Neale Richmond: What happens in the North will affect all of us
No matter who takes over as leader of the DUP, North-South relations need engagement on all sides as we get to grips with the impacts of Covid-19 and Brexit
Many people across the island view political unionism, and particularly the Democratic Unionist Party, with various degrees of dislike, confusion and dismissal. Yet what happens in the coming weeks and months within the DUP will impact all of us, whether we like it or not.
For those who engage in the politics of Northern Ireland, it has been clear that political unionism has always been volatile, and the degrees of disagreement have seen many splits and shifts of power within and between parties.
The disruption of recent years, following the ascension of the DUP to the top of the unionist ladder, has many causes, but right at the heart of it is Brexit.
The DUP’s decision to support and campaign for Brexit was no surprise. Although the practicalities did not stack up to any sort of scrutiny, the party fully embraced the British nationalist line of thinking when it gave it scope to pit itself against the other Northern Irish parties who backed Remain to varying degrees.
The much-flagged possible impacts of Brexit on this island, and on the delicate balances that the Good Friday Agreement allows for, were ignored or dismissed by the Leave campaign, including the DUP. The resulting period of negotiations, however, highlighted the various challenges that Brexit, and particularly a hard Brexit, would present.
The fact that for a large part of the negotiation period, the DUP had the direct opportunity to shape the post-Brexit vista as part of a confidence agreement with the Conservative Party but failed to seize that opportunity was truly baffling.
The Northern Irish protocol that emerged as part of the Withdrawal Agreement has been shunned by the DUP and is a key part of its current state of affairs but, ultimately, the DUP is more responsible for its creation than any other political party in Northern Ireland.
Arlene Foster’s time at the helm of the DUP was not an easy one, involving many political and electoral challenges, but her position was artificially stable for a long time due to the vacuums created by Brexit, the collapse of the Executive and lately the pandemic.
Her departure will pique a great deal of interest across the island and many people will look at the DUP baffled by what they class as a party that is either too liberal or too moderate. Indeed, it appears that the DUP may pivot even further to its conservative fringe, believing this is the key to consolidating its position of supremacy within unionism, although any analysis of recent opinion polls sees more voters drifting to the centre ground from the DUP rather than to the likes of Jim Alister’s Traditional Unionist Voice Party.
Crucially for us in the South, this contest is not a distant one, it will impact us too. In the next few months we should see the appointment of a new Northern Ireland First Minister and new DUP ministers; there is a great amount of work that needs be done on a North-South and east-west basis, in terms of reopening society and the economy post-Covid while the legacy of Brexit still looms large.
The protocol will remain in place and, despite some excitable commentary from the British Prime Minister, it is going nowhere. It will need to be implemented and this will need the eventual, if reluctant, engagement of the new DUP leadership.
North-South relations need a huge amount of attention and the willingness is there from the majority. Despite the rhetoric that will emanate from a DUP transfer of power, it is vital that the Irish government and all Irish political parties remain engaged and proactive.