Observations of an ex pat: The Northern Irish Tail Wagging the British Lion

The British government, the Brexit process and parliament are being held to ransom by ten MPs who represent a narrow sectarian community who since the 17th century have used every dirty trick imaginable to cling to their precarious political perch in Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) could care less about the rest of Britain. In fact, they don’t even consider the majority of the Northern Ireland electorate, who voted to remain in the EU.

Every political decision that they make is judged through the prism of the Protestant Ascendancy and political separation from Catholic Southern Ireland.  That is best achieved through the tightest possible links with mainland Britain on the other side of the Irish Sea.  The EU—and specifically Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement—threatens those links.

The tale is an old one. The English have been in and out of Ireland since Norman times, but in the 17th century the battle for dominance in Ireland was injected with an incurable religious virus.  England broke with Rome and Ireland remained steadfastly loyal to the Vatican. Protestant England now had a God-given right to conquer Ireland and the Catholic Irish didn’t help by supporting anyone who opposed the Protestant cause in England and Scotland. After a series of successive military victories, the English concluded that the best way to maintain political power in their troublesome Catholic neighbour was to kick Catholics off their land and give it to Protestant settlers.

Fast forward to the twentieth century. The Catholic Irish have persuaded London to let them break from Great Britain and establish the Irish Free State—except for the Protestant-dominated Ulster Plantation. The Protestant majority in the six counties arm themselves and threaten a civil war if they are broken away from the United Kingdom .  Westminster responds by splitting the country—two thirds becomes the Irish Free State and the northern third remains in the United Kingdom.

Northern and southern Catholics were seriously unhappy. The Protestants concluded that the only way to insure that they remained part of the United Kingdom was to politically and economically oppress the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland The result:  The Catholic minority—led by Sinn Fein and the IRA—eventually revolted. The Troubles began in 1969 and cost 3,500 lives. They ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which established political power sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein to govern the province. It also created a vague promise of the possibility of a united Ireland at some indeterminate date in the dim and distant future when both sides had learned to set aside centuries of hate and mistrust.

Peace settled on Northern Ireland. But there was an unhappy faction in the DUP. They disliked the vague promise of unification and set out to undermine it. That faction is now led by party leader Arlene Foster, and she sees Brexit as both a threat and opportunity in the battle to keep Northern Ireland tied to mainland Britain.

Neither Westminster, the Dublin government, Sinn Fein or the rest of Europe, want to see a return to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. That is why they are united in their opposition to a hard border between the northern and southern halves of Ireland. A hard border, they argue, would negate the vague promise of eventual reunification which keeps Irish Catholic hopes alive.  Denial of that hope threatens to drive them back to violence. Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Bill not only keeps the border open, it opens the possibility of moving even faster towards unification—anathema to the DUP.

Since the 2017 general election May’s government has depended on the DUP to stay in power. It is a pact which the prime minister must seriously regret as the DUP has blocked—and will continue to block—her EU Withdrawal Bill. Ten far-right MPs representing a sectarian group based on centuries of religious prejudice have become the tail that wags the British lion.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Becket 29th Mar '19 - 9:20am

    @ Tom Arms

    You are correct in your summation of the DUP and the problems they create, Foster is possibly the most hardline leader they have had.
    However they are only half of the obstacle. If Sinn Fein would take their seven seats in Westminster the chances of a solution leading to a hard border in Northern Ireland would be much reduced. Sinn Fein are as bad as the DUP, using a historic irrelevant argument for failing to represent their electorate at this critical moment. Neither the DUP or Sinn Fein are giving any consideration to the wishes of the Northern Irish electorate. We would be better off walking away and letting them get on with it.

  • Peter Martin 29th Mar '19 - 9:49am

    Sein Fein used, at one time, to be against EU membership too. They knew that membership of the EU wasn’t compatible with the concept of a fully free Ireland. They seem to now not understand what they previously did understand.

    They now take the position that its better to have all 32 counties under the control of Brussels than just 6 counties under the control of London!

  • Richard Underhill 29th Mar '19 - 10:18am

    “The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) could care less about the rest of Britain.”
    Did you mean “Not”?
    Please include the non-violent mainly Catholic SDLP, whose previous leader,
    John Hume, MP, MEP played an important role in bringing Sinn Fein-IRA to the negotiations which became the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
    John Hume’s own health suffered.
    Speaking in London he said that the most northerly part of the island is in the Republic.

  • Arlene Foster has explicitly said she is happy with a border in Ireland because that is better than any kind of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. She said this again this week, showing she is willing to risk more troubles. Police in N.I have this week pointed to evidence of groups getting ready to engage in violence and she does not care about that.
    David Becket is right about Sinn Fein, who given the chance would start campaigning for a United Ireland again, since they are based on nationalism. The SNP have taken a more pragmatic approach by representing their people in London. What lies at the bottom of the politics of national identity is the lack of a consensus that it is possible to protect your identity to a large extent while having close agreements to work with neighbouring nations. The problem also lies in the fact that such close agreements risk moving to more than one identity and some people are totally opposed to that. Arlene Foster is one of those and the agreement Teresa May made with the DUP was never in the interests of the UK in spite of Arlene being a hard unionist. Union depends on consent of people and flexibility when circumstances change, not hard line politics.

  • Joseph Bourke 29th Mar '19 - 12:05pm


    The two main political parties to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Other parties involved in reaching agreement included Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party and the Progressive Unionist Party. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which later became the largest unionist party, did not support the Agreement. It walked out of talks when Sinn Féin and loyalist parties joined, because republican and loyalist paramilitary weapons had not been decommissioned.
    The NI Assesmby is elected by proportional representation but lagely reflects the voting patterns in the FPTP Parliamentary elections. In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the polarisation of Northern Ireland politics led to the hardline DUP and Sinn Féin making dramatic gains at the expense of the moderate UUP and SDLP, while the cross-community Alliance party’s share of the vote fell away. In 2005, the hardline DUP and Sinn Féin continued to make dramatic gains at the expense of the moderate UUP and SDLP. By 2010, The UUP were left with no Westminster seats for the first time since the party was formed in 1905 and by 2017 the SDLP were left without any Westminster seats for the first time since the party was formed in 1970.
    It is this polarisation that has led to the suspension of the Stormont Assembly and brought the DUP to a pivotal position in the Brexit negoatiations.
    I have long been of the view that is should have been the Libdems in this position as the supply and confidence partner to the government since 2017 on the basis that any Brexit deal would be put to a referendum before enactment. Teresa May’s deal would very likely not have had a backstop, but rather a border down the Irish sea with Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and single market.
    With the Libdem leader marshalling the social democrat wing of the Labour party and the one nation conservatives (that understand and appreciate the harm that Brexit can do) in a remain campaign, there would in my view have been a good prospect of a remain vote in the refererendum and a revocation of article 50.

  • David Becket 29th Mar '19 - 12:20pm

    A border down the Irish Sea would be better than crashing out with no deal

  • Paul Bishop 29th Mar '19 - 5:33pm

    “Sinn Fein are as bad as the DUP, using a historic irrelevant argument for failing to represent their electorate at this critical moment. Neither the DUP or Sinn Fein are giving any consideration to the wishes of the Northern Irish electorate”

    What so many people are ignoring is that the people who voted for Sinn Fein have told them explicitly not to take their seats in Westminster. If those voters wanted a Nationalists party to represent them in Westminster then they would have voted for the SDLP. Whatever you say about the DUP you cannot say that Sinn Fein are not giving any consideration to the wishes of the NI electorate.

  • David Becket 29th Mar '19 - 7:04pm

    @ Paul
    And by the same criteria if those who voted for the DUP had wanted a reasonable pragmatic party to represent them they would have voted for the UU. We would then have Stormont working and a joint Brexit voice for NI.

  • Denis Loretto 30th Mar '19 - 12:51am

    The irony is that the DUP’s actions in supporting Brexit in a part of the UK which has overwhelmingly benefited from EU membership (perhaps because they draw dark conclusions from the title of the founding Treaty of Rome ??) are likely to increase the prospects of Irish unity. One of the beneficial effects of the Good Friday Agreement was the likely softening of the traditional aspiration of Catholics for leaving the UK, as they at last gained genuine equality and recognition of their Irish identity within Northern Ireland. If and when brexit comes to pass and especially if this entails a hard border, not only will the nationalism of Catholics be rekindled but also quite a few moderate Protestants may well for the first time contemplate throwing in their lot with the new forward-looking Ireland, proudly retaining its EU membership. Watch this space!

  • You don’t help to solve the problems of others by taking sides, and deciding who are good and who are bad. Some at least of the reasons for the lack of support for a identifiable border between the republic and the North are clear. People want to go about their lives without being checked on and having to queue to pass along a road. No doubt there are the same feelings from people living near the national borders. Unfortunately after the Good Friday agreement no-one was really interested in the implications for the United Kingdom. They still aren’t. If the U.K. leaves the EU the implications will be profound, and the attitude that if we can’t carry on as we always have then it is the EU being awkward defies reason.
    The Prime Minister got the deal she wanted – to stay in the EU without any pretence of democracy. However those who want to leave in reality do not accept that. In the meanwhile anyone trying to tell the truth is shouted down.
    When are we going to introduce democracy into the U.K.?

  • Ronald Murray 30th Mar '19 - 11:11am

    Well written post that sums up the situation very well. I thought it was unwritten policy of the main parties not to have this sort of agreement with Northern Ireland Parties of extreme views. It is absurd that such a small party is controlling the situation in the whole UK. Ignoring the fact that NI voted to stay in the EU.
    I personally have had enough of Brexit the only way forward is super vote not the Labour and Tory first past the post system say 50 to 60 % of the electorate not just over a third as last time. I switched TV and Radio off last night having had enough of the country and PM making a laughing stock of us.

  • Richard Underhill 4th May '19 - 9:30am

    “The UK Government needs to legislate to reform the Petition of Concern, which is the key to unlocking not just the current blocks to restoration but any future disputes, and to ensuring that any restored Assembly is fit for purpose and can deliver better for people.
    “We need to reconvene talks, reform the institutions and restore the Assembly: any party that will not engage in good faith should have their MLA salaries stopped. No further delay is acceptable, either to Alliance MLAs or to those who elected us.”

  • Richard Underhill 10th May '19 - 8:32pm

    Arlene Foster, DUP, Nigel Dodds DUP and Jeffrey Donaldson DUP former UUP met Theresa May at Chequers on Thursday afternoon. “They wanted to remind Mrs May that they wanted the Stormont Assembly restored” (quoted without irony by the BBC).
    They also wanted the referendum delivered in a way “which strengthens the union”.
    The Irish deputy PM has said that the two governments will do “heavy lifting” to restore the Assembly.
    Tory election leaflets describe the DUP as “blocking” Brexit.

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