Has 20 Years of DUP leadership made Northern Ireland Better?

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Has 20 Years of DUP leadership made Northern Ireland Better?

on November 26th 2003, The DUP became the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. Mike Nesbitt MLA looks at the impact of their leadership over the last 20 years.

20 years ago, the DUP became the largest party of Unionism in Northern Ireland, returning 30 seats to the Ulster Unionists 27 seats at the Northern Ireland Assembly.  They did so on the back of a campaign that defined the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement as the destruction of the Union, a sell-out and a capitulation. As a broadcast journalist during the 1998 Agreement negotiations and consequent Referendum, I analysed the DUP’s campaign of opposition to the Agreement to be based purely on the painful but necessary transitional arrangements, particularly the early release of prisoners. They were more inclined to silence on the enduring fundamentals of what we negotiated.

Twenty years on from eclipsing my Party, a day seldom passes without the DUP quoting the consent principle enshrined in the Belfast Agreement as the defining reason the Protocol / Windsor Framework has to go. The term “flip flop” barely covers it. But it goes much deeper for me.  Reflecting on the DUP’s rise to power, it seems that every time they have had a big-ticket decision to make, they have got it wrong. I cite their opposition to the 1998 Agreement. Then, how they amended it at St Andrews, remembering that had the DUP stuck with the original rules for electing a First Minister, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would be nominating the FM and Michelle O’Neill would remain as dFM. There followed the Hillsborough accord that devolved justice and policing powers. We opposed those plans. Given the year we have just had, the best I can say is that the jury is out on the efficacy of our criminal justice system. We also opposed the Stormont House legacy deal that the DUP tried to persuade us to support.

Then came Brexit in 2016, and their UK-wide campaign to promote our withdrawal from the European Union, without doubt the most destabilising event in our politics in a generation. We saw it coming. The DUP did not, or worse, did but chose to ignore it. Brexit has energised Nationalism / Republicanism like never before. To add insult to injury, they embraced Boris Johnson when he was Prime Minister. Having attacked us for engaging in an electoral pact with the Conservative Party in 2009 / 2010, they quickly went on to host champagne receptions at Tory Party conferences. Enough said.

Today, they refuse to allow devolution to function, against the advice of elders such as Peter Robinson and, of course, our consistent criticism. Frankly, given the Republican narrative is that Northern Ireland is a failed, ungovernable statelet, why are the DUP playing their tune for them?

The boycott is also in defiance of history. The story of unionist opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement is that people went to jail, unionism alienated friends in Westminster and Whitehall and lost a MP in a self-inflicted by-election defeat. The 1985 Agreement survived, until we negotiated it away in 1998.

Meanwhile, by promoting a reduction in the number of MLAs from 108 to 90, Unionism lost 16 of the 18 seats abolished and has gone from a 51% comfortable majority in the assembly to around 37%. The DUP inspired plan for local government reform sees Belfast City Hall controlled by Sinn Fein with Unionism reduced to a protest movement, the very position the DUP started from with its formation in 1971.

The Ulster Unionist Party has not fared well over the last 20 years, but we have always put the needs of the people before party interests. It was David Trimble and John Hume’s shared sense of the concept of the greater good that drove the 1998 Agreement over the line. It was the easier, albeit successful politics of opposition that changed the dynamics of Unionism 20 years ago. But that has also driven a wedge between pro-Union citizens and their willingness to vote for Unionist parties.

20 years on from the DUP becoming the lead voice of Unionism, it is reasonable and appropriate to reflect if you feel better or worse off for it. As 2023 and the commemorations of the 1998 Agreement draw to their close, I look back at the moments when hope and possibilities rhymed. On that famous 10th of April 1998. Even in 2007 when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness formed that unlikely double act dubbed the Chuckle Brothers – only for Dr Paisley to be toppled by his own. Sometimes during the last 20 years, I have feared Unionism is in grave danger of the same fate.