Can unionism survive the 21st century? Can this antique and divisive political system that elevates one half of a community often at the expense of another endure?

Remember that for most of the hundred years of Northern Ireland's existence it has functioned like a particularly extreme satellite of Mississippi. For decades, Ulster’s unionist rulers governed their Catholic minority with a ruthlessness that in many ways resembled how white segregationists in the old South once treated African Americans. 

Indeed, Northern Ireland's Special Powers Act was for years the envy of Apartheid South Africa. In 1963, the future South African apartheid Prime Minster Johannes Verster told critics of his own emergency legislation that he would gladly exchange it for the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. 

Arlene Foster. (Getty Images)

Arlene Foster. (Getty Images)

That level of asymmetry, prosperity, and progress for one community and unemployment and social alienation for the other, would eventually lead to the Troubles. By relentlessly pursuing its own supremacist agenda and ignoring the aspirations of the other community, conflict followed as night follows day.

So, can unionism maintain its veto over all the shared destinies in the North when its numbers are rapidly declining? We live in an age where social media - as well as international trade - scrutinize their every move for parity and fair dealing and, traditionally, that hasn't boded well for unionism.

The latest bun fight over the Irish Sea Border (and the Northern Ireland Protocol that ensures it) shows us that for unionism, and more particularly the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the binding international agreements it helped create and then signed have no real value if the political winds suddenly change. 

Despite all the recent loyalist theatrics to take our minds off who actually delivered this change, the DUP was told repeatedly that (after the Brexit they pursued and promoted) if there was to be a new customs and regulatory frontier, it would be in the Irish Sea for goods. 

Leaders from Ireland, Northern Ireland, and England at Stormont. (

Leaders from Ireland, Northern Ireland, and England at Stormont. (

The Good Friday Agreement mandated that there could be no new customs infrastructure on the British border in Ireland. For a start, that border is over 310 miles long with too many opportunities for illegal crossings. So no new land border left only the sea and that manageable solution was readily accepted by Boris Johnson. Then the DUP signed on. It's a done deal. 

International agreements are not written on napkins. They are binding in law. If all your political instincts have been shaped by a system where the laws are simply whatever you say they are in a given moment, it can come as a real shock to discover that your opponents have somehow achieved stature and are effectively pushing back on that.

Recall that Ireland never asked for Brexit, that Northern Ireland never supported it. Ireland never asked to be in the position where it had to protect the status quo from a deliberate act by the UK government. Ireland didn't force the UK to put a border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain. Boris Johnson and the DUP did all that and so they can't claim to be surprised now at the outcome.

We can see that DUP leader Arlene Foster is suddenly feeling the heat for a deal her party helped broker and sign. But it is up to her and her party to explain to her electorate why she did all that. Pointing at an already agreed and signed agreement is not the flex she thinks it is. Besides, the days when the law means whatever unionism decides it means are long over. 

Putting barriers to trade between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the UK was economically stupid when the economies are so closely intertwined. Foster and the DUP did not care. Brexit rides roughshod over all of that commerce and all of those political sensitivities and the DUP were fine doing so as long as the advantage accrued to themselves. 

Blinded by the siren call of greater Britishness, they put flags before people, before businesses, and before all the other communities in Northern Ireland, whether they be nationalist, unionist, or neither. The DUP didn't give a damn about any of them and now we are where we are. 



Here in America, we are watching with interest the DUP's increasingly craven attempts to evade the consequences of their own decisions. Loyalist paramilitaries can threaten violence and the innocent lives of those entrusted to oversees the DUP's new customs agreements, but they can't un-sign a binding agreement.

They can't implement a protocol and then object to it later. It may take a while, but the DUP needs to catch up and honor their own commitments. The world is watching.