In a personal message to coincide with the centenary, the Queen sent her warmest wishes and included a reference to her state visit to the Republic of Ireland a decade ago.
Her presence, alongside the Duke of Edinburgh, was almost universally well-received on the island as a whole and raised hopes that the lasting peace which the Good Friday Agreement sought to achieve might finally be achieved.
I was in the building on April 10, 1998, when the Agreement was finalised (it was never formally signed by anyone). So, too, was Jeffrey Donaldson, one of the 12 Ulster Unionist MPs I served in my six-year stint as head of the party’s Westminster office. But Donaldson did not hang around for the post-deal news conferences. Instead, he and then-Ulster Unionist party officer Arlene Foster slipped away.
Although one of party’s lead negotiators for the duration of the talks, Donaldson chose not to support the deal because of what he regarded as weak provisions on the decommissioning of IRA weapons and explosives. And despite leading an almost ceaseless campaign against party leader David Trimble for the next five years, he remained an Ulster Unionist.
Indeed, Donaldson and Foster stayed in the party’s ranks just long enough to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in November 2003. They defected to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) weeks later where both were subsequently rewarded with ministerial positions at Stormont.
Foster’s decision to resign as Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader, following an internal coup, has triggered a race for the party’s leadership between Donaldson and Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, a committed Paisleyite who believes the Earth was created in 4,000 BC.
As DUP chief whip, Donaldson led his party’s discussions to agree a “confidence and supply” arrangement to keep Theresa May in Downing Street after the 2017 election. But, having backed Leave in the EU referendum, the DUP refused to support her “soft” Brexit deal.
The result was the arrival of Boris Johnson in Number 10 and a new agreement with Brussels that, despite his promise not to tread this path, placed a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, effectively cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Senior members of the DUP initially sought to describe the new status as an “opportunity” for the Province but, after its true consequences were felt by local shoppers and businesses, they changed tack. How to find a way out of this bind has become the central plank of the party’s leadership campaign.
Donaldson, seen as the more pragmatic of the two men, has talked of “reforming” the arrangement, whereas Poots has said it “needs to go” But there is little reason to believe that either has a realistic chance of success.
Aside from the EU’s resolve to protect its single market and customs union, the roadblock is Boris Johnson who has shown no previous interest in Northern Ireland. But since entering Number 10, he has recognised its potential to serve his political objectives.
His support for the Irish Sea border allowed him to get his Brexit deal through Parliament. On the eve of last week’s local elections, he also allowed two Tory-supporting newspapers to be advised that his Government will ban future Troubles-related prosecutions against soldiers and police officers. What was less prominent in this briefing was that the amnesty will also apply to IRA and Loyalist terrorists, sparking deep hostility from the Province’s political parties as well as victims’ groups.
Having backed Remain in the EU referendum, the middle ground in Northern Ireland politics appears to be widening significantly, particularly amongst younger voters.
A recent Belfast Telegraph poll found that whilst 51 per cent of over 65s surveyed consider themselves to be British, only 17 per cent aged 18-24 years share that view. This could be pivotal in a future Irish unity referendum.
Whoever is chosen as the new DUP leader next Friday will have a hand on the constitutional direction of Northern Ireland. But, with elections to the Stormont Assembly due to take place next May, and Boris Johnson’s position as UK Prime Minister now seemingly cemented, how strong their party’s influence will be and for how long is matter of conjecture.
Barry White is a partner at Leeds-based communications agency Vanbar Associates.
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