Drums, flutes and the tramp of marching feet resounded across Northern Ireland last week in the latest round of protests against the protocol which imposes checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea as part of the Brexit deal. On Thursday, they paraded in Castlederg, on Friday in east and north Belfast, and on Saturday night they were due in Derry, columns of loyalist order bands, unionist politicians, activists and citizens, marching behind union jacks proclaiming their Britishness.
Such parades begin before dusk and climax with speeches as night falls, as if to match warnings of creeping political oblivion. Northern Ireland will hold an election for the Stormont assembly on 5 May, which many marchers consider a proxy battle not just for the protocol but Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. They fear the state’s existence, and with it their culture and identity, is in jeopardy. Promises from Downing Street last week to “reform” the protocol and delay border checks did not assuage unease – unionists feel they have heard it before.
If polls are accurate Sinn Féin will emerge as the biggest party, positioning Michelle O’Neill to become first minister and the region’s first nationalist leader. For the protesters this will be an unprecedented affront that could further grease the slide into a united Ireland. Sinn Féin, after all, seeks to dissolve Northern Ireland. The party shuns even its name, instead referring to “the north”. The demographics fuel unionist anxiety; Catholics are expected to soon outnumber Protestants.
Defiance pervades the protests, which have rumbled for a year. One of the biggest was held this month in Lurgan, County Armagh. Billed as a show of strength with invitations to 60 bands and more than 10,000 participants, the marchers tramped down roads with royal names typical of towns founded by Protestant settlers in the 17th century.
“We’re still under European rule and we’re British citizens,” said Andrew Hamill, in a bowler hat and sash, as drums began to pound. “It’s the slippery slope to a united Ireland. Anything is possible.” Scott Wilkinson, 25, bedecked in badges commemorating Ulster regiments in the first world war, said Boris Johnson’s government had betrayed their sacrifice. “It’s like the middle finger to them. They fought so we could be as one.” England, he said, seemed to not care about unionists. “They’re trying to say goodbye to us even though we want to be part of them. It’s very upsetting.”
As speakers mounted the podium, temperatures dropped close to freezing. The audience stamped feet for warmth. “Our demand is simple, we want full and equal citizenship within our own country, something that has been denied to us by this protocol,” Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) leader and MP, told the crowd. “Until the protocol is removed we will not see a functioning executive at Stormont because democracy must prevail.”
Jim Allister, the gravel-voiced leader of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a small, rightwing rival to the DUP, said Northern Ireland was marooned from the rest of the UK. “The choice is simple, we either kill the protocol or it kills the union,” he said. Jamie Bryson, a young loyalist firebrand, called the protocol “a devil’s pit”. Roy Ferguson, president of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, invoked the 1689 siege of Derry when Protestants repelled the Catholic forces of King James II. “To preserve our faith, to preserve our culture, to preserve our heritage, we must win this battle,” he thundered. “The blood of our forefathers still flows in the veins of the Ulster Protestant today.” Ferguson surveyed the crowd and jabbed a finger. “This evening the people of Ulster, the grassroots Protestants, have spoken!”
The assertion hung in the night air, hollow and ridiculous. The Protestants of Lurgan and the rest of Northern Ireland had indeed spoken, eloquently, by not turning up. Perhaps 1,000 people stood before Ferguson, a small fraction of the envisaged 10,000, and even that would have been a feeble echo of the flag protests a decade ago and the vaster throngs that protested against the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement. The Lurgan event might have passed largely unnoticed except for a controversy over a noose drawn on a poster of the Ulster Unionist party leader, Doug Beattie, who boycotts such rallies, deeming them irresponsible rabble-rousing.
Rallies like this have become a familiar ritual, usually drawing between a few dozen and a few hundred people. This does not stop podium orators proclaiming mobilisation and momentum, as if rhetoric alone could conjure multitudes. Their absence reflects a curious phenomenon unfolding within unionism.
Northern Ireland is on the cusp of an election with potentially momentous implications for the protocol, power-sharing and the Good Friday agreement. Yet jeremiads about the imperilled union draw only paltry crowds. Two realities are playing out simultaneously. Those virulently opposed to the protocol have kept the issue centre-stage with denunciations and, in some cases, threats of violence. Last month an Ulster Volunteer Force bomb hoax forced the evacuation of Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, from an event in Belfast. The Ulster Defence Association, another paramilitary group, said it, too, will target the Irish government. The countdown to a possible Sinn Féin election breakthrough underscores a perception of Northern Ireland unionists as a lost tribe adrift from history, much like Algeria’s pieds-noirs French settlers.
This evocative narrative ignores the fact that most pro-union people in Northern Ireland are not marching or suffering existential angst. They may not want the protocol or a united Ireland but neither issue keeps them awake at night. In surveys they express a desire for a stable, functional society and wish their politicians would stop banging on about constitutional issues. They may chafe if O’Neill becomes first minister but are confident Northern Ireland will remain in the UK for the foreseeable future.
This sentiment came across forcefully in interviews with moderate pro-union voices from different backgrounds. For all the convulsions in unionist politics, they said, the union feels solid. The protocol continues to cause headaches for some companies but ordinary people no longer see the shortages and empty shelves of a year ago, said Linda Ervine, who manages the Turas Irish language project in east Belfast, which is attended mainly by Protestants. “People are just getting on with their lives. Nothing terrible has happened. We’re being told continuously that we’re being shoved into a united Ireland, that we’re losing our identity, but we look around and we’re not really seeing it.”
James Wilson, a County Derry-based researcher and historian who served in the British army, agreed. “The average punter in Northern Ireland doesn’t see the manifestation of the protocol.” Farmers and business owners were quietly adapting to the protocol’s pros and cons, while ducking out of the region’s polarising politics, he said. “The protocol is a process to be worked at. Where there’s a will there’s a way.” A recent Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool/Irish News opinion poll found that unionist voters ranked the economy and health care as priorities ahead of the protocol.
They can focus on bread-and-butter issues because a referendum on a united Ireland, let alone a vote in favour, seems beyond the horizon. Brexit has not produced a clamour to end partition. The same poll found that just 33.4% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for unification within 15 years. That support fell to a quarter if a united Ireland meant higher taxes or paying for healthcare. This hard-nosed caveat deterred even a fifth of Sinn Féin voters.
The poll found that three-quarters of people wanted the next Stormont executive to prioritise jobs, health and welfare over constitutional issues. People are not waking up thinking about Irish unity, O’Neill conceded. Sinn Féin has duly muted its demands for a border poll and focused on the cost of living and healthcare.
The same poll gave Sinn Féin 27% of first preference votes, well ahead of the DUP on 20%. The centrist Alliance, which shuns orange and green labels, was third on 11%. Smaller nationalist and unionist parties accounted for most of the rest. “We have this weird situation where votes for unionist parties are going down but support for the union is stable,” said Peter Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies. Conversely, Sinn Féin may make a symbolic electoral breakthrough amid tepid support for a united Ireland.
There is a disconnect between unionists and unionist parties. Most pro-union voters favour marriage equality and abortion rights, while unionist parties are more socially conservative, said Shirlow. Fewer now seem willing to hold their nose and vote DUP to keep out Sinn Féin, even if that means getting O’Neill as first minister. They have lost some fear of the republican bogeyman and know that under power-sharing the first minister has identical power to the deputy first minister, a post O’Neill held before, so her elevation would be purely symbolic.
Ian Marshall, an Ulster Unionist candidate in County Tyrone who served in the Irish Senate, said a functional executive would help secure the union, no matter who was first minister. “People who are pragmatic and who believe Northern Ireland must work will just get on with it. When you’re a democrat you can’t pick and choose. If that’s the will of the people, that’s the will of the people.”
But this is Northern Ireland. A growing desire to put solution-oriented governance ahead of the constitutional question does not signal an imminent outbreak of political normality. In fact, that desire is likely to get shredded in the buzz-saw of zero-sum tribalism. Most people will still vote for parties that are orange or green, and those parties’ leaders tend to drive power-sharing into a ditch, most recently in February, when the DUP withdrew.
The 1998 Good Friday agreement locked nationalist and unionist parties into a loveless marriage at Stormont. The DUP and Sinn Féin, in particular, have made a habit of brinkmanship and grandstanding until they find it convenient to walk out, toppling the institutions until negotiating more favourable terms to return. The resulting vacuums have made Stormont synonymous with dysfunction and unaccountability.
After votes are counted on 6 May, power-sharing may yet again freeze up. Donaldson has refused to say if the DUP would serve in an executive with a Sinn Féin first minister, raising the spectre of a stalemate that could cripple Stormont indefinitely, requiring direct rule from London. “It’s part of the process of emerging from a long, bitter conflict,” said Wilson, the historian. “We’re not yet a post-conflict society, we’re getting there. You have these jagged edges, it’s not a smooth transition.”
Instead of the doom-laden visions of a “devil’s pit”, or the shiny hopes of a non-sectarian society, Northern Ireland seems poised to bumble on through its strange limbo, not British enough for some, not Irish enough for others, its eventual destination unclear. It’s messy and unedifying and a damn sight better than the awfulness known as the Troubles.
Key moments in Northern Ireland unionism
1 Unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant militia, in the north of Ireland in 1913 to oppose the British government’s promise of self-government for the whole of Ireland.
2 In 1916 the 36th (Ulster) division fought heroically at the Battle of the Somme, earning a place in folklore as embodiments of sacrifice and loyalty to the crown.
3 The Government of Ireland Act 1920 partitioned Ireland. Six north-eastern counties, with an overall Protestant majority, remained in the UK as Northern Ireland. The 26 southern counties eventually became an independent Irish republic.
4 In January 1969 loyalists and RUC officers ambushed and beat civil rights marchers outside Derry, exposing entrenched state sectarianism. The Troubles soon flared.
5 In May 1974 unionist leaders and paramilitaries led a general strike that torpedoed the Sunningdale Agreement’s attempt to create power-sharing with nationalists.
6 In 1985 DUP leader Ian Paisley led massive protests against the Anglo-Irish agreement, which gave the Irish government a role in Northern Ireland. Margaret Thatcher faced down the protests.
7 On 13 October 1994 loyalist paramilitary groups announced a ceasefire, ending a sectarian murder campaign that had killed hundreds of Catholics.
8 In July 1995 Orange Order marchers clashed with police at Drumcree, a test of strength the police eventually won.
9 In 1998 the Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble persuaded most unionists to back the Good Friday Agreement.
10 In May 2007 Ian Paisley led the DUP into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin.
11 March 2021 loyalist paramilitary groups renounced support for the Good Friday Agreement in protest at the Irish Sea border imposed under the terms of the Brexit deal protocol.