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Northern Ireland's DUP dips post-Brexit

September 13, 2021

Under Ian Paisley Sr., conservative DUP became Northern Ireland's most important loyalist party. But since Brexit, many are turning away, disappointed. DW pays a visit to Ian Paisley Jr. in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley Jr. canvassing in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, just half and hour north of Ballymena
Ian Paisley Jr. canvassing in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, just half and hour north of BallymenaImage: Getty Images/C. McQuillan

Ian Paisley's office in Ballymena, a small town in Northern Ireland, is packed with mementos of the "good old days." There are drawings and caricatures of British gentlemen on the wall, an antique green leather swivel chair for visitors, and a matching, massive Victorian-style desk made of polished wood that was a gift from his father.

Alongside photos of gentlemen and racing, there are a few photos of the famous Ian Paisley Sr. "The fact that my father gave me the same name really helped," the politician told DW, pulling out a framed photo from a stack lined up on the floor — the younger Paisley wearing a skull and crossbones scarf and mounted on a red three-wheeler with Stormont, Northern Ireland's parliament building, in the background. The elder Paisley waves a straw hat from the rear seat.

Ian Paisley Jr., holds up a framed photo
Ian Paisley Jr. presents a photo of himself with his famous fatherImage: David Ehl/DW

In Ballymena and other Protestant-majority Northern Ireland towns, the Presbyterian minister and party founder Ian Paisley Sr., who died in 2014, is revered as a legend.

Left in the cold by London

Under his leadership, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rose to become the leading political force among "unionists" in Northern Ireland; that is, London loyalists with mainly Protestant membership.

Ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, and driven by the idea of strengthening ties with Britain, the DUP urged people to vote "leave."

Brexit, however, has turned out to be a disaster from the unionist point of view. Trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland to the south is flourishing, while goods from Britain have to cross a customs border before they end up in Northern Ireland's stores.

NI entrepreneurs face new challenges

Many Northern Irish blame Boris Johnson's government, which drew the customs border and negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol with the European Union — but they also blame the DUP, which in 2017 propped up Theresa May's minority government but failed to secure a better deal for Northern Ireland.

Questions about supporting her possibly more-advantageous "soft Brexit" plan are "irrelevant," said Paisley, who was and is a member of the House of Commons in London, "because she couldn't get it round her own party."

The DUP turned its back on May in favor of Johnson. But his Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiated during Britain's withdrawal to protect the EU single market, have left many Northern Irish feeling left out in the cold by London.

Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith (left) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive at Stormont in Belfast for talks on July 31, 2019
Flagging support for DUP can be traced back to Boris Johnson's (right) penning of the Northern Ireland ProtocolImage: AFP

Discontent with DUP

People in the former DUP stronghold of Ballymena are bitter. "We are treated by Britain like we are a foreign country," said a 61-year-old who identified herself as Leslie. She put the blame firmly on the DUP.

"What's happening now is that a lot of the people who did vote for the DUP — I'm one of them — are now voting for the TUV," she told DW. The Traditional Unionist Voice, she said, is the only party that stands up for her identity. "I'm British, Northern Irish, and that's what I want to stay."

In a poll last month commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph, support for the DUP slumped to 13%. It is a drastic shift — in the last regional elections in 2019, the DUP was the strongest party, with 31% of the vote. In Stormont, it leads the coalition government with Sinn Fein, the strongest "nationalist" or pro-Irish party.

The Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Northern Ireland conflict in 1998, stipulates that both sides must always be involved in government.

Bloody Sunday victim covered by a cloth in Londonderry
The Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998 — two and a half decades after Bloody Sunday, when 14 Catholic demonstrators were killed by British troopsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/UPI

"Frankly, I don't believe the poll," Paisley said, adding that "the DUP is considerately more popular than the poll would lead you to believe."

Challenge to Northern Ireland Protocol

The party is, however, under massive pressure. In the spring, dissatisfaction with the party's First Minister Arlene Foster erupted in an internal party debate Paisley described as "revolution and counterrevolution."

Jeffrey Donaldson, elected as the party's third leader within just a few weeks, has since tried to stabilize the party and urge it into a more combative mode. The Northern Ireland Protocol was to be the scapegoat.

A few days ago, Donaldson threatened that the DUP would soon abandon the government in Stormont if the protocol were not substantially changed. Presumably, his comments were meant to set the tone for the visit of European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic to Northern Ireland last week. 

Sefcovic tried to deescalate the situation, saying he wanted "a solution that would represent a win-win — victory for all, first and foremost for the people of Northern Ireland."

Maros Sefcovic wearing a face mask, standing under a stone arch and holding some papers in one hand
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said he seeks a 'win-win' situationImage: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/empics/picture alliance

Donaldson's threat is "last-chance saloon stuff for the DUP," according to Jon Tonge, a political scientist at the University of Liverpool. The Irish Times quotes him as saying the DUP "have to throw everything at the protocol to get back that hard-line DUP support."

'DUP has no plan'

Susan McKay, a journalist and author of the book Northern Protestants on Shifting Ground, sees a more fundamental predicament.

"Unionism is floundering," McKay told DW, adding that this is a situation of its own making. "It hasn't a plan for the coming years, whereas Sinn Fen does have a very clear plan — for a united Ireland."

In addition, many younger people reject the DUP's arch-conservative stance on same-sex marriages and abortion.

Back in Ballymena, a young woman fiddling with her cell phone while her daughter played at the playground said she has given up on politics because nothing changes.

An elderly man in a shopping street said he supports the DUP, arguing they are "good, honest people." He said he has never spoken to Ian Paisley Jr. in person. "His father was a good man, but I don't think the son is the same."

Ian Paisley Senior, man pointing to the side
Ian Paisley sen headed the DUP for 37 yearsImage: Paul McErlane/Getty Images

The younger Paisley said, "I don't expect people to vote for me to necessarily like me. But I expect them to love the Union."

The unionist camp cannot afford protest right now but must stand together, he added. Parliamentary elections for Stormont are scheduled for no later than May 2022. Due to a winner-take-all voting system, a fragmented unionist camp facing a strong Sinn Fein could spell a particularly bitter loss for the DUP.

Ian Paisley is confident, yet minces no words: "The only people who can destroy the union and undermine unionism are unionists."

Ballymena, view of houses on a street, people crossing
Ballymena remains a unionist town — for nowImage: David Ehl/DW

This article has been translated from German.