LONDON — The Democratic Unionist Party, the hard-line Northern Irish Protestant party that essentially has both Prime Minister Theresa May and the Brexit process in a death grip, is not merely stupid or fanatical. The party understands that its fortunes depend on an increasingly threatened British nationalism.
Unionism is dying in Northern Ireland. During the 30-year war, the Protestant majority was mostly loyal, even though Northern Ireland was one of the the poorest parts of the United Kingdom. With a dwindling industrial base, it was subsidized by war, infused with money for an occupying army and giant, garrisoned stations full of police officers.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, in a small Protestant town in the east of the six counties, Protestants could believe that those men of violence were there for us, that the Union was ours. Electoral gerrymandering shored up Unionist power. There were jobs for the "Prods," as Protestants were known. Protestants occupied most of the skilled work and the few professional and managerial jobs available. The south of Ireland was poor, and everyday chauvinism said Catholics were poor because they were backward and dirty, and brought it on themselves. "That's a Protestant-looking house," mothers would chirp after tidying up.
The annual Twelfth of July bonfires and parades, celebrating the history of Ulster Loyalism, saw effigies of wicked Papists burned for public edification and the delight of inebriated Loyalists. This was "our culture." These festivities helped create a lynch mob atmosphere, leading to the murder of Catholics. Every year, the stories were the same: Bonfire night was a night for petty terror and bricking Catholic windows. Parades day was a day for blood. I recall that one year during my childhood, members of a local Loyalist flute band stabbed a Catholic bus driver repeatedly; a woman tried to stanch the bleeding by wrapping him in towels, but when the ambulance arrived, he was dead. We heard this story on the radio, on the way back from watching a parade. Many paid with blood for Protestant loyalty to Britain.
What, today, is the point of Northern Ireland? Built for perpetual war to keep the British in Ireland, it has lost its war, and with it the enormous, animating reservoirs of feeling and meaning that kept the "Prods" loyal. The barracks are gone, the stations empty hulks. Peace brought multinationals and chain stores, and the town centers grew deathly quiet. The bunting, flags and murals still appear in some Protestant heartlands, if local councils don't dare to remove them. But they cut a faded figure in just another north British region struggling to lure investors with lower corporate taxes.
Parades draw diminishing, aging crowds. Young, working-class Protestants once waved banners celebrating Ulster plantation lords, as though their lives were connected to such vicious men. Now they want out. Every year, more than a third of students flee Northern Ireland. More would if they could: A Belfast Telegraph survey of young people found that two-thirds want to leave. Ironically, the communal institutions bequeathed by Good Friday prolong sectarian allegiances, running Stormont, the Northern Irish assembly, on the principle of communal power-sharing.
Hence the Democratic Unionist Party's ability to stalemate the government.
Prime Minister May formed a coalition with the D.U.P. after losing her parliamentary majority in last year's snap election. In exchange for keeping her in office, she gave the hard-line Unionists veto power over Brexit negotiations. The D.U.P., which has a history of ties to gunrunning and paramilitarism, has never been easy to deal with. Its leadership is based in the Free Presbyterian Church, the fundamentalist sect founded in 1951 by the former D.U.P. leader Ian Paisley. It has been described by the journalist Owen Jones as "the political wing of the 17th century." During the 1980s, campaigning against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's negotiated settlement with the Irish Republic, its slogan blared from every lamppost in Northern Ireland: "Ulster Says No."
Ulster is saying no again. Mrs. May, to satisfy her party, has to get Britain out of the European customs union, restoring a customs border between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The D.U.P. welcomes that. But the Good Friday agreement presupposes a "soft" border between the north and south of Ireland. Mrs. May, to preserve the agreement, proposes keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union. That means a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. There, the D.U.P. draws a "blood red" line. That, it says, mortally threatens the Union.
The panic has a basis in reality. In the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2017, Unionism lost its majority. Sinn Fein came close to beating the D.U.P. as the biggest single party. In the 2016 referendum, most people in Northern Ireland voted against the D.U.P.'s pro-Brexit position. Census figures show a long-term decline in the share of Protestants, who tend to be Unionist voters, with a Catholic majority possible by 2021. An ironic turn for a statelet built to preserve a loyal Protestant majority.
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For the theocrats at the core of the D.U.P. leadership, this is a threat to the political self-defense of Protestants against, as Ian Paisley used to put it, the Papal Antichrist. Hence, the D.U.P. obstructs gay marriage, abortion rights and Irish language rights. The party and its Loyalist base are waging a cultural war to defend "Britishness." They'll spoil a deal with the European Union, even if the Good Friday Agreement must be rewritten or collapses.
In mainland Britain, the Brexit right laps this up. These politicians, representing the right wing of the Conservative Party and those who have broken from it over Europe since the 1990s, have seen the crisis coming, too. The Union, forged by empire, looks purposeless; Britishness forlorn. The institutions of government are losing legitimacy. The Conservative Party has been in a state of decline, particularly since the 1990s. Scotland almost seceded in 2014. A resurgent left under the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn poses its own solution to the pervading sense of collapse.
The Brexit right blames all of this on a liberal establishment allied to Europe. It claims that European rules have held back business, weakened the pound and eroded national self-determination. By quitting the European Union, the Brexiteers hope to break that establishment and empower the Conservative Party's small-business base.
The D.U.P. and the Brexit right don't have identical priorities. Brexiteers want a low-wage, low-tax economy to compete with the European Union. The D.U.P., with a more working-class base, often votes with Labour on issues like public spending. But they share the vocabulary of "Britishness," and the D.U.P. would go along with "free market" reforms as long as Northern Ireland received generous funding.
If they succeed in forcing a "hard" Brexit and in imposing their post-Brexit settlement, they would further weaken the Union. They would exacerbate the regionalized class inequalities that brought Scotland to the brink of departure. In Ireland, north and south, Sinn Fein is a growing power. It is heading to a plurality in the Assembly. A crisis for the Good Friday Agreement, already stretched by D.U.P. obstructionism, is leading Sinn Fein to put a united Ireland back on the agenda. Though unlikely in the short-term, it seems more plausible than Brexit did just five years ago.
Loyalists, faced with a threat to the Union, would put up a fight. The paramilitaries still exist. But in the pebbledash, gray concrete, rained-on estates of Northern Ireland, Unionism is slowly dying. And with it, an idea of Britain.
Richard Seymour is an editor at Salvage magazine and the author, most recently, of "Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics."