Owen Polley: Unionism needs leaders who set the agenda

There has been a glaring lack of urgency regarding the Irish Sea border, given the seriousness of the damage done to the Union. For example, it’s difficult to determine exactly how the DUP strategy for getting rid of the protocol has changed since Arlene Foster left.

The latest poll on voting intentions suggests its support fell by three points, to 13%, behind both unionists in Ulster (16%) and the TUV (14%).

The investigation was conducted by LucidTalk, whose methods were recently questioned by the News Letter and Stephen Nolan of Radio Ulster. The popularity of DUP, however, has declined compared to surveys conducted by the same company, which used the same techniques.

And the results are consistent with anecdotal evidence that trade unionists are disillusioned with the party.

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Since the plot to oust Arlene Foster as leader, the divisions of the DUP have played out publicly.

This psychodrama was something like Game of Thrones meets Fawlty Towers – a mixture of political cruelty and high farce. But while the spectacle was improper, that is not the main reason for the party’s current woes.

Put simply, Unionist voters are not convinced the DUP has a plan to effectively oppose the Northern Ireland protocol.

When the party got rid of Arlene Foster in April, his anemic response at the Irish Sea border was apparently an important part of his thinking.

Edwin Poots threatened to take a more rigorous approach, especially when it came to north-south meetings, but it quickly became apparent that little had changed under his leadership.

He was replaced at breakneck speed by Jeffrey Donaldson.

At the time, sources close to the new leader said: “He will not demand any trade barriers and will demand full respect for the Act of Union or he will withdraw the DUP from the Assembly.”

This commitment seemed stubborn and unambiguous, compared to Poots’ capitulation to Sinn Fein when he threatened to collapse Stormont after Paul Givan was appointed prime minister.

Yet two months after Sir Jeffrey’s leadership began, the DUP continues to attend North-South meetings and when the assembly returns it is likely to work as usual. Indeed, it is difficult to determine exactly how the party’s strategy for getting rid of protocol has changed since Foster left.

The DUP and, in fairness, the UUP as well, have been relatively quiet in their criticisms of the protocol over the summer. Much of the task of speaking out has been left to the TUV and loyalist protesters.

Donaldson praised the government’s “command document,” which suggested solutions to alleviate some of the worst aspects of the maritime border. But there was a glaring lack of urgency, given the seriousness of the damage caused by the Protocol to the Union.

Poots and Donaldson may represent different factions of the DUP, but neither man has truly given the party a fresh start. They had both been senior party officials in many of its missteps.

Under Poots’ leadership, he was in charge of an agriculture department that implemented aspects of the protocol even as he voiced opposition to its provisions. Donaldson is closely associated with the DUP’s handling of the “legacy” negotiations.

For many trade unionists, the Stormont House agreement and its arrangements to deal with the past were at the heart of their disenchantment with the party.

In addition, Sir Jeffrey was deeply involved in the DUP’s relations with the Tories in Westminster.

His party was well positioned to capitalize when it held the balance of power in the House of Commons, after the 2017 general election rendered a parliament without a majority. But rather than forging an important role for Northern Ireland MPs at the heart of government and strengthening the province’s place in the UK, its relationship with the Tories ended with a border separating Northern Ireland from rest of the country economically and politically.

In the aftermath of the LucidTalk poll, some commentators asked if Donaldson was still speaking out for broader unionism. The DUP raised its voice and voiced many union concerns, but its representatives failed to set the agenda on a growing list of issues and seemed inclined to distract public attention from the most important issues. .

This week’s South Armagh Police Review of the PSNI bluntly served as a reminder that one of the primary goals of policing and justice in Northern Ireland is to keep Republicans happy and engaged. Trade unionists are also represented on the police council, of course, but they are either ignored or their representations are ineffective. The same could be said about the genesis of the protocol and other issues when the interests of trade unionism always seem to be at the back of the pack.

For several years, trade unionists have expressed their disillusionment with their current leaders and the lack of progress in Stormont. They are now considering different options and that can only be a healthy development.

The UUP hopes to win voters by articulating modern social attitudes and creating a more accessible image. The TUV has afforded the luxury of acting as an opposition and criticizing the failures of Stormont and the executive unionist parties.

The test will be whether one or the other can begin to put the interests of unionism at the heart of the political agenda in a way that the DUP has failed to do.

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