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The DUP’s changing leadership and the future of unionism


The DUP’s changing leadership and the future of unionism


Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, will step down at a time of heightened tension over the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.


– Foster’s departure comes at a critical time for UK unionism, as increased support for Irish nationalism and the prospect of a united Ireland are working against the DUP’s political prospects
– Unionists are upset by the increased trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol
– Irish reunification is likely in the long-term if the DUP’s main rival, Sinn Féin, gains a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly in next year’s elections

Arlene Foster will step down in June as leader of the conservative pro-union Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, a role she has held since 2016. Foster’s departure comes after recent party infighting over the DUP’s role in crafting the Northern Ireland Protocol and the subsequent Brexit trade barriers that have angered DUP voters. In announcing her resignation, Foster said the DUP had changed as a party and was moving ‘in a different direction.’ Some 80% of the DUP’s representatives in the House of Commons and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont, have signed a letter of no-confidence in Foster and Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has already announced his intention to run for the party’s leadership.

Foster’s departure comes amid increasing unrest in Northern Ireland over the terms of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit settlement. The unrest has been led by unionists who disagree with the Northern Ireland Protocol and the barriers it has raised between Belfast and the rest of the UK. Increased support for Irish nationalism and growing support for the Irish republican party Sinn Féin are also working against the DUP. Foster’s exit comes at a critical juncture for the DUP and unionism, and the upcoming leadership battle is likely to reflect the DUP’s splintered camps.


Photo: @DUPleader/Twitter

Brexit formed many unlikely political alliances and the DUP notably entered a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservative Party in order to resolve a hung parliament after the 2017 UK general election. Just two years later, the 2019 general election gave more seats in Westminster to Irish nationalist parties than unionist parties for the first time in history. While still holding the most seats in Stormont, the DUP’s appeal began to wane and the Conservatives received a landslide majority in Westminster. This allowed the Conservatives to govern under current Prime Minister Boris Johnson without formal DUP support, and Johnson was willing to tackle some of the thorny Northern Ireland issues that former prime minister Theresa May had avoided.

The DUP’s support of May’s government had been criticised by both Labour and Conservative members as threatening the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the three decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as Troubles. While allied with the Conservatives, the DUP was instrumental in crafting May’s Brexit policy, which had to address where to establish post-Brexit customs barriers between the EU and the UK in Ireland. To retain the DUP’s support, May pledged to avoid a customs border in the Irish Sea. However, as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement negotiated by May’s successor Boris Johnson, the Northern Ireland Protocol established a customs border in the Irish Sea rather than create a hard land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. A hard border would have jeopardised the Good Friday Agreement and angered dissident republicans who never accepted the full terms of the Agreement and continue to wage a sporadic low-level insurgency.

Although republicans have been largely satisfied by the absence of a hard border, unionists are becoming increasingly incensed by trade barriers and customs checks with the rest of the UK. The DUP has launched a legal challenge against the Northern Ireland Protocol and is urging the measure be removed by MPs in Westminster. As the legal fight continues, Foster’s leadership was seen by her critics as harming the unionist cause and unwittingly feeding into the hands of republicans.

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Photo: Sinn Féin/Flickr

Changing demographics and increased support for Irish nationalism post-Brexit suggests an uphill battle for the DUP and unionism in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s nationalist Catholic population is growing at a much faster rate than the Protestant population, leading to calls for increased devolution of political power from London. In the short term, further unrest is likely in unionist areas if a power vacuum occurs, and republicans, led by Sinn Féin, advocate for more control in Northern Ireland politics. The Northern Ireland Executive, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, has power sharing allocations for both unionists and nationalist parties. Even if Sinn Féin gains more seats than the DUP, unionists would still retain leadership posts of several ministries and positions within the Executive. Northern Ireland’s other nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), as well as the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which was Northern Ireland’s main unionist party prior to the DUP’s ascent, will also play a critical role in the makeup of the executive. Sinn Fein and the SDLP both favour Irish reunification, while the UUP has a much longer historical relationship with the Conservative Party but has been institutionally separate since 1972. The UUP has lost influence in both Belfast and Westminster, where it has not held any seats since 2017. As such, Northern Ireland’s future is likely to be guided by Sinn Fein and the DUP, with the SDLP playing a prominent role in support of Sinn Fein’s agenda.

In the long term, Irish reunification is likely if the unionist cause continues to suffer setbacks, especially if Sinn Féin gains more seats than the DUP in the Northern Ireland Executive. Irish reunification remains more popular in the Republic of Ireland than in Northern Ireland, where according to a recent poll only 35% of voters are in favour. Should Sinn Féin grab the first minister’s post, Irish reunification would likely be on their agenda, and the demographic and ideological swings away from unionism are likely to prove to be powerful driving political forces. The DUP would risk advocating for an unattainable future, surrounded by pro-EU nationalist forces in both Ireland and Scotland, and a voting bloc pressing for change.

In joining with the Conservatives in 2017, the DUP sought to influence Brexit policy and increase its visibility in Westminster. Ironically, the DUP now risks becoming politically inert and unable to enforce its own agenda amidst changing demographic and political tides. Northern Ireland is in a very different place when compared to the height of the Troubles and the unionist cause is now likely to be more virulent and violent than the republican one. Republicans have made material political gains and Sinn Féin’s growth reflects cross-border Irish confidence over identity and nationalism that is non-violent and in favour of a European future. In contrast, the DUP’s cause is in support of a union that is dramatically weakened post-Brexit and unlikely to appeal to younger voters. Younger voters are increasingly turning to Sinn Féin, are in favour of EU membership, and largely object to the DUP’s socially conservative policies. As such, the DUP’s future is more existential, and the unionist identity risks becoming yet another casualty of the raucous and divisive Brexit debate.

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