“I would still trust them to go down to the shops for me and give me the right change.”
The horribly condescending bigotry of Peter Robinson’s puzzling intervention in the row of over his friend the pastor recalls the atavism of “to hell with the future and long live the past” that leaves unionism with few friends and precious little defence. Witness the spreading clamour against him which his friends will claim is only an excuse to bash poor Peter. Certainly the Irish News was an odd vehicle to chose . But such is the present political atmosphere that Robinson will have to work a lot harder to dispel the notion that he was blowing a dog whistle for unionists to unite around the lowest common denominator. If Islam has barbarism within it unionism has its own. For Moslems read Catholics. If trust is the issue it was already fragile when he blew the whistle to support the wretched ayatollah of North Belfast. It is a hopeless position from which to resume party talks about the future.
A new numbers game in politics has not yet begun but the day is not far off. Quite apart from the effect on community relations, basic political calculation shows that unionist unity based on intransigence will fail to defend the Union as a Catholic majority dawns. Unionism is terrified about what could happen when that majority arrives and searches for comfort in the opinion polls which record high levels of political agnosticism. The real polls showing a respectable turnout of over 50% give them little cause for comfort. Continuing unionist refusal even to formulate positions over flags parades and the past will throw more and more young Catholics into the arms of Sinn Fein and fail to attract the moderates from the garden centres and into the polling booths.
Unionism is obsessed with Sinn Fein and at their wits end to try to stem their progress. In the North, this is largely in their own hands. The mythical reasonable person in Northern Ireland would say that the route of parades and the flying of flags are matters which have to be negotiated with workable compromises in mind. Sinn Fein’s so-called ideology is neither about devilish cunning nor the inevitability of victory. It is a rational political strategy of a kind unionism lacks. Even with power sharing the ground on which is stands is too narrow for its own good. Robinson seemed to realise this but faltered after a generous decision over the Maze backfired and he reverted to default over flags.
Sinn Fein appears magnanimous by insinuating itself with considerable success into the mainstream Irish tradition which is reconciling with Britain. On the other hand the Northern Ireland of Robinson’s gaffe is a universe away from the multicultural UK even with UKIP as a political force and even perhaps from the Northern Ireland that’s emerging.
Sinn Fein realised long ago that playing percentages is the game of today. The zero sum which unionism so often choses is the wrong game and amounts to self harm. Sinn Fein is good on the cross community gesture (see the record of the Belfast mayoralty) and is prepared to retreat after probing moves. Equality would logically mean two flags or none and Sinn Fein insists on neither. They appear to have made greater efforts to restrain their even more dangerous extremes. The flegs protests showed how loyalist education in compromise has scarcely begun.
As Yeats put it “ the stone’s in the midst of all.” The roots of all lies the past. Young Catholics and more than Catholics will not accept that the IRA were entirely to blame for the Troubles. For them the account is more balanced. The records of a half century of single party government and decades of Army occupation and nihilistic loyalist violence have to be weighed in the account. Clean hands are needed to demolish Sinn Fein’s claim that the armed struggle was justified. There is a genuine and complex debate to be had about moral equivalence in the Troubles which is being avoided by Sinn Fein’s tactical astuteness and Unionism’s misplaced moral certainties. Rival ideologies which rely ultimately on personal conviction and the underlying threat of force have strong undemocratic roots which need to be dug up and examined. Without such a candid exercise the past will continue to dog the present and blight the future.
But whatever the verdicts of history, trust is the issue today. Nationalism’s fair gains should not be seen as a loss for unionism. Sinn Fein’s claim that nationalists have to fight for every issue resonates beyond their ranks. Nationalists have shown themselves more willing than Unionists to accept that 1998 was a new beginning with all its flaws. It is becoming clearer every day that unionism needs to match them in commitment in order to flourish and perhaps even survive. In the early 1960s the moderate unionism and ecumenical Protestantism which were slowly emerging made the fundamental mistake of failing to challenge Paisley and allow him and his kind to claim the moral high ground, with disastrous results. There is no excuse for their successors today to do likewise. Relying on fear of starting it up all over again would be unwise and is demoralising politics already.
With citizenship a matter of personal choice our identities are becoming interchangeable . Britishness and Irishness are complementary not in conflict. Surely some unionists exist who can spot the advantages of this transformation for their essential cause and make political capital of it for themselves, rather than present it as a grudging concession to the other side?
But the implications for a stable future will be serious if a unionism with its backs to the wall were to take the other course, adopt the spirit of 1912 and swap roles with the contemporary IRA.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London