Born in November 1998, I am technically a “post-Troubles” baby, a child of the “new Northern Ireland”. I have never known the routine bomb scares and checkpoints that my parents knew; unlike their generation, I am unaccustomed to seeing a soldier in uniform.
I became aware of politics around the beginning of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’ time as first ministers; those halcyon days. Still somewhat on a high from the Chuckle Brothers era of Paisley/McGuinness, there was an air of acceptance towards Robinson’s slightly sterner politic. It appeared to be something workable, and relatively flexible. Progress had been made at St. Andrews, and for the first few years of my political awareness, things appeared to be moving markedly in the right direction.
I distinctly remember, after one of my early trips into the big smoke of Belfast around this time, telling my mum and dad how I was “proud of Belfast” and “proud to be from Northern Ireland”. I largely remember this because it came as a shock to them. They had grown up in Newry and Derry in the 70s and 80s and had always talked about this and their experiences. I had certainly been raised a cultural nationalist yet while mindful of that, I did not feel it to be definitive. I was happy in the 2011 census to say I could call myself Northern Irish. I saw no real reason to focus on Irish unity when the real task at hand seemed to be working towards a better Northern Ireland. Titanic Belfast had just been finished, we had enjoyed the MTV EMAs in Belfast, Derry had been a huge success as UK City of Culture. The Good Friday Agreement appeared to be working a treat. Progress had been made, there was much left to do.
This entire set of circumstances appears very remote these days, when you are met with a bitterly divided sectarian impasse anywhere you look, be it Brexit or indeed anywhere in what we used to call the Northern Ireland political scene.
Following the emergence of Sinn Féin’s more cynical brand of politics targeting a youth vote with superficial memes and shallow promises of equality, I decided that this was not a party for me. The SDLP, too, at the time appeared a Catholic party that had little to do with a modern Northern Ireland. I was a young person with a fairly open attitude and a willingness to forge a new, post-sectarian identity.
Yet, despite this, Unionism has consistently failed to win me over. I have given transfers to the UUP in the past, and I was impressed by Mike Nesbitt’s more inclusive rhetoric in the 2017 election. However, given that Robin Swann’s party’s only voice is now in a dormant Stormont, the DUP are effectively the sole voice of modern Unionism to most people, particularly outside Northern Ireland.
Therefore, for Arlene Foster to say that Unionism (as she and her party present it) is an inclusive, welcoming political force in Northern Ireland today is little more than a comedic statement.
This is a party that has never accepted as legitimate the Irish voice in Northern Ireland. Consistently, they attack the very minorities that Mrs Foster appears to believe she welcomes. For Irish speakers, the DUP dismisses their language as a weaponised relic, ruling out its imposition upon non-Irish speakers, without acknowledging that this is not what they’re actually asking for. As far as gay rights go, their anti-democratic and cruel blocking of equal marriage speaks for itself, never mind past comments of abomination and immorality. For people (and they do exist) who live outside the Catholic/Protestant binary, the DUP has little to offer too; Muslims will fondly remember Peter Robinson’s remarks on them going to the shop for him, for example.
Perhaps most shocking recently, however, is the DUP’s exclusion not only of minorities, but of overwhelming majorities. Their suppression and rejection of the European identity in Northern Ireland (which following the recent Brexit Attitudes poll appears to be stronger than ever) exploits all of the tensions in the current political landscape to hammer home a political vision espoused overwhelmingly by a unionist minority. “Remainers” of all sides of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland are dismissed, while any attempts to voice their concerns by the likes of Michel Barnier or Leo Varadkar are met with accusations of “belligerence” (Sammy Wilson), belittling of “little Leo” (Edwin Poots) or flat-out unacceptable racism (John Kilclooney).
The DUP is a party who would, on any normal political spectrum, attract conservative voters with their social policy. Indeed, its policies of academic selection would be popular to a large number of Catholic/Nationalist voters, for example. However, the famous “radical republican agenda” claims and other similarly iconic moments have managed to sectarianise just about every issue in Northern Ireland, something that Sinn Féin are more than happy to play up to and exploit.
The contempt with which the DUP treats the electorate is not even a convincing charade of “inclusiveness”.
They must deliver immediately on the issues of an ever-growing minority, or face the fact that this contempt that they call “inclusive” could lead to a difficult border poll on joining a country where these interests are objectively better served, and in which the supposedly “narrow and exclusive” nationalist voice might do surprisingly better than they expect.
I eagerly await the actions that Mrs Foster and her party will now take to ensure that Unionism does become a force of inclusive and welcoming politics, one which manages to move politics in Northern Ireland up to the present day.
I will not be holding my breath.
Dáire Toal is a first year French and Spanish student from Belfast studying in Cambridge.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.