PB July-August 2023 July-August 2023 37
Craig and his successors had
built a political culture that
was narrow and exclusionary.
The NILP exposed the
Unionist regime for its
departure from British norms
Pisley in his
nternal tensions in the Democratic Unionist
Party (DUP) over the 2023 Windsor
Framework Agreement, which replaced the
Northern Ireland Protocol and addresses
the movement of goods between UK and
the EU, is the latest in a long history of divisions
over political strategy within Ulster unionism
dating back to partition.
In May 1922, Northern Ireland’s first Prime
Minister Sir James Craig informed MPs in the
newly established House of Commons in Belfast
that his government would work to “search out
the King’s enemies and see that they were
properly dealt with”.
Craig and his cabinet may have had the IRA in
mind when he made this statement, though he
also saw “enemies within” as posing a threat to
the authority of his fledgling administration.
While it would be easy to interpret “enemies
within” as Catholics who rejected the writ of
Craigs government, the reality was that
Protestant-born socialists and trade unionists
were also singled out as Fifth Columnists.
In early elections, some of Craig’s so-called
‘loyalist’ supporters threatened and intimidated
those who politically opposed the Unionist Party.
Craig’s government became ever more right-
wing and populist in the 1920s and 1930s as it
sought to pander to these loyalists, eventually
building a state that sought to exclude people
because of creed, politics, and religion.
It was not until the Northern Ireland Labour
Party (NILP) emerged to challenge the Unionist
Party in the post-war period that political culture
began to shift within the broader unionist
By confronting the Unionist Party for its refusal
to remain in lock step with the remainder of the
UK on political, socio-economic, and cultural
matters, the NILP attracted some 100,000 votes
in the 1964 and 1970 Westminster elections. The
NILP’s political slogan was ‘British Rights for
British Citizens’.
Craig and his successors had built a political
culture that was narrow and exclusionary. The
NILP exposed the Unionist regime for its
departure from British norms.
Despite attempts by one of Craigs successors,
Captain Terence O’Neill, to play to a more liberal
agenda in the 1960s by stealing the NILPs
thunder, Northern Ireland remained unreformed.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association
later emerged from within the ranks of those
Catholics and Protestants who rejected the NILP’s
gradualist approach, instead taking to the streets
Time is DUP
History shows while DUP
remains the dominant political
expression of unionism this
community will never realise its
potential for inclusive politics
By Aaron Edwards
to demand a more radical redistribution of rights.
Meanwhile, populism was resurgent, finding
breathing space among the followers of the
Reverend Ian Paisley who had publicly opposed
Paisley soon won enough votes to warrant
establishing a new political force, the DUP.
For much of the 1970s, the Unionist Party -
joined by the fledgling DUP and the
ultra-right-wing Vanguard Unionist Party – were
divided over the idea of sharing power with
By the 1980s the British government had held
the line against a return to majoritarian rule at
The UUP sub-divided into those who advocated
a return to devolution, albeit with input from
northern nationalists, and those who were
pushing for closer integration with Great Britain.
Meanwhile, the DUP set its path, which was to
rebuild a more populist form of politics based on
excluding those they saw as ‘enemies of Ulster,
a strategy echoing that employed by James Craig.
These ‘enemies within’ now included
moderates and progressives in the unionist
community who were supportive of rights for
women, minorities, and political compromise
with nationalists.
The DUP also positioned itself as the most
ardent opponent of the Provisional IRA and its
political associates in Sinn Féin.
As the peace process began to bed down the
DUP opposed Sinn Féin’s involvement in talks
and famously walked away from the Belfast
(Good Friday) Agreement in 1998.
Within a few short years the DUP’s rejectionist
politics had usurped the UUP from its dominant
position in the unionist community.
In 2007 Ian Paisley did the unthinkable and
negotiated with one of those ‘enemies of Ulster’,
Gerry Adams, to agree a form of power-sharing
between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
The DUP’s lack of strategic thinking beyond its
narrow ‘Little Ulster’ agenda saw it champion
Brexit against the wishes of the greater number
of people in Northern Ireland.
True to populist, oppositional form, the DUP
has opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol and
refrains from judgement on the Windsor
Framework Agreement.
The DUP now finds itself outwardly opposing
attempts by London to depart Northern Ireland
from the rest of the UK, except when it suits.
For as long as the DUP remains the dominant
political expression of unionism in Northern
Ireland, this community will never realise its true
potential to practise a more inclusive form of
politics. History tells us as much.
Aaron Edwards is the author of ‘A People Under
Siege: The Unionists of Northern Ireland, From
Partition to Brexit and Beyond’, published in 2023
by Merrion Press.
Aron Edwrds


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