For decades, Barry White was a great part of the voice of the Belfast Telegraph, sometimes in his own name, as often in anonymous editorials. He was one of a trio ofsenior journalists, Roy Lilley, Ed Curran and himself who steered a difficult editorial path for the paper from 1970 arguing for the centre ground mainly from the standpoint of liberal unionism. The voice was that of reasonableness, by definition so often ahead of the real thing, although Barry wrote a generally laudatory biography of “John Hume: statesman of the Troubles” in the 1980s. Before long, they were liberal unionism. Its flaw as I recall was that it seldom tackled root causes, being rather stuck in the politics of 1969 like O’Neillism just before its formative editor Jack Sayers died, echoing “Ulster at the Cross Roads”, “ Why Don’t we Catch Ourselves On”? and “Let’s Be Sensible.” In spite of its analytical shortcomings, there was a commercial risk for the paper in this policy among it’s generally unionist readership. But it was greatly to their credit they stuck to their (metaphorical) guns. The Thomson Organisation owners tried out more populist lines elsewhere but seemed content to leave the editorial line to the established tradition.
Helpfully described as “a political commentator,” Barry White has returned to the Telegraph with the most salutary warning to unionism today that I’ve yet read.
Perhaps the voice of liberal but no longer unconditional unionism has renewed relevance. Typically enough, the thoughts are not original but they are expressed with an authority of long experience and conviction that should be heeded. Barry’s familiar pessimism is evident in his belief that as so often, they probably won’t be.
To fill the vacuum, and enable nationalists unrepresented at Westminster to exploit Brexit worries, Sinn Fein will continue to push for a border poll, despite the Government’s reluctance to increase division in these febrile times.
Even talking about a united Ireland, when there is no certainty about long-term relations between Northern Ireland, Britain and the Republic, stirs old animosities.
Dublin clearly wants no part of it, having no desire to shoulder the economic and political burden, but may be unable to withstand northern pressure.
All these swirling tides help to underline the anxiety expressed by Peter Robinson over unionism’s lack of a strategy to deal with nationalism’s new sense of confidence.
Is it already too late to stop the rot in Stormont? Or is there still time to steer a different course, involving a greater degree of compromise than ever before?
Concentrating on essentials and discarding outdated attitudes would be a start.
I confess to being entirely puzzled as to what the DUP are after. They seem as stuck in our local politics as the Conservatives are divided over Brexit. You could argue – just, although I believe mistakenly – that it was understandable that during the Troubles unionism battened down the hatches to wait for a military solution before they compromised on politics and were entirely prepared for the whole community to take casualties to repel greatly exaggerated threats to the Union. Today they will argue that as ever, they are unfairly bearing the brunt of criticism for the Stormont impasse that should be shared with Sinn Fein.
But why does this “unfairness” persist beyond republican propaganda? It’s because Sinn Fein feel they can afford the standoff. They have an alternative vision, the border poll leading they hope to a United Ireland. With only 40 or so % of the vote for combined nationalism, they have a long way to go to win a majority. Unionists have nowhere else to go except the Union. They have time but not too much time. The Union today is changing fast from the old unitary state. To feel grafted onto a comfortable unitary Union of Great Britain is a double illusion. Both unions, the Union of Great Britain and the Union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain now have to argue for their survival.
The irony is that there is plenty of material. Northern Ireland is no longer detached from the metropolitan debate. It figures prominently in the Brexit negotiations and over social reform on the floor of the House of Commons where arguably the majority Northern Ireland opinion is barely represented.
The DUP like the rest of us will have to wait out the tortuous Brexit results. They appear to have won the argument over “no border in the Irish Sea” although no doubt they’ll remain vigilant. The deal with the Conservatives is a limited reinsurance compact. We may expect political fireworks after the summer lull. But even if their vote becomes crucial for the government’s survival, what good will that do at home? Surely they must see that they should move towards reform at home before long, before the whole population is confronted with the binary choice they have spent their lives trying to avoid but which in fact, they have made little effort to shape.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London