It was back in 2010, I was working down in Cork on some research for my PhD, like everybody else I was gripped by the arrival of the IMF in Ireland and the ensuing collapse of the government as the Green Party announced that they wanted an election in early 2011. Well, there pushes Irish unity another few years down the road I thought, as with the country under the control of the IMF made the economic case for reunification next to impossible. But, no matter what I thought our problems were economically, I always knew with the DUP in power in Stormont, that Nationalism would always have some signs of life.
Although, that illusion began to be shattered as I listened into Peter Robinson’s conference speech that weekend where he expressed his hope that Southern Ireland would emerge from its difficulties. My reaction was wow, that’s different from a DUP leader, when his party used to make great play on the fact that the Irish Republic was a failed economic state. Could this be the start of a change in attitude?
Fast forward to 2012, I was listening to remarks he made on Good Morning Ulster about Edward Carson in Dublin and this section of his speech stood out for me;
For unionism to prosper in the decades to come it must be inclusive and not exclusive. I want to see a broad and inclusive unionism that can embrace all shades of those who support Northern Ireland’s present constitutional position. Unionism must reach far beyond its traditional base if it is to maximise its potential. That means forming a pro-Union consensus with people from different religious and community backgrounds.
When one reflects on the record of the last one hundred years it is remarkable the extent to which, for the most part, neither side sought to persuade or accommodate the other in a way which would have been in their own best long-term interests. Perhaps in the past circumstances contrived not to allow that, but today I want to see it change.
This quite frankly made me gulp with fear. As a Nationalist, I have never been on the wing that subscribes to the fact that unity is inevitable. The case has to be constantly made, refreshed and re-analysed for why this island should be a unitary state. Nationalism has inherent weakenesses on welfare and economic issues which we have neglected due to our incapacity to move away from a sole focus on grievance politics.
Why I feared Robinson’s remarks was that not since Brookeborough in the 1950’s had a Unionist leader been secure in his position and enjoyed a peaceful environment. Terence O’Neill had tried this approach, but he was so alienated from his base that it never worked. Robinson had organisational and political control of the DUP and running as a liberal he cruised to victory in the 2011 Assembly election.
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that for a leader to secure the Union, they need roughly around a quarter to one third of Catholics to become Unionists. Robinson with his new appeoach that he had been articulating had a serious shot of locking in a substantial number of Catholics to the Union forever.
However, what a difference a flag can make. Ever since the decision to take the flag down 365 days a year from Belfast City Hall, we have seen a reversion in his stance. What has happened is that all the old aspects of the DUP that made them such a toxic choice for Catholics and soft Nationalists have been trotted out over the past two years.
When I watch Gregory Campbell mock Irish and see his leader unwilling to punish him for it, I laugh as I think here’s the party I know and love. And I am also comforted by the fact that with every mock they send more people back into the Nationalist camp and keep this project going.
Sadly for Unionism, Peter Robinson had within his grasp the chance to deliver a knock out blow to Nationalism when it was at its weakest. Lacking economic crediblity and a clear path since 2010, Robinson could have really capitalised and made a new case for the Union. Furthermore, he had the strategic insight to draft a credible plan for it. Yet, he has squandered it and ultimately kicked the can down the road for some future leader to attempt a new agenda for Unionism.
But in the meantime, here’s to you Mr Robinson, Nationalism owes you more than you will know.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs