“…laughing at unionists is not the revenge that Booby Sands had hoped”.

Today Newton Emerson gives the most plausible explanation as to why Unionism is finally out punching and out pacing political nationalism I’ve read since the start of Slugger O’Toole. It’s a real keeper. What follows is highlights. You really do need to read the whole thing

My Irish News colleague Fionnuala O Connor has asked why unionism seems comparatively “perked-up” beside “stale nationalism”.

The answer may be something many unionists do not believe in – evolution. As an unpopular people with an unfashionable cause, unionists live in an exceptionally harsh environment. One response to this would be a descent into victim-hood, like everyone else. But unionists are so unpopular that we cannot even get away with that, as revealed by numerous failed attempts.

So there is no choice but to adapt and some remarkable transformations have been witnessed. Consider the recent cases of flag protester Jamie Bryson and deselected DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, who have very publicly called for moderation and engagement, recanting the whole tenor of their political lives to date.

This has not been driven from within unionism. Quite the opposite, in fact – it is barely two years since Bryson was briefed by unionist leaders at the Haass talks. His transformation is due to an external environment of ridicule that made the failure of his tactics and the hopelessness of his position undeniable, despite all the flattery and celebrity that might have deceived him otherwise.

In contradistinction…

Republicans operate in kinder climes. Fringe figures far worse than Bryson are less likely to be mocked than to be honoured as the legion of the rearguard. At most, they will be told their cause is just but their methods are presently unsupported.

This expectation of respect extends well into the mainstream, as revealed by this week’s ‘Booby Sands’ misprint in a Sinn Fein election leaflet. The thin-skinned reaction of republicans to being laughed at, which in fairness was noted as much by nationalists as by unionists, reveals a worldview that cannot accept it has made even a tiny little mistake.

Of course, republicans have changed – but in the abandonment of violence, to take the most significant example, their rationale is only ever that they were right all along, becoming more right in retrospect as they go along. This is increasingly humoured by others, yet if mistakes are not acknowledged they cannot be learned from, making for shallow and dangerous victories.

Dangerous to whom? If I am reading Newton right the inability to unlearn from past mistakes is mostly dangerous to the project itself.  Unlearning past behaviours is a lot tougher than it looks. And in politics it’s almost impossible if all external pressures to change have been removed.

Perhaps Colum Eastwood’s admission that Nationalism has failed to find a means to realise its abiding ambition contains a modicum of evolutionary promise. The evolutionary rule of thumb is vary (by trying lots of new ideas); select (and test them); then amplify (just those things that work).

Nationalism has an awful lot of unlearning to do. Just go and read the whole thing.

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