Tom McGurk takes one of his occasional peeks over the Black Pig’s Dyke, and sees a challenging landscape to those mired in the tram-line thinking of the sectarian stereotype. For one thing, Martin McGuinness seems to have dropped any reference to the Free Presbyterian Church as The Taliban, since pledging his party’s democratic troth to the DUP leader, Ian Paisley. Nevertheless, McGurk thinks the major challenge remains in the Unionist court.
The power-sharing experiment between the DUP and Sinn Fein is actually, by dint of its very existence, attacking that central myth belying partition itself: the necessity of separateness and the importance of difference. For centuries, the North has been trapped in a culture of separateness and differences, its ‘us and them’ mentality the ineluctable concept of two separated tribes going about their ways in two separate cultures.
Even in so short a time, the power of a devolved government being shared between the two extremes of the post-plantation political quagmire that the North had become, has profoundly shaken all the assumptions. Suddenly – and this is no exaggeration centuries of perceived wisdoms and homespun consensus about the ‘other side’ are being challenged – not to mention what has happened to generations of political assumptions.
But, he reckons, economics likely to be a decisive determinator:
Power-sharing may yet prove even more destructive in the long run to the very essence of what unionist politics is supposed to be about. The hitherto unexpected effect of the DUP’s sudden conversion to market forces, an entrepreneurial culture and the need for a Celtic Tiger north of the border may be the beginning of learning how financially insignificant and politically impotent they are in British terms.
Gordon Brown will not change any of the North’s tax laws and, if they want to establish any sort of international economic presence, they will have to do it by the grace and favour of the Republic. In other words, the experience of powersharing will only continue to point out the financial handicaps of partition as opposed to the other way around. Perhaps the new M1 should be re-signposted ‘to Damascus’?
The DUP’s (circumscribed as it is by a highly institutionalised power sharing arrangement) espousal of small government and the market economy will be neither new nor unexpected to more regular observers of the Northern Irish scene, yet the irony is that the more private sector focused Unionist community may just find the small government economy in the Republic more to their taste, than the Republican electorate, which is, with some notable exceptions, much more dependent on a high spending public sector for employment.
The challenge of the new dispensation is to move away from the kind of mischievous mischaracterisation of ‘the other’ (commonplace in political parlance here since before any of us can remember) to a more realistic battle for hearts and minds, through selling the real (as opposed to imagined) benefits of their preferred constitutional solution.
However, it is unlikely to be, as some nationalists appear to imagine, an argument that is either already won or even one that only unionists can lose. For those who persist in such irrational belief, perhaps another dose of freshly ground political coffee is required?