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Crisis in Northern Irish Unionism Ahead of 2022 Assembly Elections

This is a guest post by Ruairidh Irwin from Scotland. He has earlier written, among others, for VICE, covering the violent crackdown of protests in Belarus and the hardships of the protestors.

The Northern Ireland Assembly elections of May 2022 come at an important juncture in the country’s history. Brexit has upset the carefully managed balance of tensions between nationalist and unionist communities and the developing situation combined with the ability of the UK and EU to negotiate a deal that can ameliorate the anxieties of all sides, will have important ramifications for the future of the six counties.

Unionists are particularly exercised at what they would describe as a betrayal of their staunch commitment to the maintenance of Northern Ireland’s position as an ‘integral’ part of the United Kingdom. Specifically they argue that the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed between the UK and EU, and the Irish Sea trade border, undermines Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market, and acts to bind the country’s trade to that of the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU. This has contributed to a rebellion amongst hard-line loyalists and a fall in support for the traditionally unionist but now considered by some insufficiently so DUP (NI) in favour of parties that are seen to take a stronger unionist position.

The Northern Ireland Protocol

It is impossible to avoid the glaring fact that the creation of a trade border in the Irish Sea has inflamed loyalist sentiment. The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed to prevent checks along the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland border following Brexit.

During UK-EU negotiations, both sides agreed that the protection of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was paramount. This meant avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and staying away from the implementation of infrastructure such as border points and cameras.

When the UK and Ireland were both under EU trade rules it was easy to avoid a hard border as the customs-free single market of the European Union affected both countries. With Brexit, and a new trade regime, an open border became more difficult.

It was agreed that Northern Ireland would still follow EU rules on trading standards, and goods arriving from England, Scotland or Wales would go through customs checks at Northern Irish ports.

Support for such a protocol effectively instituting a border between mainland UK and Northern Ireland is divided sharply along community lines. In a Lucid Talks poll conducted last April, 91% of unionist voters agreed that the protocol should be ‘scrapped’, with only six per cent against that proposition. By contrast, only 12% of Irish nationalist voters agreed that it should be scrapped, with 83% disagreeing.

Crucially, only 22% of Alliance (RE) and Greens (G/EFA) voters, or voters for parties claiming less than 1%, support the scrapping of the protocol, with 67% expressing support.

To loyalists, the trade agreement and the system of customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was an EU coup that sacrificed the integrity of the UK state to the benefit of the Republic of Ireland and nationalists in the six counties.

In September 2021, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP, Doug Beattie of the UUP (ECR), Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice party1TUV, a minor unionist party that split from the DUP in 2007., and Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party2PUP, a minor centre-left unionist party that was founded in 1979. signed a joint declaration opposing the protocol, in which they stated:

We, the undersigned Unionist Political Leaders, affirm our opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, its mechanisms and structures and reaffirm our unalterable position that the Protocol must be rejected and replaced by arrangements which fully respect Northern Ireland’s position as a constituent and integral part of the United Kingdom.’

In the words of TUV East Belfast candidate John Ross ‘The core issue when it comes to the Protocol is constitutional. It leaves Northern Ireland in a foreign single market, subject to foreign laws we do not make and overseen by a foreign court.’

Fragmenting Unionism

Polling would suggest that for the first time ever the Northern Irish First Minister will be a Sinn Fein (LEFT) Member of the Assembly. A Lucid Talk poll published on the 12 November in the Belfast Telegraph showed the nationalist party with a six percentage point lead over the currently ruling Democratic Unionist Party. This is in part due to the fragmentation of the unionist vote.

Much of the support of the recently dominant DUP has gone to rival unionists, and the once marginal Traditional Unionist Voice have seen a sharp increase in support. Indeed, the same polling company had the DUP as the third most supported unionist party, and fourth most supported party overall in a poll published in the Belfast Telegraph on the 28th of August. The party fell to just 13%, behind the UUP on 16% and the TUV on 14%. The TUV, who won only a little over three per cent of the vote at the last elections to Stormont, sit on around 11% in current polling.

Interestingly, the DUP, which once rose to prominence as a more hard-line unionist alternative to the older Ulster Unionist Party, now finds itself at the sharp end of a populist insurgency by the TUV.

The DUP’s ultimate support for the UK-EU trade agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, has been important in its haemorrhaging of votes. After two years of saying that a border down the Irish Sea was ‘a blood red’ red line, even scuppering Theresa May’s (Con~ ECR) agreement, the party ultimately backed the repackaged deal under the Conservative Party’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Con~ ECR).

Nonetheless, current polling figures are expected to narrow as hard-line unionists weigh up their own disillusionment at the perceived deficiencies of the DUP hierarchy against the emesis—inducing (in their eyes the very revolting) possibility of a Sinn Fein led Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly. The House on the Hill was for many years seen as the bastion of unionist and protestant power in the north. Whilst much has changed over decades of nationalist and catholic enfranchisement and the era-defining Good Friday Agreement of 1999, the sight of a Sinn Fein First Minister at the parliament of Carson and Paisley would be a totemic moment in history.

The DUP are relying to some extent on the following question: is it really worth having the nationalists in the hot seat for what is essentially a protest vote? By contrast, the TUV rely on the idea that DUP insouciance in the face of a ‘United Ireland by stealth’ is tantamount to nationalist hegemony anyway, and that the unionist hierarchy—and sympathetic politicians at Westminster—must be sent a message. And the more radical position of the latter idea is gaining traction at the expense of the first.

Increasing Tension

British Unionism is at an important and historic juncture by any standards, but it is the genuine anger felt by a new, younger generation of loyalists that will have particularly important implications for the country’s future.

A generation has grown up without direct experience of the violence of the past. Established opinion dictated that this generation would be less concerned with issues of identity and Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. One time Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble’s 1998 comments during his speech on receiving a Nobel Peace Prize captured much of the sentiment of the last two decades ‘There are two traditions in Northern Ireland. There are two main religious denominations. But there is only one true moral denomination. And it wants peace.’

To hardcore loyalists, the protocol is not a one-off issue, but the culmination of years of perceived betrayal of their principles and beliefs. This sense of betrayal can be traced to issues as long ago as the dissolution of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—a local police force—in 2001 as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Or to as recent events as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) refusing to prosecute mourners at the funeral of IRA intelligence officer Bobby Storey at the height of COVID-19 restrictions. There is a sense that unionists are ‘losing’, constantly ceding ground to an increasingly emboldened nationalist community. Whether or not this is true is an issue of its own—Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland have their own grievances and points of contention—but it is a view deeply held by many, and one with significant political weight.

It is important to treat the subject of violence cautiously, but recent flashpoints have shown a younger generation willing to engage in rioting or worse. In April, rioting at a Peace Wall in West Belfast linked to anti-protocol protests was described as some of the worst that had been seen in years, and the presence of older-heads dictating the actions of the young was noted by many. In early November a bus was hijacked and set on fire on the outskirts of Belfast by a group of young men in balaclavas. In April a bus was firebombed by loyalists on the Shankhill Road.

One thing is clear: the vast majority, including amongst hardliners, are against violence, and the idea of a return to the reality preceding the Good Friday Agreement is out of the question. According to Jim Sheridan, ex leader of the PSNI:

‘There’s tension, there’s anger, but we shouldn’t read into that that it means automatically there is violence. In fact, I know by talking to many people in the unionist community and many people in paramilitary organisations in the unionist community, that’s not where their thinking is’.

Nonetheless, an increase in tension at an important point in Northern Ireland’s constitutional history is a notable development.


The Northern Irish Assembly Elections of spring 2022 will take place in a unique political scenario. The finely balanced political settlement, organised as part of the Good Friday Agreement, has experienced its biggest test to date in the form of Brexit. Northern Ireland’s unique position as the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU has resulted in constitutional wrangling that has had unavoidable economic and political consequences. Paradoxically, it is the community that most strongly backed Brexit—the loyalist community—that has lost most from the political arrangement agreed by the UK and EU. Their perceived betrayal, first by the UK Government, and then by the DUP, has caused a crisis in unionism, with an increase in support for the more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice. Worryingly, there has been a flare in violence, even amongst a younger generation with no direct experience of the hardship of the Troubles. Counterintuitively, the fragmentation of the unionist vote could see a Sinn Fein First Minister for the first time in the history of the province.

Much will hinge on the ability of the EU and UK to come to an agreement in their renewed negotiations over the trade agreement. With the UK’s lead negotiator Lord Frost recently resigning, that prospect is looking increasingly distant. Flying into Belfast in April 1998 to bolster Good Friday Agreement negotiations that looked on the verge of collapse, Tony Blair commented that he felt ‘the hand of history on our shoulders’. In the halls of Whitehall, the grand corridors of Stormont, and the chambers of Brussels, the hand of history can be felt yet again. Come May 2022, that hand could deliver a cruel blow to the DUP, and usher in a new era of unionist politics in Northern Ireland.