Northern Ireland is changing, and quickly. Despite the presence of several seats of learning here I continue to be surprised at the absence of any serious scholarship tracking the step changes happening before our eyes.
Recently, I listened to former Democratic Unionist Party first minister Peter Robinson when he gave a speech to the Knock Methodist Centre in East Belfast. Later, some of those in the audience told me they are now learning Irish.
Let us not exaggerate the numbers of those in the Protestant community who are doing so, but their actions are in contrast to the crass denigration of the language by some in the DUP, such as party leader Arlene Foster or Gregory Campbell.
Once upon a time, Peter Robinson might have agreed, or did agree with such views. But he grew comfortable during his years in government dealing with “crocodiles” such as Martin McGuinness and fellow Sinn Féin Irish-speaking personnel, unlike his colleagues.
Can you imagine Robinson's thoughts on the Irish language as he watched his colleagues letting the issue of the treatment of it lead to the collapse last February of a deal that would have restored the Stormont institutions.
Speaking at the Knock Methodist Centre, he said: “I couldn’t care less about the Irish Language. Let them speak it until they are green, white and orange in the face, as long as it doesn’t encroach on me. This was ‘such a small issue’ – smaller than, say, the devolution of policing and justice and, before that, agreeing the conditions for that Paisley-McGuinness Executive.”
The DUP incontrovertibly reached a deal in February with Sinn Féin. Equally, it is incontrovertible that the DUP later resiled from that deal, leaving former ministers and its negotiators, Edwin Poots and Simon Hamilton, exposed and potentially damaged.
The bona fides of the secret agreement, which Brian Rowan I reported on in Eamonn Mallie. com in the days after the collapse of the talks, were contemptuously challenged by Jeffrey Donaldson, Foster and Campbell.
However, it is time to nail the big lie peddled by the DUP that Sinn Féin was responsible for collapsing the February 9th negotiations because of what the DUP call Sinn Féin’s “red lines” on the Irish language.
Instead, the DUP negotiating team had bought into an agreement that embraced the Irish language. Initially, it had Foster’s blessing. Indeed, top Irish and British officials returned home that Friday evening confident the deal was in the bag.
The DUP grassroots rose up over the weekend when news broke that British prime minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were due at Stormont on Monday, February 12th, to give the emerging agreement their imprimatur.
During that weekend, Foster was overwhelmed by forces in her own party, including one DUP MP who told me that he took “one look” at the document after he returned from London and told the negotiators “it won’t fly with the grassroots”. The MP said it was impossible for the party to sell a package that better acknowledged the place of the Irish language given that the DUP leadership had run a campaign of abuse against it for nearly two years.
The leadership panicked and the rest is history. Merrion Street in Dublin and Downing Street were left speechless on Wednesday, February 14th, after Foster tweeted: "In our view there is no current prospect of the discussions leading to an Executive being formed."
During his speech to the Knock Methodist Centre, Robinson drove a horse and coaches through the DUP leadership’s contestable history of what had happened during those days in February.
“I wish the draft agreement that unravelled in February had been leaked earlier,” he said. Robinson argued that many of the fears wrongly raised in advance about quotas in the Civil Service having to speak Irish and Irish language street signs everywhere, proved groundless.
The damage done then to the working relationship in February between the DUP and Sinn Féin may prove to be irreparable, certainly in the short to long term. Indeed, it could be argued that Sinn Féin has every reason to sit and wait.
The United Kingdom's impending Brexit from the European Union and the bitterly-contested withdrawal agreement May concluded with the EU27 in Brussels, should it stick, might discourage Sinn Féin from returning to Stormont.
Republicans could interpret that the agreement's terms are a tinkering with, or fracturing of, the place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that this is something positive and not to be discouraged.
This point has to be tempered, however, by an acceptance that the deal agreed by May is surprisingly favourable to Northern Ireland, when viewed solely through economic eyes. Such a deal was considered illusory by nationalists at the outset.
The confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP keeping May in power blindsided nationalists to any potential good flowing from Brexit. The EU May withdrawal deal came from left field.
Nationalists had been feeling abandoned by Downing Street, left to the mercy of a daily London-centric, patronising DUP cacophony coming at them in waves, where Nigel Dodds and his fellow DUP MPS strutted the Westminster stage.
In the eyes of nationalists the DUP have wrongly assumed it has authority to speak on behalf of all in Northern Ireland, despite the fact the majority voted to stay in the EU.
The May-EU deal has been begrudgingly welcomed by Sinn Féin because it would guard against a hard border. But the reality is that if it holds, a big if, admittedly, then Brexit will do more to redefine Northern Ireland’s status than occurred during 30 years of IRA violence.
Sinn Féin will likely hold back from signing up to any Stormont arrangement with the DUP. They know that the sword of Damocles hangs above that party until the cash-for-ash ( Renewable Heat Incentive) scandal inquiry reports in the new year.
Sinn Féin is wary about Foster’s ability to deliver a deal. And they would need to be certain that she can deliver in any fresh negotiations. Republicans are mindful too of another shift occurring – there is a sea-change in attitudes of middle-class nationalists.
This is not an accident. Doctors, dentists, solicitors, people in business and in many walks of life, from a Catholic nationalist background, ashamed of the IRA’s campaign of violence, much of it visited upon their Protestant neighbours in salubrious residential areas, and in the workplace, kept their heads down during the Troubles and got on with their lives.
However, that has changed – to invoke the immortal words of WB Yeats on the back of two words, “crocodile” and “Brexit”. “All changed uttlerly changed.” Middle-class nationalism is no longer sitting on the fence.
They like what they know, see and hear in Dublin under the leadership of Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney. They are proud of the Republic as a 21st century State, where its leaders sit comfortably at the Brussels table unencumbered by the historical labels of religious and social conservatism.
This fact has not escaped Robinson’s attention either who remarked, while addressing the Methodists in east Belfast, “you can’t speak now of Home Rule being Rome Rule” south of the Border.
The hurt – and there is no other word – visited upon nationalism in 2017 by Foster when she said, “if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more” was incalculable.
Though the DUP leader was directing her remarks at Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish Language Act, the injury was felt by all nationalists; not just those interested in the language. Reading between the lines, they judged that parity of esteem was not on offer in what Foster calls “my precious union”.
That one word did more damage to any nationalist sense of belonging to the patch of land they inhabit than anything ever uttered by former Northern Ireland PM Basil Brookeborough who in 1933 said: "Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I have not one about my place. Catholics are out to destroy Ulster. "
One wonders whether Robinson’s intervention creates a more conducive environment, providing wriggle room for Foster when “parity of esteem” for nationalists next comes back on the table.
Unionism believes the sparkle from that sonorous jewel – our precious union – is in danger of losing much of its radiance as a result of the May withdrawal agreement. This is debatable since Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is guaranteed under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
The DUP is clutching desperately at their sense of Britishness. And they genuinely feel the May package poses a threat to their identity politically, constitutionally and culturally. In essence what unionism is desperate to protect is its “parity of esteem” as citizens of the UK.
The deficit in the unionist psyche is that it has continuously refused to acknowledge that nationalists also feel they have an entitlement to parity of esteem. This denial to nationalism by unionism is responsible for the absence of a government in Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s time in the sun was short lived. Their 10 Westminster MPs proved incapable of keeping a check on their exuberance and sense of self-importance flowing from their agreement with the Conservative party.
Soon, allegations of “betrayal” and “vassal state” emerged from the DUP as it warned its deal is with the Conservatives, not with May. It will be interesting to see how long that crutch will bear the political strain.
The atmosphere in Westminster fuels the DUP sense of paranoia and its conviction that Northern Ireland is being treated differently from the rest of the UK. It leaves them at risk, too, of ridicule for placing their trust in Conservatives.
History students will recall former British prime minister Ted Heath’s proroguing of the Stormont government in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 secret contacts with IRA hunger strikers, the 1985 signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement over the heads of unionism and former British PM John Major’s secret back channel to Sinn Féin in the early 1990s. The withdrawal agreement is but the latest act in the Conservative-unionist drama.
In truth, the DUP is a party that staggers from crisis to crisis and from scandal to scandal.
What leader of a large political party wants to have to stand up at its annual conference and wear sackcloth and ashes as Foster did last month in her address over the cash-for-ash scandal.
I have observed enough down the years to know that at moments like these where there is talk of any threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status this can be accompanied by “rustling in the undergrowth” by loyalists.
While the opposition role being played by the DUP to the so called back-stop agreed by Theresa May and the EU to prevent a hard border may serve as a safety valve, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I suspect will be keeping an ear to the ground.
Remarkably the DUP finds itself for the first time at loggerheads with the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU), the Confederation of Business Industry, the NI Retail Consortium, the Chamber of Commerce and several food and drink umbrella groups which are all taking a contrary position on the May withdrawal deal to the DUP. Some of these groups went over the heads of the DUP MPs to meet May in Downing Street.
In turn, DUP MP Sammy Wilson accused businesses backing the deal of being "the puppets of the Northern Ireland Office", while the usually unflappable DUP chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson lost his temper when speaking on The View BBC One Northern Ireland.
There, he said, “the UFU and business leaders – they are wrong. I don’t believe they have read the detail of this, they have not read the 500 pages. There are serious constitutional and economic implications of this deal for Northern Ireland.”
Such words did not go down well, particularly after Foster indulged in Trumpian politics by claiming that the media is trying to drive a wedge between her party and Northern Ireland’s business community.
That opposition to the DUP’s stance has not diminished.
For the first time there are signs of fissuring in middle-class unionism. The retired surgeon Terry Irwin who calls himself an Irish unionist tweeted recently: "The DUP have convinced many 'soft' unionists like myself to seriously consider whether we would be better in a United Ireland."
Prof Jim Dornan, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, is now entertaining the idea of a new Ireland. He said: "I would traditionally be thought of as being quite happy with the union and I have been. It has been very good to me, educationally and health wise and everything else in my life."
On whether he thought a Border poll would mean a victory for Irish unity, he said: “Against the union as we have at the moment, there is a lot of people nowadays, not just me, who are saying ‘you know what, if somebody offers me a better deal and somebody offers me a good deal, then I would go for it’.” He added, “everything is on the table” after the Brexit vote.
I underscored earlier the sea-change in middle-class nationalist opinion. The fluidity of thinking in middle-class unionism – people of business and professional backgrounds cannot be ignored. Around dinner tables some traditional unionists are now openly questioning where they want to be politically – some thinking the unthinkable – living in a new Ireland. The changes may be subtle, but they should not be ignored.