Not spooked






Alex Kane increasingly sounds like the elderly Auntie who is forever telling everyone in the family how what they are doing is not the right way of doing it; and if we have heard it once, we need to hear it over and over again – maybe different words, same message.

Alex’s most recent piece in the News Letter “Why the leaders of Unionism should be well and truly spooked” is a case in point.

The opening criticism in the article is that ‘Unionism has not got over 1972’ which repeats a trope of Republicans to make a statement so self evident there is no need to prove how or why. It is the same way as every European (or anyone not British) will tell you how the British have never got over losing their Empire; something that keeps all of us British awake at night, constantly.

Unionism has faced many challenges over the course of the last century, and more. From the point when Northern Ireland came into being in 1921 it has suffered from the consequence of physical force Republicanism; again in the 1950s; with the late 1960s heralding a prolonged period of violence.

True, in the early 70s Unionists fractured into a myriad of parties, but not the underlying sense of Unionism. There is no doubt that violent Republicanism exploited this opportunity to bring about what it believed would be ‘total war’ to bring about the ‘inevitable’ United Ireland.

Alex accepts a non-Unionist narrative of ‘the Troubles’ that essentially blames ‘Unionists’ – that would be the “unionist one-party apartheid state closed for business in 1972”. Simplistic at best, and lazy. Unionism, forever the loser.

Yes there have been other times when Unionists have faced significant challenges. What may have seemed insurmountable, or undertaken with egregious disregard to everything Unionists believed to be decent, has been adsorbed and responded to with not inconsiderable patience and stoicism.

Yet Unionism continues to find itself in having to respond to ‘crisis’, the most recent of which (as follows a pattern) has been largely manufactured and defined by Sinn Fein – though that definition has proved to be inexact, and variable. The current ‘crisis’ will last as long as Sinn Fein believes it can milk the opportunity provided by the focus being on its favourite topic – itself, alone.

While a list of things Alex believed ‘spooked’ Unionism over the past 50 years certainly fills a column, it is difficult to pin down exactly how the title of the article is justified what eventually rolls to his conclusion of sorts.

One Lucid Talk poll is not quite horror material; particularly as newspaper headlines seem to be extracted from the ‘what ifs’ largely based on a presumed understanding of what hard and soft Brexit would mean – another poll based on emotional responses to the unknown. Otherwise, little change to be noted.

The most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey put many of the myths associated with ‘Brexit’ into perspective, with a majority (51%) stating that ‘Brexit’ made no difference to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. A key issue was: ‘would ‘Brexit’ make a ‘United Ireland’ more likely?’ The survey found only a slight percentage increase (5%) in favour of a United Ireland (14 to 19%).

It was speculated on Slugger O’Toole that the percentage increase, in favour of a ‘United Ireland’ was down to ‘Remain’ voters, who were largely Alliance voters – though as has been seen in the rest of the UK, such presumptions aren’t by any means certain and ignore a pragmatism lost on most commentators.

It was also highlighted that despite ‘Brexit’, support for Irish ‘unity’ today is not as high as it was prior to the St. Andrew’s Agreement (2006), where within the Roman Catholic (perceived ‘Nationalist’ community) just over half wanted a ‘United Ireland’.

Furthermore, Sinn Fein has been the largest Party in Northern Ireland (by votes) in the 2009 and 2014 European Parliament election, the 2010 Westminster election and the 2014 Local Government election – perhaps that is a reason for members of the Felons Club being spooked by Sinn Fein’s 2016 Assembly performance.

Whatever the dividing lines, it is unlikely Brexit is the dividing line between Unionism and Nationalism that Sinn Fein would wish it to be. The 2017 Westminster election has made that statement abundantly clear.

Whatever the trauma of the early 1970s, which included the loss (though never immediately apparent) of a local devolved government at Stormont, Unionists have accepted power-sharing as a way forward for NI – a majority in 1998, underpinned in 2007.

What has not changed over the past 20 years is the inability of Sinn Fein to accept the basis of the Good Friday Agreement, which is consent.

Republicanism was slow to accept the need to make the effort to show it was willing to accept democratic norms – though we now know that ‘decommissioning’ was as incomplete as it was tardy. Republicans have constantly picked at the scars of the past, generating expectations that will be unfulfilled, exacerbating community tensions to gain electoral advantage, while forever undermining accommodation with Unionism and confidence in any institution that relies on Sinn Fein to make it work.

It is both easy and lazy to place the entire onus on Unionists to think anew. The history of unionism for more than 100 years has been one of change, adaptation, and renewal. Simply because Alex is comfortable in his corner armchair does not mean that elsewhere there is an absence of thought being directed to the future.

Unionism has moved considerably in this past 100 years, as circumstances required.

It would be a mistake to see what is happening on the hill as some historic showdown between Unionism and Republicanism. It is politics, and more particularly the outworking of the politics of Sinn Fein.

It is not wrong to be tired of Sinn Fein’s self-indulgent rent-seeking. It is difficult to see how to move past that impediment to good government without further undermining public confidence in the institutions of government – and that any resolution to this ‘crisis’ will be anything more than a sticking plaster which Sinn Fein will again remove so as to access that scar…. pick, pick, pick.

No, Unionism doesn’t need to be spooked. It showed in the June Westminster election how it responds to Sinn Fein’s bombast and hubris, where it counts, emphatically, without drama.

Unionism will continue to do what it has always done: review, adapt and renew.

All in good time.