Good piece from Peter Geogehegan in the Scotsman today…
If the secular middle classes exude an air of lethargic resignation, the opposite is the case in impoverished housing estates across Northern Ireland, especially those where kerbstones are painted red, white and blue. Many of the protests sparked by the decision to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall have been small affairs, orchestrated in staunchly loyalist neighbourhoods far from town centres, but the cumulative effect has been striking. For the first time, arguably since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and definitely since Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed to power-sharing in 2007, real questions are being asked about the future direction of Northern Ireland.[emphasis added]
He talks to John McCallister:
“The question now is how do you get back to that moderate unionism and moderate nationalism, that spirit of generosity that would say, ‘that is acceptable to do, that is not?’ ” John McCallister, Ulster Unionist Party Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), said, when I met him in the devolved assembly at Stormont earlier this week. McCallister, a passionate voice for moderation, has publicly advocated the UUP pulling out of the cross-community power-sharing assembly and forming an official opposition.
The problem for McCallister and others like him is that the middle ground in Northern Irish politics is fast disappearing. In the first Assembly elections following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the SDLP topped the poll, followed closely by the Ulster Unionists. Sinn Fein took 17 per cent of the vote. In last year’s elections, the Democratic Unionist easily cemented their position as Northern Ireland’s dominant political force. Sinn Fein finished second. As is often the case in power-sharing consosciational systems, extremist politics pays. Over the last decade and a half, the market for moderate politics in Northern Ireland has shrunk: the cross-community Alliance party commanded under 8 per cent of the vote in 2011, up just over 1 per cent on 1998.
This surfeit of moderation is evident not just on the hardwood benches at Stormont. The recent decision to name a playground in Newry after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh has sparked controversy. This summer’s parading season was among the tensest in recent years. “We have had a dreadful five or six months in Northern Ireland,” said Mr McCallister.
This week’s Northern Ireland census does suggest some reasons to be cheerful. Over a fifth of respondents said that they felt Northern Irish, rather than British or Irish. The emergence of a definably Northern Irish identity might offer a route out of the Manichean Orange and Green dichotomy. But, once again, the sectarian headcount dominated headlines, with Catholics now within spitting distance of Protestants, at 45 per cent and 48 per cent of the total population respectively.
The silence of David Cameron and the Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, has been deafening. Cameron is of a generation of Tories that have little time for the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”. That the Prime Minister has not travelled to Northern Ireland after over a week of social unrest speak volumes. First minister Peter Robinson has played his hand badly and fans the flames of sectarianism just weeks after telling the DUP conference that the party can attract Catholic voters.
The question now is what will happen next. More loyalist protests are planned for this week, including a demonstration in George Square, Glasgow, and Fife, if a leaked loyalist timetable is to be believed. With so much “passionate fury” in the air, the prospects for Northern Ireland’s shrinking middle ground look worryingly bleak.