Denis Bradley: How do you solve a problem like unionism?

Unionism’s usual ‘no’ response will not serve it well in coming to terms with what lies ahead

DUP leader Arlene Foster at  a Stormont news conference  on February 12th. How do you negotiate with people who can’t do a deal even when they have got by far the most out of the negotiations? Photograph:  Reuters

DUP leader Arlene Foster at a Stormont news conference on February 12th. How do you negotiate with people who can’t do a deal even when they have got by far the most out of the negotiations? Photograph: Reuters

 

How do you solve a problem like unionism? How do you negotiate with people who can’t do a deal even when they have got by far the most out of the negotiations? How do you stop a people from committing self-harm?

At a press conference during the week Mary Lou McDonald read out the content of what Sinn Féin had agreed with the DUP, articulating with confidence and assurance. She could equally have divulged the content with hesitation and embarrassment. Her side had not achieved very much from the negotiations.

Had it been a football match the result would have been an embarrassment for Sinn Féin. Arlene Foster to remain as First Minister – 1 - 0 to the DUP. A private member’s Bill to introduce equal marriage – 2-0. A minimal change to the petition of concern – 3-0. An Irish language Act parcelled up with an Ulster-Scots and Culture Act – a 1-1 draw.

The continuing stalemate and lack of devolved government leaves the non-unionist section of the population deeply depressed and frustrated

When the DUP can’t sell that type of result to its people it throws up fundamental questions about the competence of the party, but much more worryingly about the intransigence of the people.

The continuing stalemate and lack of devolved government leaves the non-unionist section of the population deeply depressed and frustrated. For them it is the oft-occurring dream where the crash is happening in slow motion in front of their eyes but they are rooted to the spot and unable to do anything to prevent it.

All-island settlement

John Robb died last week. From a unionist background, he had tried for years to persuade and cajole his people into seeing the desirability and necessity of negotiating a final and all-island settlement with their fellow islanders.

He preached the need for the diverse identities on this island to negotiate a new Ireland. Having worked as a surgeon during the worst of the violent years, he established a think tank and a movement to engage people from both identities in exploring a future that was all-Ireland and that accommodated the diversity of its people.

Many unionists will vote for the union come hell or high water, but increasing numbers will now take a more measured, nuanced position. They will want solid answers to some very difficult questions. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
"The Rev John Dunlop, once moderator of the Presbyterian Church, said at the time of the IRA ceasefire that the unionist community was not ready, prepared or happy with the beginning peace. He believed it was psychologically prepared to endure the violence rather than engage with republicans." File photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

His vision reflected his personality but, frustrating for himself and others, his movement only gained a small foothold among the unionist people.

I talked to two businessmen, one from each community, in the last few days. The nationalist was the most annoyed and frustrated. He was particularly angry that unionism seemed content to economically withdraw into itself and into the eastern counties of the North.

He vividly described the economic waste land that exists on the western side of a line that stretches from Coleraine, bulging out to encompassing most of Tyrone and reaching the southern most point of Fermanagh. His most insightful description was that on their side of the line they had two airports and two universities.

His colourful solution was a road show throughout England to persuade the already apathetic and disinterested English that they should get out of Ireland so as to allow an all-Ireland economy to flourish.

Last legs

The other businessman was less colourful but even more interesting. Born into a unionist background and a business that straddled the Border, his thesis was that Irish unionism was on its last legs.

Because of the changing demographics he argued that all that was needed was to convince a small number of unionists that Irish unity was the future. He was adamant that the number of unionists persuadable to that opinion was growing, and that the wrong people to do the persuading was Sinn Féin.

The DUP rejected an advantageous deal on the grounds that it could not sell it within the party and certainly not to its supporters

The argument as to who are the right people to do the persuading is for another day in the not too distant future, but the substance of this businessman’s argument is being heard more often in unexpected quarters.

It is creeping more and more into the mainstream of political discourse. It is gradually and quickly replacing the proposition that unionism’s task is to persuade enough Catholics and nationalists that their best option is to vote to remain within the UK.

The DUP rejected an advantageous deal on the grounds that it could not sell it within the party and certainly not to its supporters. The consequence is not just the continued suspension of devolved government for the foreseeable future. It is likely to go further and deeper than that. It may well be the end of devolution until such time as it is resurrected within a federalised Ireland.

What is more certain is that it has further widened the gap between those who believe that the union is preferable and secure and those who believe that unity is becoming more attractive and more likely.

Hostile fast bowling

The Rev John Dunlop, once moderator of the Presbyterian Church, wrote more than 20 years ago: “We are a people who live behind spiritual, political and ecclesiastical ramparts. We behave like batsmen facing hostile fast bowling on an uneven pitch: more concerned to survive than to win the match; playing for a draw at best; always defensive; seldom taking the initiative.”

He also said at the time of the IRA ceasefire that the unionist community was not ready, prepared or happy with the beginning peace. He believed it was psychologically prepared to endure the violence rather than engage with republicans.

The next months and years are critical in the history and relationships of this small island. The issues that will need to be defined are far out and beyond those that dominated the negotiations that collapsed last week.

Unionism’s usual response of “no” will not serve it well in coming to terms with what lies ahead.

Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland

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