“THERE is new political space developing in Northern Ireland,” Peter Robinson told the South Antrim DUP at the weekend. “It is the DUP’s aim that unionism will own it and lead it.” But it can’t. Tonight, “the new political space” will be seen at the front of the City Hall, where I doubt those mingling in the Christmas Market will care too much about any flag flying above them. Round the back, will be the “old” political space, full of DUP protesters and flag-wavers.
Robinson acknowledges that the fastest growing identity is “Northern Irish”, but his party tonight will go out of its way to alienate those potential voters, few in number as they appear. The back of City Hall will be full of safe votes; the front, where the new votes lie, won’t want to know – something for the DUP bear in mind if your hidden purpose is to win back East Belfast from Alliance.
In a way, that’s all good – voters won’t be fooled by Robinson’s charm when they can see at first hand where his party’s true priorities lie. It is fantastic that every time Robbo reaches out that his party slaps him back down as it reveals its true face. And so it might be asked: who really leads and defines the DUP – progressive Peter trying to carve out an image of an inclusive DUP, or the uncompromising Canute-like old guard still trying to hold back the tide?
Tonight, Alliance votes will save the flying of the Union Flag over City Hall. A nationalist controlled committee wanted to bring it down altogether, and an Alliance abstention in the full council would allow that to happen. Instead, the new policy will be exactly the same as Stormont’s with the flag on display on designated days – something the DUP have done nothing to change at Parliament Buildings.
If there is trouble tonight, the blame can be placed squarely where it belongs. Let’s hope there’s not. But if there is a battle between the DUP and Alliance for the hearts and minds of the “Northern Irish” – those Robinson himself describes as “not coming with a textbook nationalist wish-list demanding it be satisfied” – then tonight there will be one clear winner.