When Richard Bullick lost his job, he took to Twitter. Because what else does a political advisor do when there are no politicians to preach to?
It was the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland that did it in for the former Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Special Advisor. Stormont’s failure to reassemble itself – it’s been over 365 days days since Northern Ireland had an executive – meant Bullick was forced to find alternative employment.
It meant saying goodbye to a £92,000 salary and a job he’d loved for 17 years. But it also meant the DUP saying goodbye to a man who’d helped turn his party into a modern electoral powerhouse with a near monopoly on unionism.
If his departure attracted headlines, most readers in Northern Ireland might have been puzzled. Like most political advisors, Bullick is far from a household name. Yet in photo after photo, Bullick is the right-hand man of former First Minister Peter Robinson, sitting beside him in meetings with UK prime ministers or two steps behind him as a DUP delegation leaves Downing St.
When Robinson left politics in 2015, brought low by personal and political scandal, Bullick found a new partner in Arlene Foster. And while Foster is currently politically untouchable – ensconced in a supply-and-confidence agreement with the Conservative government – it might have been her hubris that ultimately cost Bullick his job.
I would have been more impressed with Peter, even in my younger days, than Dr Paisley’s style of politics
“I always regarded the demand for her to step aside as being entirely unreasonable”, Bullick says today. The RHI scandal is as now infamous as it is insignificant. A botched renewable heating scheme, which cost taxpayers nearly £500 million, led blame to be pointed to Foster, who was finance minister at the time.
And while Bullick admits that Foster could perhaps have averted Stormont’s collapse by stepping aside, he still remains loyal to his former boss. They still talk, regularly enough, but Bullick says it’s usually just “chit-chat”.
For now, Bullick is adjusting to life away from politics. And, talking to him in a trendy Belfast office, he does seem stranded: a job in a public relations firm is a long way from the power a political advisor could wield in the DUP over the last 20 years.
Maybe Twitter helps. Since he’s left politics, he’s taken to the social media platform like a natural. In one set of tweets in June, he offered his own memories of negotiating tricks in Northern Irish politics. Some of the best insights included: “Wrong-foot opponents by pretending to act irrationally. Double down on strategy by actually acting irrationally” and “enter negotiations with wholly unrealistic demands until negotiations reach climax then increase demands”.
It was witty – and attracted headlines – but Bullick was deadly serious. And he’s a man who knows a thing or two about negotiations.
Yet when the collapse came, Bullick says he was as surprised as anyone else. “Between the Assembly election in May of 2016 and the events of December 2016, I would have said the relationship between Sinn Fein and the DUP had never been better”, he says.
“As of end of November last year, I would not have foreseen things would have descended so dramatically and so quickly.”
But descend they did. And with the downward spiral of conventional politics came twists and turns few might have expected. After an assembly election in March that saw DUP see off Sinn Féin by a single seat, many wondered if Arlene Foster’s gambles had paid off. Even members of her own party, Ian Paisely Jr for one, admitted she had tough questions to answer.
If Sinn Féin was snapping at her heels, Foster might only have had herself to blame. In February, during the campaign, Foster attacked the party and its demands for an Irish Language Act: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more.”
It’s a comment that looking back, only served to pile pressure on Foster. Sinn Féin supporters in crocodile costumes followed her around, while opposition parties painted her as a hardline leader. Others called her comments polarising.
But Bullick sees it differently. “Fundamentally every election is a choice. And Northern Ireland is different in that there would be a relatively small pool of people, if such a pool exists at all, between those who would think ‘should I vote’ for Arlene Foster, should I vote for Michelle O’Neill. That’s not how our politics works.”
The history of Northern Ireland politics is people who have stretched too far are more likely to be ousted than people who have stretched less
“The job of the DUP will be to maximise the number of votes of those people who are most likely to be potentially DUP voters. And that tends to mean, in very general terms, maximising the number of unionists who turn out to vote. So, it seems to me that’s a relatively sensible strategy to take. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as polarising.”
The strategy makes sense – there are few voters in Northern Ireland who genuinely see every election as a choice between candidates, rather than creeds. But it’s also a strategy that backfired for Foster, driving out turnout among nationalists and pitching them towards Sinn Féin.
Yet, if Foster’s future was in doubt in March, by June she was one of the most powerful leaders in the UK. After Theresa May’s disastrous general election, Foster and co hatched a bargain that placed the DUP front and centre in British politics.
The DUP has never been huge fans of the media. But journalists came in droves, after June. The party’s position on a range of liberal issues, from abortion to same-sex marriage, saw protests, pickets and column inches attacking the deal. Yet, eight months later, the deal still standing.
So what did Bullick think about the deal?
“People were fearing at the time, because the Tories were being propped up by the DUP, the DUP would demand all sorts of things, either on social issues or what you might call Northern Ireland-related issues, which were of a partisan nature. None of that was ever going to happen and none of that has happened.”
Critics of the confidence-and-supply deal – and there are many – would be hard-pressed to disagree. The Conservatives have settled down to the grubby business of running the country and Foster, is, as the joke goes, half-dictating Brexit from her front room in Enniskillen.
On Brexit, Bullick is coy. He won’t tell me how he voted, but he admits Brexit complicated things in Northern Ireland. Whether that’s giving a boost to calls for a united Ireland or creating a sense once again of Northern Ireland being a cold house for Catholics, Bullick is clearly concerned.
For some, Brexit doesn’t just unsteady Northern Ireland but instead threatens the entire constitutional apparatus on which the country is built. “The notion that a hard Brexit, in the sense of border posts, would be in a sense good for unionism, in my view is the fundamental mistaken one. The last thing you want is to have people in mostly nationalist traditions I suppose, who are feeling entirely isolated or not comfortable in the country they live in”, Bullick says.
But did Bullick foresee these problems?
“I like to think I had a reasonable sense for how things might have looked like after the referendum.”
And this is the tricky thing about Bullick. Like any good political advisor, he’s slippery and hard to pin down. If there is always loyalty to the DUP, it comes with a healthy dose of distance.
So what does Bullick believe? For one, he’s far from a traditional DUP member. Indeed, it’s no surprise he shuffled behind Robinson when he joined the party. Growing up, Bullick tells me, he was one of his political idols. Ian Paisely? Less so.
Bullick is of the same ilk as the unionists – middle class, less ideological – who began to drift to the DUP in the early 2000s. It’s no coincidence that around the same time a more moderate brand of unionist politics began to creep into the party – a sea change that created a route for Arlene Foster – an Anglican – to lead a once-Free Presbyterian party.
It’s only if actually you can win elections that you get to have your views implemented
“I would have been more impressed with Peter, even in my younger days, than Dr Paisley’s style of politics”, Bullick tells me. Unlike many of his generation, his passion for politics wasn’t bred in the streets or among paramilitary groups. Instead, in Queen’s University Belfast, he joined the Conservatives, looking up to figures like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Yet, if he was bred into the new neoliberal world order, he soon got wrapped up in Northern Ireland’s politics. He opposed the Good Friday Agreement – there was an “immorality”, he says, about prisoner releases. But the vote in favour of the agreement that gave him his first lesson in electoral politics.
“The one thing I did realise was that actually, if you’re in a minority, an electoral minority position in unionism, it doesn’t really matter what you think to a certain extent. It’s only if actually can win elections that you get to have your views implemented”, he says.
“I don’t have a lot of time for those people who take a tremendously purist position, but have no capacity ever to win an electoral majority.”
For anyone who wants to know how the DUP sped past the Ulster Unionists, look no further than Bullick and his generation. The ideologues were sidelined, the dinosaurs quietened and the Paisleys – eventually – defeated. If Bullick and co didn’t rebuild the DUP from the ground up, they certainly brought it much to the centre ground.
“It just so happened that that probably also encouraged pragmatism and moderation or compromise or sensible positions”, Bullick says.
One area, however, where nobody seems willing to compromise is an Irish Language Act. Back in February, Foster said: “If we have an Irish language act, maybe we should have a Polish language act as well because there are more people in Northern Ireland who speak Polish, compared to Irish.”
If the tone has mellowed slightly since then, her stance hasn’t changed. Sinn Féin, too, still see it as a redline issue.
To Bullick, there’s something insincere about the current debate. “Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness talked far more about football than they ever talked about an Irish Language”, he says
He thinks some kind of arrangement will be reached: “That’s not to say there are not solutions that involve legislation, in relation to the Irish language. I think that will happen, whatever comes now, but I don’t see how the DUP could sell the presentation around an Irish Language Act.”
And compromise isn’t getting easier. “I don’t think anybody, at the moment, in the present political environment in the DUP, even [if] Dr Paisley was leader, could carry off an Irish Language Act.”
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness talked far more about football than they ever talked about an Irish Language
When it comes to discussing same-sex marriage, which is illegal in Northern Ireland, Bullick thinks a change is coming. The tide, he says, is changing in Northern Ireland. But that doesn’t mean the DUP needs to chase it. “I don’t imagine in the short term, the DUP will move from having a certain position on some social issues to having a different position. But the reality at the minute is the assembly were back up tomorrow and there were to be a vote taken on same-sex marriage, the DUP are not in a position to block that becoming law in Northern Ireland”, he says. Following last year’s assembly vote, the DUP is in no position to use the infamous “petition of concern” to veto legislation.
“It may well be society moves on to such a point, or other political parties move on to such a point, that the DUP position on it becomes less relevant. Which is more likely to be the outcome, as opposed to some u-turn by the DUP on the issues”, Bullick says.
So where does that leave Northern Ireland now? If we look at the past few weeks, it’s seen scandals over Kingsmill bread, a DUP MP calling Leo Varadkar a “nutcase” and no signs yet of any olive branches. It doesn’t leave much hope for the future.
As we finish up our interview, we get talking about Foster. Mid-way through a defence of Foster, he tells me: “Most of the history of Northern Ireland politics is people who have stretched too far are more likely to be ousted than people who have stretched less.”
If principles and pragmatism still sit together uncomfortably in Northern Irish politics, it’s an important reminder that it’s people like Bullick who first jammed them together.