Think South, move South, rule South! The DUP can give Messrs Varadkar and Coveney a political bloody nose by unveiling plans to organise and contest elections in the Republic, maintains controversial commentator, Dr John Coulter, in his latest Fearless Flying Column – but does the DUP have the political guts to take such a forward-thinking step?
The long winter of late 1985, early 1986 brings back numerous memories of tramping the streets and roads of Ulster in the cold and rain as I reported on the supposedly united Unionist campaign against the hated Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Thatcher and FitzGerald.
That November 1985 Dublin Diktat gave the South its first effective say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s. It allowed Dublin to set up the notorious Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast and proved that the Republic could finally outwit Unionism when it came to the numbers game and street protests.
London and Dublin had both learned from the Sunningdale fiasco of 1973/74, when the Ulster Workers’ Council strike not only brought hundreds of thousands of Protestants onto the streets in a show of strength not seen the Home Rule crisis of the early 20th century, but also brought power-sharing to a crashing halt. It’s just a pity Unionism did not have a workable alternative to put in place rather than dancing around the streets.
And what was that lesson? Simple, if Unionists don’t like something, they get out their flags, bands and banners and go marching! So when Thatcher betrayed Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux and signed the 1985 Agreement, Unionists reacted with their typical Ulster Says No activities, which soon became the Ulster Still Says No parades.
What Unionism failed to note was that while nationalists were cock-a-hoop Dublin had a say in running Northern Ireland via Maryfield, Unionists were so busy organising parades and setting up groups such as the Ulster Clubs and Ulster Resistance, they failed to notice the Agreement’s crucial Achilles Heel – the accord gave Northern Unionists the right to poke their noses into the running of Southern affairs.
In 1985, Unionists were quite content to argue that they didn’t want to meddle in the internal affairs of a foreign state in the forlorn hope that nationalists would abandon the Maryfield project. Instead, nationalists realised that a say in running Northern Ireland could be dressed up in the language of political ambiguity under the banner of so-called mutual cross-border co-operation.
The essential problems which Unionists faced were a decreasing Protestant population in the Republic, and an existing Southern Protestant population which was quite content to integrate itself into the Republic’s political structures. Unlike Northern nationalists who looked to Dublin for support, Southern Protestants did not look as equally adamantly to Northern Ireland-based Unionist parties for political comfort.
Indeed, if developments in the island’s largest Protestant denomination, the Church of Ireland, over same-sex marriage are taken as a benchmark, Southern Protestant liberalism could well play a major role in undermining the Union.
Countering this view are the statistics that the Southern Protestant population is on the rise again. The key question is, how significant will the Protestant Loyal Orders be – especially in the border counties of Donegal, Monaghan, Cavan and Leitrim – in developing this new Southern Protestant identity?
At one time, particularly in 2013, I had high hopes that the newly formed NI21 party, which was essentially a liberal Unionist movement, could consider forming a Republic-based operation known as SI21 as an all-island movement for Ireland’s pro-Union community. But as we all know now, NI21 crashed and burned politically!
So what could be Unionism’s Plan B to combat Simon Coveney’s sabre rattling over a potential way forward for Northern Ireland in the face of a lack of devolved structures? Coveney’s scheme to use the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to bring about some form of convoluted joint authority of Northern Ireland by Dublin and London makes sense from a Southern nationalist perspective. It could also be dismissed as Southern politicians wanting to fend off the threat from Sinn Fein in the next Dail general election.
But Southern sabre rattling could well backfire and stab the Republic in the political jugular vein. What happens if the DUP has the nerve to call Coveney’s bluff and demand that Unionists have a say in the running of the Republic?
Don’t forget, the DUP is in a cosy relationship with the Tories. If Direct Rule is restored formally during 2018, what’s to stop Theresa May – or whoever succeeds her as Tory boss – agreeing to staff the Northern Ireland Office with Northern Ireland MPs or Hard Brexit Conservative MPs? We can rule out Sinn Fein as it still refuses to take its Commons seats.
Now let’s apply Coveney’s Intergovernmental Conference scenario. Does the foreign minister of the Irish Republic really want DUP Ministers and Right-wing Tories sitting across from him telling him how he should run his country?
To make matters worse, what if the DUP decides to run candidates in the next Southern General Election in the border counties? If the Loyal Orders in the Republic can mobilise their votes, could we see a handful of DUP TDs returned to Leinster House? Perhaps enough to keep Varadkar retain his post as Taoiseach?
The late Rev Ian Paisley and the late Martin McGuinness once ran the successful power-sharing Executive at Stormont; so why can’t a Fine Gael/DUP coalition also work in Leinster House? In his RTE interview, Minister Coveney warned about the dangers of “a very frosty environment”. Something tells me he was not counting on the DUP calling his bluff.
Just as Northern Unionists relied heavily on the ‘Not An Inch’ mentality of Northern Ireland’s Protestant community in dealing with the Irish Republic, so too have Southern nationalists relied on Unionists saying ‘Bog Off’ to any scheme smacking of joint authority.
But what if Unionists did call the Southern bluff for a change and ended up, post Brexit, with the Occupied Twenty-Six Counties back in a New Union of the British Isles as a result of a new Anglo-Irish Treaty?
Just as the British outwitted the Irish delegation in 1920, a DUP/Tory delegation could do the same in 2020.
John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist.
Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Dr Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.