“Perked-up unionism facing stale nationalism is the opposite of the state of play for several decades.”

It really has become a game of two halves. Sinn Fein has shifted most of its focus and talent (which may explain that odd screw up in FST) to the Republic leaving Fortress Shinner in Northern Ireland manned (Beau Geste style) by a skeleton crew.

Fionnuala O’Connor detects a sea change

It became unchallengeable to observe that new nationalist confidence faced demoralised unionism, generally inarticulate.

But the contrast has been less stark for some time now. The long, unproductive anti-climax since 1998 and the eventual stalemate at Stormont has worn nationalism down.

‘New nationalism’ arguably coasted on John Hume’s legacy and the emergence of civilianised republicanism, a fitful business of stop and start.

Unionism today is hardly inspiring, but it faces parties running on empty, minus the dynamism and vision that once set the pace.

It’s a fair point, although I think Fionnuala underestimates the potential of a successful Brexit campaign, should the DUP agree as a party to accept such a dubious mission. However she returns to the main point:

As the Republic’s politics adjust post-Tiger, northern nationalism in terms of Irish government priorities was always going to be relegated.

First the SDLP slipped off Irish radar as the peace process took shape, the post-Hume party struggling to focus while republicans demanded and got the bulk of attention.

The southern political class logged Sinn Féin’s arrival in the Dáil with abiding distaste.

In turn republicanism has focused its energy in the Republic, where its younger faces have ability the northern branch conspicuously lacks.

The debacle turned u-turn on benefits could hardly have been handled worse.

The committee-think that plotted each step the Adams/McGuinness leadership took in the first years created the impression of a talent reservoir, which it turns out does not exist. An injection of ability via new arrivals never happened.

Maybe a cadre of ex-prisoners as advisers repelled as many potential recruits as it rewarded old hands.

McGuinness has had to front up and fill the gap with folksy quasi-charisma, maintaining some sense of momentum by modelling calm and patience while Peter Robinson flatly refused to show leadership.

But as time goes on the one-man band syndrome looks ever thinner, unsurprising in what was once a collective enterprise, and proud of it.

The Derry man retreating to Derry may re-invigorate the party there, or it might point up local strains and stresses. Stormont 2016 is hardly an arena of triumph.

She concludes rather accurately (if a tad mournfully)…

…as the Republic’s election campaign heats up northern politics look becalmed, the major shift of the last century in questionable shape.

Where the next wave of energy is to come from, and where it will leave unionism versus nationalism, is unguessable.

SF has already (it’s early days) had a step change campaign in the south. Even with the most successful outcome the southern terrain will remain complex and treacherous. SF needs NI to stay inert to avoid the diversion of its resources to the putting out of flames.

No northern news is good news. Unionism has time (if not always the space) to get beyond the deadening culture war memes that have defined and limited it since its inception in the 1880s.

Boneparte Adams may find NI a very different place if and when he ever returns from his attempt to annex Ireland’s equivalent of Moscow.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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