Political unionism in angry disarray


If unionist parties split, then a shift to the hardline will result in an appeal to the lowest common denominator

SOME THINGS have become clearer in the North recently, none cheerful in themselves. But the combination may make for more realism.

The gulf between the aspirations of ordinary unionists and nationalists for Northern Ireland turns out to be wide as ever, and neither group is happy. Disgruntlement among unionists – in this case a majority of adult Protestants, to go by the signs – is matched by disappointment among nationalists, and again that seems to be most Catholics. Unionists demand recognition of their right to march as the price of the next step towards partnership in Stormont.

Nationalists are dismayed, some of them surprised, that Orange parades are still a touchstone.

Those who resent being labelled cannot bring themselves, most of them, to deplore the parades demand. Instead they fall back on the mantra of “one side’s as bad as the other”. This avoids admitting that for some time it is the awful “Shinners” who have been forbearing towards their supposed partners, unionism’s current champions, the DUP. Who have not behaved well.

All four main parties have problems to different degrees, but political unionism is in angry disarray. The Hillsborough Agreement a fortnight ago turns out to be a cluster of separate side-deals between London, the DUP and Sinn Féin, plus a headlong schedule for meetings; at which, agreement will magically emerge because the next meeting is hot on the heels of the previous one?

The 14 disaffected DUP Assembly members who came to heel at the last minute are unlikely to have changed their minds about sharing power with Sinn Féin. DUP cohesion seems to be chiefly maintained by virtue of a resignation letter signed by leader Peter Robinson, described by Robinson as a “clever device” and held by the party’s chief whip – to be activated if agreement fails to emerge. The schedule expects the first agreement next Tuesday – on parading.

Stranger things have happened. The former leader of the IRA, after all, is at present Deputy First Minister in a Northern Ireland administration that is limited in its ability to make laws, unable to raise revenue but designed as a powerful symbol of compromise between long-time enemies. But it is plain now beyond disguise that Stormont administrations are not going to build a unified society. One after the other for the last decade, they have failed to even build lasting relationships between those at the top of the main parties.

The Smiling Year, when Martin McGuinness was twinned with Ian Paisley, was more illusion than reality. A winning image, real enough at the time for the two, it never translated to the party behind Paisley, who dumped him at the first opportunity. The old man had a swipe last week at his successor’s “clever trick”, in the column Paisley writes for Belfast’s unionist newspaper, the Newsletter. “If the deal is worthy, own it, don’t ambush it,” he wrote. But Paisley used up his lifetime’s credit to waft his party into the Stormont top post with Sinn Féin, and skipped the vital stage of selling compromise to them as a worthy deal.

For better or worse, and it was all for worse until his last ungainly sprint, Paisley had a huge influence. With his departure, unionism has no big figure. A period of accelerated splintering, as seems on the cards, has always meant more hewing to the hardline, competing to appeal to the lowest common denominator. While Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice may drain away DUP votes, he has failed to woo even medium-sized names. Allister will not fill the Paisley vacuum.

The possibility in a snap Assembly election of Sinn Féin coming top of the poll with the right to nominate First Minister McGuinness has bred something that looks suspiciously like unionist panic. Few can have illusions about recreating “unionist unity”, smashed in the 1960s. Ulster Unionists scrambling towards the Cameron Conservatives, then meeting the DUP under an Orange umbrella made for an embarrassing sequence.

In both main camps there is a touch of the phoney war, a threat of sensation lingering in the air. Republicans have been feeding out what they hope are pre-emptive strikes against any revelations the promised book by former Irish Timesjournalist Ed Moloney may contain about Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. The DUP leader may have settled his dissidents by giving them control over his own fate. But he knows disquiet about scandal and expenses still threatens his vote.

Meanwhile voters, and non-voters, ask what happened to the promise of a new Northern Ireland. They might remind themselves that the appetite for violence has gone, and that ex-paramilitaries have destroyed their weaponry.

The final decommissioning was overshadowed by political manoeuvres – fitting enough, even if the manoeuvres are flimsy.