The DUP must decide whether to lead… or follow Sinn Féin

There has been little to celebrate these past few months. But as someone born and raised in Northern Ireland, and whose home is now across the Atlantic, I confess to having felt enormous pride recently at the Northern Ireland Executive’s handling of COVID-19, and the characteristic resolve with which the people of Northern Ireland have faced our viral enemy.

But then Bobby Storey died and Sinn Féin raised a middle finger to all who have suffered through isolation to protect themselves and their community, in accordance with guidelines laid down by the Executive and broadcast with then justifiable inflexibility by Michelle O’Neill.

It’s fitting, of course, that a thug like Storey should find one final opportunity beyond his mortal life to bring heartache to the same land and people he helped terrorize as an Underboss in that most  Republican of mafias. Like a low budget Tony Soprano, with far less humanity and way more human tragedy.

Were this a Netflix drama we might say that Storey got the last laugh. But that, along with every other laugh since the Bobby Storey memorial Mardi Gras, went to Michelle O’Neill, who knows that the peculiarities of Northern Irish politics mean that she will face no accountability for her actions. At least in the short term.

The Executive will not fall over this issue. Too much is at stake in our new COVID reality. Public health, obviously, but also the knowledge that were devolution to fail now, it may not get up again. For better or worse, the DUP finds itself locked in government with Sinn Féin.

But like a twin navigating their way through life, and condemned to endure perpetual comparisons with the respective achievements, virtues, and foibles of their sibling, this post-Storey journey with Sinn Féin offers the DUP an opportunity to elevate their status amongst those who don’t think of themselves as strident unionists.

But it requires a radically different approach than the DUP has exhibited in recent memory. The party of RHI must make respect for the electorate its watchword.

In this time of COVID, that respect begins and ends with both advocating for the prevailing public health guidelines and following them rigorously. On the eve of the 12th Season, a test awaits.

There have been predictable voices from the more extreme fringes of unionism and loyalism calling for marches to proceed as they would any other year. Those same voices point at the Storey funeral as evidence that their cause is just. As ever in Northern Ireland, whataboutism abounds.

The DUP should advocate vigorously against such voices. And if there is any doubt that this approach is the correct one, they need only consider one thing – every person in Northern Ireland, and many beyond, know how profoundly important the marching season is to those of the unionist tradition.

To give it up, even for one year, is perhaps the most solemn act of respect unionism could pay to all the people in the province. And such acts do not go unrecognized.

The Orange Order is already leading on this issue with it’s 12th at Home campaign. And there are community voices fighting this cause valiantly too, like DUP councillor Dale Pankhurst who knows first hand the sacrifice of carrying out an appropriate funeral for a loved one during COVID.

Anyone who follows Pankhurst on Twitter knows how passionate he is about loyalist cultural celebration, and also how devoted he was to his recently departed grandmother. Unlike Michelle O’Neill, Pankhurst knows what civic duty looks like during a global pandemic.

Now is the time for the DUP to join this cause with just as much fervor. A gauntlet has been thrown down by those who wish to put the health and wellbeing of their fellow citizens ahead of time-honoured traditions.

The DUP should pick it up and make it the party’s defining message in the period ahead. And it should marry that message with action of a kind that was lacking during the RHI scandal.

For starters, it should mandate that all elected DUP officials be required to resign their position if they attend any public celebration over the 12th Season. They should make clear that rank-and-file members will find themselves expelled from the party for any breach of public health guidelines.

And Arlene Foster should use her private and public influence to apply social pressure on any bands or otherwise organized groups that seek to or do, in fact, breach social distancing rules.

Politics is rarely black and white. But this is such a time. Adherence to the rules by those who set them and their followers, or disregard for those rules by those same people.

Sinn Féin has made its choice. So too must the DUP.