One of the most disappointing things to come out of recent NI political history was Sinn Féin’s much-vaunted, but quickly forgotten, Unionist Outreach project. In theory, this had a lot of potential. In practice, it was like a toddler trying to make friends with a cat.
To make friends with a cat, you have to make no mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many nice noises you make, or how nonthreatening you make yourself appear. One wrong move and the cat is on the other side of the wall, and you have to start again from scratch.
And that’s assuming that the cat has any inclination towards making friends with you in the first place.
As Mick has so often pointed out, Irish Nationalism is strategically very weak. Unionism has what they want – a blocking majority – but Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants in return. The republican movement once had a cessation of violence to offer, but they consistently overestimated just how valuable that was, and it was spent getting the GFA over the line. Recognition of the PSNI and devolution of justice got us St Andrews and the chuckle brothers. But that was a decade ago, and there’s nothing left in the bank.
Transactional politics, where the art of the deal is paramount, has run out of road. The system is broken again, and there is nothing left for SF to trade except a return to the status quo ante, which the DUP seem to value as much as the Emperor Qianlong valued European goods.
If anything game changing is to be brought to the table, it is Nationalism that must bring it. Nationalists will protest that this is unfair, and they would be right. Politics is unfair. It is the advocate of change that has to put in the work, because their opponents are not going to help.
And so we return to the cat.
The cat has nothing personal against the child. It just sees no potential reward from engagement that could possibly balance the risks. The way to make friends with the cat is threefold: offer a tasty reward; make no threatening moves; and have infinite patience.
The reward must be generous – there is no point offering the cat a dead bird; it is perfectly capable of getting one of those for itself. Cooked chicken is good; steak is better. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are promising the cat steak dinners every day. Think of it as a loss leader.
The prohibition on threatening moves is absolute; trust is hard won and instantly lost. Whatever you do, don’t even think of mentioning even the distant future prospect of tummy tickling.
And patience is a virtue. The worst thing you can do is change your cat strategy just when the cat is starting to re-evaluate its risk/reward calculation, for then you have demonstrated the deadliest sin of all – insincerity.
Transactional politics is the politics of enlightened self-interest. By definition, it cannot further the common interest.
Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.