The Democratic Unionist Party Isn’t Bluffing on Brexit. It’s Being ‘Thran.’
The small Northern Irish party that props up the British government has a history of belligerence and brinkmanship. But ultimately it will blink.
The politics of Northern Ireland are commonly understood as a contest between two sides: pro-Irish Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists. In fact, there are three traditions jostling on the disputed ground of Ulster: the Irish, the English, and the Scots.
The Presbyterian Scots have always held the deciding vote. At the end of the 18th century, when it seemed they might make common cause with the Irish, an independent all-Ireland republic appeared possible. From that point onward, they sided with with the Episcopalian English, making the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland possible.
The key to understanding the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up the increasingly unstable British government of Theresa May and has for the past 15 years been the largest party in Northern Ireland, is that it comes from the Scots tradition.
And understanding the DUP has never mattered more, thanks to a hung parliament in last year’s U.K. general election, which made the party a kingmaker in Westminster and gave its 10 members (out of 650 in the House of Commons) a disproportionate share of influence over what Brexit would look like.
Non-Episcopalian Protestants, such as the DUP’s founders, were historically referred to as “dissenters.” Indeed, “Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter” was the rallying cry of 18th-century Irish republicans.
Dissent in the broadest sense of the word remains deeply ingrained in the DUP. It can regard standing outside the mainstream as a badge of honor—and for most of the party’s existence that also included the unionist mainstream.
The DUP was founded by the Presbyterian firebrand and self-styled doctor of theology Ian Paisley in 1971, as violence ramped up at the outbreak of Northern Ireland’s Troubles—a 30-year conflict that Paisley’s street agitation and anti-Catholic rhetoric helped, in part, to inflame.
Northern Ireland had been governed since its inception by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), a broad coalition of interests from across the Protestant population but with its culture drawn from the English tradition—bourgeois, establishment, and mocked by its detractors as “big-house unionism.”
Paisley had no desire to fit under that big house’s roof; he wanted to knock it down. As the Troubles loomed, a fault line emerged within the UUP over whether to make the state of Northern Ireland more politically inclusive or double down on unionist control.
Paisley’s agitation had been targeted at UUP reformers more than Irish republicans, and he created the DUP to maintain that pressure, denouncing moderates as traitors and rallying huge crowds against attempts to reform the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont, effectively a state capital where unionists ran the province at arm’s length from London.
Paisley led the DUP until 2008, enough time to issue his famous rallying cry—“Never! Never! Never!”—to three major peace initiatives, including the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement. His objection to the agreement was that Sinn Fein, widely regarded as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, was given a role in government—an objection whose moral stand would have held more weight if Paisley had not objected to all previous attempts at bringing nonviolent nationalist parties into office.
Bit by bit, with every inevitable compromise the UUP made or political setback it suffered, another chunk of its vote slid away in the DUP’s direction, until Paisley’s party finally eclipsed its rival in the Stormont election of 2003.
Even then, the DUP stuck with obstinacy. Its stonewalling saw the Good Friday accord substantively rewritten in 2006, replacing Stormont’s reformed partnership model of all parties working together in coalition with a two-party system between the DUP and Sinn Fein, with moderate unionist and nationalist parties marginalized. Paisley described this prospect, almost with relish, as “a battle a day.”
In 2008, the DUP leadership passed to Paisley’s longtime deputy, Peter Robinson, who toned down the rhetoric but maintained the tactics. The DUP kept winning every battle until Sinn Fein became tired of losing and walked out of Stormont in late 2016. Northern Ireland has had no regional government for two years and has survived on administrative autopilot, with London relucant to take direct control and admit the scale of the problem.
Robinson’s chosen successor, Arlene Foster, had taken office 12 months before, and the Stormont fiasco happened on her watch, as did a closely related scandal over a green-energy scheme, where basic cost controls were not introduced on a subsidy for wood pellet boilers, creating a potential liablility of $650 million.
Foster was prominent in the UUP until 2004, when she defected to Paisley’s party. This background has not made her more accommodating; it has merely made her less able to stand up to the hard-line grassroots of her own party.
For example, in February, the DUP reached a deal with Sinn Fein to make Stormont functional again. But Foster pulled the plug when concessions on Irish-language legislation provoked a backlash from Protestant paramilitaries and fraternal organizations, which feared it would lead to job discrimination and Irish street signs in unionist areas.
Such groups, most notably the Orange Order, known for its provocative summer marches, are hard-line, marginal elements within the wider unionist population—and the only people to whom the DUP will not say “no.” Foster has made no attempt to recast the deal since.
Gauging how the DUP will act over Brexit involves balancing Foster’s weakness against her party’s stubborn strength. She seems neither inclined nor able to compromise.
The English political and media establishment at Westminster remains puzzled and appalled by these provincial barbarians inside its gates. It had some understanding of the UUP—mainly how to patronize it— but the DUP is impervious to patrician English handling. Foster’s party simply makes demands and then digs its heels and waits to see what more it is offered.
After last year’s inconclusive election, the British Conservative Party entered discussions with the DUP, clearly believing it could bamboozle Foster’s 10 MPs with a few cabinet seats and other glittering baubles. May’s fixer for the deal even made the mistake of announcing breakthroughs in an effort to bounce the DUP along.
Two weeks after the negotiations began, a bruised May conceded a loose arrangement that left the DUP holding a knife to her throat. She also wrote Northern Ireland a check for $1.3 billion, earmarked for health, roads, and other popular public spending, for Foster to carry home in triumph.
Six months after that, as London and Brussels moved to close the first draft of a Brexit deal, they had to redraft it when the DUP threatened to bring down May’s government—an act of audacity that has loomed over every Brexit negotiation since and now casts a shadow over any final European Union withdrawal treaty. Opinion differs on whether the DUP’s repeated warnings to the Conservatives are a credible threat, but everyone seems to agree it is an incredible situation.
After all, the DUP does not represent Northern Ireland on Brexit; the majority of the province (56 percent) voted to remain in the EU, and the DUP was the only significant party to campaign for departure.
In Northern Ireland’s ancient constitutional quarrel, even Brexit is not enough to sway voter loyalty. The two-party system has continued to squeeze out moderates and increase the influence of the DUP and Sinn Fein, and because the fiercely anti-British Sinn Fein refuses to take its seats at Westminster as a matter of principle, the DUP has been left as the only Northern Irish party there.
Yet Brexit has reopened the debate on a united Ireland and rubbed salt in the wounds of Stormont’s collapse, threatening the unity of the United Kingdom and the devolved governance of Northern Ireland, both supposedly the DUP’s foremost concerns.
The DUP is now holding out for a form of Brexit that will never require new regulatory checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, without specifying how to square the various circles this creates, balancing its Brexit agenda against the economic damage to Northern Ireland as a whole, or acknowledging its responsibility to minimize that damage for everyone in the province.
The EU wants a so-called “backstop” guarantee against a hard land border in Ireland, by implementing a few extra regulatory checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. It believes this offers the province the best of both worlds, maintaining access to the common market while preventing smuggling into the EU via Northern Ireland. But the DUP has become so hung up about creating internal barriers within the United Kingdom that it has denounced it as “the worst of one world”—an unintentionally amusing insight into the DUP psyche.
The party is widely accused of hubris, arrogance, and stupidity. However, these are all rather familiar critiques of leavers by remainers. The real hostility targeted at the DUP has been over its religious conservatism on social issues, particularly its opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion—also minority views in Northern Ireland.
Few in mainland Britain cared to notice this prior to the DUP’s deal with the Conservatives or the referendum this year legalizing abortion in the Republic of Ireland. However, having noticed that Paisley’s evangelical Presbyterianism still defines much DUP policy, this is now portrayed across the British Isles as an exotic outrage and a bigoted relic from the past.
The DUP has had the sense not to impose such views at Westminster, but otherwise it is indifferent to the barrage of disapproval from London and has refused to budge an inch. It evidently does not care about metropolitan opinion.
Some have equated the DUP’s brash, belligerent style to Trumpism, either as an insult or because they genuinely cannot think of any British or Irish parallel. The analogy is more accurate than it first appears. After all, the Scots-Irish of Trump’s electoral heartland are the descendants of Presbyterian Scots from the north of Ireland. But even more than trans-Atlantic blood-and-soil mysticism, a simple Scots-Irish colloquialism may be more illuminating: thran.
Thranness means obstinacy for its own sake, with too much pride to back down, and to be thran is a well-known characteristic in the DUP heartlands.
Reacting this month to a U.K. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Christian bakers in Belfast who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple, one former DUP special advisor tweeted: “All the right people will be annoyed today.” (The tweet has since been deleted.)
That was thran. Liberal England and Ireland have become too pleased with themselves. What red-blooded heart is not gladdened by a kick to the fashionable consensus?
As the United Kingdom waits to see how all this plays out over Brexit, a quote from an earlier stage of DUP-Conservative negotiations is often cited. “This is a battle of who blinks first, and we’ve cut off our eyelids,” a DUP source told the press.
No matter how thran and unblinking the DUP can be, its grievance against new regulatory barriers is only shared by a few die-hard pro-Brexit Conservative MPs and cannot ultimately outweigh the interests ranged against it—the EU, the Republic of Ireland, most of the rest of Northern Ireland, and even, when push comes to shove, the British government. Something has to give, and it will be the DUP.
But it will keep saying “no” in this Brexit staring contest until the decision is made for it.