First of all, one of the things the DUP have miscalculated is that being right about something is never going to be enough. Especially not in a society in which a warm smile and the stale whiff of cordite goes much further than all the earnest work in the world. As we counselled unionism in general back in May 2003:
Ultimately, this is a battle for people and not for land. 1066 and All That tells us that the English Civil War was an extremely memorable struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Romantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive). In future struggles, unionists need to be both right and attractive. For that, a firmer, bolder, more far-sighted unionism will be needed.
By no imaginable measure is the DUP an attractive project to anyone but its core support. For all the protests from within that party, it is still held to be repulsive even by fellow unionis. Putting the blame on some of the liberal biases we’ve seen the media indulge themselves in over the last few weeks misses the point.
Some of those biases have been pretty horrendous. Take, for instance, last week when Gerry Adams gently chided reporter Conor McAuley for not investigating or even reporting in outline a rape victim’s accusations of cover up against two IRA , whose denials (of the unreported allegations) were nevertheless carried by the BBC two days previously.
I’ve heard some plausible reasons why the victim’s side of the story was not covered by the theoretically impartial BBC: sheer cock up is the most credible of them. It sits uncomfortably with the Corporation’s tally ho chase of the First Minister and his wife across the fields of scandal and controversy only the week before.
As Pete outlined in his piece for Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Sinn Fein’s part in this issue of policing and justice has been questionable from the start. The DUP will be given no credit for their firm standing on the murder of Paul Quinn so early on. Nor for the fact that that generous financial deal that Robinson got for Unionism has been continuously discounted too.
Within the Peace Process™ plausible deniability is a concept reserved entirely for dissembling Cavaliers who have a ton real life skeletons (some of them still very much alive) in their cupboards: and not for antsy Roundheads with tendency to tell like it is. You need charm to lie in public and get away with it. Whilst the DUP may have many strong assets, charm is not one of them. Neither are they terribly convincing liars.
Which brings me back to the underlying problem political unionism finds itself returning to. The St Andrews Agreement was supposed to be about the triumph of politics. Ian Paisley’s last great closing move was to force Sinn Fein (along with the decisive backing of Bush’s State Department) to recognise the PSNI. Many in the party may feel the long coda of whether to approve devolution of policing and justice was a card worth playing. But like Sinn Fein’s IRA arms it has become more of a burden the longer they’ve carried it on.
The challenge for any unionist leader remains what it was seven years ago. Do they have the determination to lead? The DUP may have been firmer and bolder than any of their predecessors. But hardly any more far-sighted. When this mess clears, there will be another series of engagements. For all the pious talk of the dangers of going back to war (and the killings), there is little appetite for it in the streets.
Instead, Stormont Castle and Parliament Buildings either await a return of incumbents, or a new dispensation that allows a nationalist party and a unionist party to actually achieve something for their voters instead of constantly looking over their shoulders at whomever is lined up to stab them in the back. As I argued a few weeks ago on the Guardian site, the DUP is checkmated on P&J and will sooner or later have to roll over and concede.
Political unionism as a whole (the UUs and Tories as well as the DUP) has been taught some pretty tough lessons in the last few weeks. It will need to draw the right conclusions and find plausible ways to consolidate under single interest. But it cannot be under the old inward looking Protestant only terms. They need to cultivate friends and influence more than they need to piss off even more of those nice liberal ladies and gentlemen of the press.
And next time they find themselves in the right, maybe someone somewhere (other than the odd disreputable blog) will actually believe that they mean what they say for once.