The new leader of Northern Irish unionism challenges Brussels, London and Dublin in the bitterest dispute after ‘Brexit’
On Monday 12 July, a hundred Orange Order parades will tour the streets of Northern Ireland. Men dressed in umbrella suits, bowler hats and orange sash will walk in formation, followed by bands that play with flutes and huge drums, music with letrillas that evoke military victories of the 17th century or hymns of acticatolic sectarianism persistent until today.
Their marches are not a carnival, they are political statements. The ‘Orange Standard’, the order’s monthly magazine, dedicates prominently in its latest issue to explaining why the ‘Institution opposes any form of legislation on the Irish language to elevate its status over that of other cultures’. Nationalist parties want a Gaelic law, which London supports.
The Grand Secretary of the Order, Reverend Mervyn Gibson, reproduces the homily that he would have delivered to the demonstrators after the great marches, if the Covid had not forced this year to disperse them in a hundred local parades. “Make no mistake, the Protocol must be eliminated!” Writes the preacher; that warns that the “Order will not fail” in the “battle of the Protocol.”
The Irish Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement stipulates customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, for the simultaneous membership of the region to the British and common customs unions after the ‘Brexit’. They affect companies and some aspects of everyday life. In March there were street protests. According to the pessimists, the parades of this Glorious Twelve will start a “hot summer.”
Maros Sefcovic, Vice President of the European Commission, stressed to a committee of the Belfast Autonomous Assembly this week that the granting of such special status to Northern Ireland by the EU is extraordinary. It allows you to take advantage of access to both markets, the British and the EU. The region has already received direct investment from foreign companies attracted by the location.
But the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who will parade as a member of the Orange Order, sees neither benefits nor any reason why unionism has nothing to reproach itself, although the DUP voted for him ‘ Brexit ‘more radical. It is the other affected parties – London, Dublin and Brussels – who have to meet their demands.
Arrogance and fear
In his speech after his confirmation as the new DUP leader this week, Donaldson warned that the Protocol is “an EU punishment of the UK for leaving, and it does so using Northern Ireland.” Their argument is that the population of Northern Ireland totals 1.8 million and that the trade that the EU considers dangerous to the integrity of the single market is actually ‘miniscule’. Boris Johnson, for his part, has “a duty to protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom”, that the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would break. Dublin “cannot defend the Protocol and at the same time the Good Friday Agreement” of 1998. The urgent task of Sir Jeffrey, now an MP in London, is to secure a seat in the Assembly of Belfast to be chief minister of the regional Executive and ” lead from the front.
Jeffrey Donalson was born in Killkeel, the southernmost town in Northern Ireland. The loss of family and friends in IRA attacks led him to join the Orange Order at the age of 16 and into a volunteer unit, the Ulster Defense Regiment, already dissolved. He was secretary to James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which ruled the region for five decades.
Donaldson was prominent during the peace process. In 1995, he posed before the television cameras, breaking the volume of the Framework Documents that the governments of London and Dublin had agreed to. Then he was the perpetual dissident of their leader, David Trimble, and left him, and also the building where the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, on the morning before the agreement.
Joining the DUP of fanatic and corrupt clergyman Ian Paisley, he rode the great “anti-deal” wave. But he accepted it a posteriori. Donaldson joined mediation initiatives in the Basque Country, recommending avenues that he had rejected in Northern Ireland.
The capacity for Pauline conversions of Donaldson and his acolytes may reassure the EU, but for the moment it is going to have to familiarize itself with a unique political culture, as arrogant as it is fearful, in a region where there is the bitterest rejection of the consequences of ‘brexit’.