Robert Peston was wrong on Northern Ireland, but was he also right?

Hugh Linehan: ITV’s political editor inadvertently raised a meaningful question about the North

Unaligned speculation: ITV’s political editor Robert Peston. Photograph: ITV

Unaligned speculation: ITV’s political editor Robert Peston. Photograph: ITV

 

When Karen Bradley arrived in Belfast in 2018, she was unaware that unionists and nationalists only voted for their own parties and not for those of the other side. This unawareness of what most of us would consider a pretty elementary truth about Northern-Irish politics might have been acceptable if she was dropping in for a weekend break, but Bradley, a senior Conservative and former UK culture minister, had just been appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It’s been a recurring theme of the Brexit years that every month or two we in this country must be freshly appalled by yet more evidence of English ignorance of us, their near neighbours. Whether it’s a gammon-faced backbencher expressing his confidence that Ireland will recognise the error of its ways and obediently follow the UK out of the EU, or a chinless wonder wittering about a border he has never visited, Albion seems on a point of principle since 2016 to have added stupidity to its traditional perfidy. Have these people never picked up a history book or even watched the news?

Maybe the news wouldn’t have helped much. On Wednesday, ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, who hosts that channel’s main current-affairs show, offered his view via Twitter on what Arlene Foster’s resignation as DUP leader might mean for Northern Ireland. According to Peston, the potential retreat of the DUP to its fundamentalist roots could cause a shake-up in the politics of the place. “Will it choose a new leader that will return NI’s biggest unionist party to religious sectarianism, and arguably thereby drive large numbers of unaligned voters to Sinn Fein?” he asked.

As political hot takes go, this was not a great one. Why would a more sectarian DUP push “unaligned voters” (presumably Alliance and Green) towards Sinn Féin? Wasn’t it far more likely to drive moderate unionists towards those centre parties?

Predictably, reaction to Peston’s tweet was swift and scornful, but the vast majority misinterpreted what he had actually written. “Non aligned voters go from DUP to Sinn Fein? Embarrassing level of analysis,” was pretty representative of the more than a thousand responses (many were less polite). With the imperturbability of a man who has 1.1 million Twitter followers and therefore never reads his mentions, Peston returned to his ruminations over who had paid for Boris Johnson’s curtains, oblivious to the hornet’s nest he had poked. Which will, of course, have been even more enraging for those seeking to be perpetually enraged.

But what if, possibly despite himself, Peston alighted on a meaningful question about the shifting sands of culture and politics in Northern Ireland? The drift to the centre is well underway and he notes correctly that it’s driven in part on the unionist side by a distaste for the arcane prejudices that fester within the DUP. It’s a fact that the tumbrils finally came for Foster following an internal row over, of all things, gay conversion therapy. And that the frontrunner to succeed her, Edwin Poots, is a “Young Earth” creationist who believes our planet is only 4,000 years old. If, as seems to be the case, culture war issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights are now more salient than before, it’s not impossible that this could impact on traditional sectarian voting patterns in future elections. And it will be a challenge to Sinn Féin, which is also losing votes, to see whether it can adjust and win those votes back with something more than a traditional tribal rallying cry.

A depressing undercurrent

Karen Bradley received her fair share of derision for admitting her ignorance. But there was a depressing undercurrent to much of the criticism, an implication that the sectarian division of Northern Ireland’s political system (embedded in the post-Belfast Agreement structures which undergird it) are not just blindingly obvious but also immutable, that Winston Churchill’s century-old jibe about the integrity of the Ulster quarrel remaining unaltered no matter what still holds true. That ignores the increasing electoral power wielded by the unaligned centre, which has already deprived unionism of its majority. Will those voters swing towards Sinn Féin? Why would they?

Contemporary culture wars are generally held by liberal commentators to be a bad thing. The politics of tribal identity drive people into silos, increase polarisation and swamp every other kind of debate. That’s the theory, anyway. But what if you already live in a society that is defined by polarised tribal identities, an obsession with symbolism and political parties reliant on sectarian voting blocs? In that case, a good dose of culture wars could act like a vaccine.

As for the English, that’s a much more intractable problem.

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