Yesterday I was asked to do a couple of things in the media. One was on Andrew Neil’s new GB News station (which I can’t actually watch live) and the other was for The Irish Times Inside Politics podcast (starts about 33 minutes in):
On both occasions I was asked to share my thoughts on the NI Protocol and the challenges facing the DUP leader elect, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. In preparing for both, a number of thoughts occurred to me that hadn’t before.
Talking to DUP folks over years it seems that they whilst they anew ware getting stuck with an old anti Agreement tag over an international treaty that has become axiomatic to the current arrangement was a bad thing, they didn’t tell their voters.
What was clever in 1999 (ie, taking ministerial seats but not sitting at the Executive table) has become something of noose around their too clever necks. Pat Leahy asked me whether there was any sense that they had learned a lesson.
I quoted him the abstract from Edwin Poots’ GMU in yesterday’s post suggesting that what both he and Arlene share in common is the directness of a politician unburdened from the responsibility of senior leadership.
The upshot being that protest is less effective than being in government. When Arlene stepped down, I argued it was the end of the Robinson experiment in broadening the appeal of the party (pretty much his political life’s mission).
With hindsight, we might argue that his organisational skills, attention to important detail, autocratic leadership style had kept many recalcitrant old stagers from having to learn the hard way that if the DUP loses its broad appeal it will fade.
The self indulgence of Gregory Campbell’s ‘curry my yoghurt’, or Sammy Wilson’s stupidly cynical remarks about going to the chip shop (which came around to bite him on the a**e) pushed more urbane unionist voices into the deep background.
To Wilson’s canny remark on the verge of Poots’ defenestration such that “you cannot lead people who are not following you”, we might add, can the DUP (divided as it stands) take the sort of leadership it needs to take party out of the fire?
And that’s a question that applies to more than the next leader. In knifing Arlene, the rebels showed that the personal anger and resentment they feel over Robinson’s dispatch of the party’s founder is well short of what’s needed to save their party.
Indeed, the abject failure of their coup has put the future careers of party colleagues who’s passive support they were able to enlist in serious jeopardy. That’s something that’s not easily forgiven in party political circles anywhere.
But such clarity might be Jeffrey Donaldson’s silver lining. The politics of reaction and resentment may be where the DUP c came into political life, but 50 years later it’s clearly not where it needs to go.
There is time for a Donaldson led party to turn things around, and there are tasks that need to be taken on to make the protocol work for Northern Ireland that could help him transform the party’s narrative.
There is also another unionist rival to power in the shape of Doug Beattie who at the very least has the emotional intelligence to read the wider NI room better than almost any unionist leader since… [Well, who’s counting? – Ed]
Pat tells me there’s a sense in Dublin that Donaldson is a man they think they could do business with. And the southern government (or at least the Taoiseach’s Office) is keen to get things moving around the shared island initiative.
You may hear some frustration from me at the poor contextual understanding of how the shift in macro economics, from the extreme austerity that’s been in play since the Stormont restart towards a much looser attitude to public borrowing.
On a macro level this not the worst moment to take power, providing you have some new ideas to put into play. For the DUP, that requires a huge shift from its Sir Geoffrey Boycott level of forward defensive to an Botham of the 1981 vintage.
That’s a tall order for our Sir Jeffrey, but the Shared Island initiative is the perfect strategic instrument for levering in ideas and cash to begin rebuilding the outward looking confidence that was the hallmark of Belfast’s (Protestant) mercantile past.
He could pay heed to one of most quoted emperors of Ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius (H/T Conor): “I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self deception and ignorance”.
That would be a hell of shift. But as Gregory Campbell (in his new more human guise) told Claire Byrne a few weeks back, there is no majority in Northern Ireland any more, but three minorities. And it is the third one that’s growing fastest.
These folk are fed up with the blight of sectarian battles-a-day, and deeply indifferent as to who gets to be the First Minster of Northern Ireland except that they do want someone with the ambition to make something of the place they call home.
More importantly, they know our disastrously unproductive civil war is over and they want to see what comes next. Not only do they welcome change, they know it’s happening with or without our politicians.
They want solutions now, rather than hollow promises of everything in the Never Neverland of constitutional wrangling.
Continuing with the narrowing focus of the party’s defensive past will on see them fall into next trapdoor the Army Council sets for the doctrinally rigid and unwary. Does Jeffrey have the agility or his party the appetite for such change?
If doesn’t take this opportunity for positive change, one or other of his political rival certainly will.
“The rubble had been cleared away, but strange grasses and wild herbs had sprung up where the war demolished houses had been.”
– Muriel Spark, A Far Cry From Kensington
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty