the republican tradition, and shows that the transformation of its economic thinking is being mirrored in its vision for the political arrangements in a future united Ireland.

Essentially, Sinn Féin envisages a united Ireland where there are no fundamental changes on an economic level and where existing sectarian arrangements remain in place. As a compensation prize, it offers “love bombing” of loyalism, suggesting that Orange “culture” would be respected, but this is highly unlikely to attract Protestant workers. Why would any former unionist take seriously Sinn Féin’s claims to respect their culture when that culture is equated with the reactionary political ideology of organisations such as the Orange Order? Would the prospect of uniting with the South, where there are long waiting lists for hospital treatment and the most expensive childcare facilities in Europe, really attract Protestant workers who are becoming disillusioned with the DUP? Why should anyone—Protestant, Muslim or Jewish—put up with a situation where there is no state-run primary school system and where 94 percent of these schools are in the hands of the Catholic Church, as is the case in the Republic of Ireland?

If the left is to gain a space among Protestant workers, it will have to offer an entirely different vision. Rather than seeing the Southern state as the main agent promoting Irish unity, it needs to openly reject that state. Instead of seeking a space in a coalition government with a right-wing party such as Fianna Fáil, as Sinn Féin effectively does, the radical left must distinguish itself in all out opposition to the Irish establishment. Crucially, the left cannot assume that Protestants will simply be victims of a history that is made against their will. Instead, it must encourage them to play an active role in forging a radical, socialist Ireland that seeks to destroy both of the rotten states that grew out of the partition settlement.

Such a vision has to recognise that the core characteristic of the South is that it functions as a tax haven for global multinationals. The state apparatus is geared to maintaining “frictionless” relationships with a host of legal and accountancy firms that act as “tax planners”, minimising tax on corporate profit to less than 2 percent in many cases. Only by understanding this central feature can we explain why Southern Ireland—despite its apparent wealth—offers some of the most dismal public services in Europe.

If the specific nature of this form of capitalism is bracketed out of any discussion on partition, it is impossible to deal with economic arguments that will increasingly be used to prop up the Union. After all, at least Britain provides a National Health Service, which, though weakened by austerity, is certainly a better safety net than the health system in the South. Only by demonstrating how social movements can pose a real challenge to tax-haven Ireland can the left show that Irish unification can benefit all workers by redistributing the wealth that is currently so unevenly divided on both sides of the border erected in 1921.

Kieran Allen is the secretary of People Before Profit. He is the author of 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland (Pluto 2021).


1 Moloney and Pollok, 1986, pp89-90.

2 “Taig” is a derogatory term used to refer to a Catholic.

3 Clarke, 2014.

4 Gay sex was only legalised in Northern Ireland in 1982, some 25 years after decriminalisation in Great Britain. Ian Paisley, as leader of the DUP, had campaigned against this under the slogan “Save Ulster from Sodomy”.

5 Breen, 2020.

6 This is also known as the Good Friday Agreement.

7 A consociational state is one in which the deep ethnic, religious or linguistic divisions in the population are managed through consultation between the elites of the different social groups.

8 “Big house unionism” is a term used to deride the elite interests that lay behind the Unionist Party, which was dominated by financiers and landowning dynasties. The country home of an Anglo-Irish aristrocrat was traditionally referred to as a “big house” in Ireland.

9 Ferriter, 2019, p8.

10 Mycock, McAuley and Tonge, 2011, p127.

11 Mycock, McAuley and Tonge, 2011, p122.

12 Colley, 1992, pp309-329.

13 Young, 2019.

14 Stephens, 2021.

15 McCann, 1986.

16 Northern Ireland Executive Office, 2017, p37.

17 Northern Ireland Executive Office, 2017, p47.

18 Northern Ireland Executive Office, 2017, p47.

19 Northern Ireland Executive Office, 2017, p47.

20 Northern Ireland Executive Office, 2017, p50.

21 Northern Ireland Executive Office, 2017, p49.

22 Northern Ireland Executive Office, 2017, p55.

23 Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, 2019, p11.

24 Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, 2019, p8.

25 Education Authority, 2018.

26 Fitzgerald and Morgenroth, 2019, p24.

27 Fitzgerald and Morgenroth, 2019, p132.

28 Moloney, 2007, p187.

29 Quoted in Finn, 2016.

30 Sinn Féin, 2018, p9.

31 Sinn Féin, 2016, p9.

32 Sinn Féin, 2016, p9.

33 Sinn Féin, 2016, p9.

34 Sinn Féin, 2016, p8.

35 Sinn Féin, 2016, p8.


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