Diarmaid Ferriter: Dialogue key to unionism’s pursuit of relevance

Negotiation still the challenge for unionist leadership and should be the foremost mission

‘Unionist politicians also have a history of using working-class loyalist communities as puppets when they have found themselves running out of political road.’ File photograph: PA

‘Unionist politicians also have a history of using working-class loyalist communities as puppets when they have found themselves running out of political road.’ File photograph: PA

 

Tourism Northern Ireland has embarked on a campaign to persuade visitors from the Republic to explore the North’s beauty, heritage and hospitality. It has much to offer in all those areas and as was apparent in 2019 – when more than 200,000 tourists from the Republic visited and by the upsurge in travel from over the Border when restrictions were lifted last summer – it has a solid base on which to build, helped by the pandemic-induced curtailment of travel off the island.

But the tourist promoters will be worried too at the current unrest affecting the North as malcontents mark its 100th birthday with violent displays and updated cries of betrayal. Northern Ireland’s 50th birthday was also compromised and complicated by unrest as the organisers of what became known as Ulster ’71 had to contend with serious unrest which also, like today, revealed the limitations of and fault lines within Ulster unionism.

A Northern Ireland government committee had been established in 1969 to organise the Golden Jubilee to mark what prime minister Terence O’Neill suggested was 50 years of “occasional disappointment, but also 50 years of splendid achievement, of growing prosperity, of expanding opportunity”. These words appeared hollow indeed by 1971.

One of the suggested slogans for 1971, as outlined by historian Gillian McIntosh, was “Come to Ulster Year”, which the cabinet at the time suggested could “restore its image externally from the point of view of new industry and tourism”, expressing its hope that “the whole community in Northern Ireland will rally behind efforts to organize a programme of events that will demonstrate to people at home and abroad the development of modern Ulster”.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board eventually settled on the motto “Come to Ulster”, but the extent of the Troubles inevitably dulled the appetite for trips. The real theme of Ulster ’71 was that of collapse.

What Northern Ireland is facing now is not remotely on the scale of 1971 and the balance of power and political complexion have changed dramatically. But it is also striking how we are witnessing an updated version of the unionist denial and delusion of 50 years ago and how the capacity to look forward and adapt to changed reality is so compromised by recourse to historic siege tactics. The outward defiance is tempered by understandably deep anxieties, which need to be managed through a process of dialogue rather than a massaging of those fears and falling back on a self-image of persecution that is being wildly exaggerated by unionist leaders as representative of half the population of the North.

Following the Brexit referendum in 2016, DUP leader Arlene Foster decried the suggestion that it might damage the 1998 Belfast Agreement as “outrageous commentary”. It was nothing of the sort. The current DUP tactic of politicising policing issues – not helped by the arrogant and recklessly irresponsible organisation of the Bobby Storey funeral by republicans – and of criticising the recourse to violence while readily feeding loyalists a narrative of victimhood, is dangerously foolish and self-defeating. It makes a mockery of the idea that Northern Ireland during its centenary can strike a mature, inclusive pose.

Foster has been quick in the past to approvingly cite the assessments of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in relation to the IRA when it suited her political purpose; it is now, however, politically convenient for her to call for the resignation of the PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

‘They never told the people’

Unionist politicians also have a history of using working-class loyalist communities as puppets when they have found themselves running out of political road. The Loyalist Communities Council, involving former paramilitaries, was established in 2015 with a stated aim of “connecting loyalism to civic society”. It complained of neglect and disenchantment within a community that it insisted was not being properly represented by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has now withdrawn its support for the Belfast Agreement, with an insistence that it wants opposition to the Norther Ireland protocol to be “democratic and peaceful”, but with seeming caveats, its chairman David Campbell warning: “do not underestimate the strength of feeling on this issue right across the unionist family”.

Campbell suggested emotions are on a par with those felt at the time of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. The late David Ervine, loyalist paramilitary turned politician, was scathing about how political unionism at that time was apt to use the loyalist paramilitary threat in its “lust for relevance” as it “ran away from the debate . . . times were changing, the ground was shifting, and they never told the people”.

Fifty years ago, when James Chichester-Clark resigned as prime minister of Northern Ireland he warned “it would be misleading the Northern Ireland community to suggest that we are faced with anything but a long haul”.

Honestly facing that long haul through dialogue and negotiation was and remains the challenge of leadership for unionists and should be the foremost mission of Arlene Foster.

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