There is a symmetrical irony in that Northern Ireland’s 100th anniversary, far from being an occasion of unionist celebration, should see its dominant party in a state of turmoil. In three days’ time, the DUP will meet to elect a new leader, whose task it will be to save a party that is adrift, rudderless and floundering in deep waters.
Northern Ireland was founded as a state where a numerical majority would enjoy permanent domination. The political structure would be locked in a permafrost where one side would enjoy perpetual supremacy, and the other would endure perpetual suppression.
And so it remained for three quarters of its existence, when brute force and a big stick ensured that jobs, housing , education and social benefits were reserved for one side and, where necessary, electoral boundaries could be gerrymandered to that end.
Arlene Foster’s departure marks the end of a leadership that highlighted both the sheer ineptitude of the DUP as a credible force in politics, and the intransigence of the tribe that it was her ill-luck to lead.
If the Brexit protocol is indeed the issue on which she fell on her sword, then the party has only itself to blame. Intoxicated by the giddy feeling of briefly holding the balance of power at Westminster, the party overplayed its hand.
Rejecting Theresa May’s plan for a soft Brexit, which would have avoided a sea border, the DUP fell for the blandishments of Boris Johnson, who famously told them that a border down the Irish Sea would be ‘over my dead body’. Within three months, he had reneged on his word, cutting the DUP loose and, by effectively leaving Northern Ireland in the EU, advancing the cause of Irish unity more effectively than Sinn Féin could ever have done.
The Irish Sea border has separated the North from the rest of the UK in economic terms. The more realistic unionists can see it for what it is – the first step on the road to unity. Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) regards it as creeping unification, just as political union in Europe began with economic union.
Letting the DUP play with the matches at Westminster has come at a huge price for the unionists of the North, but time and demographic changes have also melted the ice on which the permafrost state was founded.
When Sinn Féin becomes the dominant party on both parts of this island, it will be in that party’s gift to decide how and when the final push will be made for national unity. Already the way is being prepared. Academic studies are being published to show that the economic costs of a united Ireland will not be as great as first feared. They say little, so far, of the social and security consequences of absorbing a million resentful loyalists into a new Ireland.
The loyalists of northern Ireland have good right to feel betrayed by the motherland whose warmth and security they yearn for. But to live by the delusion that they are part of the great family of empire can lead only to tears.
To most mainland Britons, Northern Ireland is an oddity, a pebble in the shoe, an unknowable entity about which they have no desire to learn more. It is a boil they would gladly lance. The perfidy of Boris Johnson is but one manifestation of how little London regards the links with Northern Ireland.
A hundred years ago, the wily Lord Carson, whose bronze statue dominates the approach to Stormont, bemoaned in the House of Lords that Ulster ‘has stuck too well to you, and you believe that because she is loyal, you can kick her as you like’.
His incisive comment could find resonance in the Ulster of today.