The Union faces two simultaneous challenges in Northern Ireland and Scotland that both look set to worsen in the coming years.
In Northern Ireland, the immediate problem is that Brexit has disturbed the fragile balance there. (A more persistent problem is the fact that after the Good Friday agreement, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein replaced the more moderate Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour party as the main Unionist and Nationalist parties.) The debate over where various borders should go has turned into a question of identity.
Unionists argue that the UK government’s agreement to create half a border in the Irish Sea threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. When Northern Irish Unionists feel they cannot trust the British government, this quickly leads to anger. That mood has already caused the resignation of DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster, a moderate in party terms.
The problem for the DUP is that it is losing support in two directions. Hard-liners are moving to the Traditional Unionist Voice, which attacks the DUP for not having stopped the Northern Ireland protocol in the first place. More liberal voters are moving to the Alliance, which doesn’t define itself as a Unionist party. It is difficult to see how the DUP can satisfy both groups of voters.
This crisis explains why the DUP is having the first leadership contest in its history. In crude terms, Edwin Poots — the current Stormont agriculture minister — is the candidate for those who worry most about being outflanked by the TUV. Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s Westminster leader, is the candidate for those who worry about the long-term viability of Unionism.
Poots has sat in the executive with Sinn Fein, so it would be wrong to dismiss his pragmatism. But if he won the leadership contest, his social views — he thinks the earth is 6,000 years old and as health minister banned gay men from donating blood — would make the DUP the political wing of evangelical Protestantism.