Monday, 1 June 2009
Last night’s Politics Show on BBC1 constituted a depressing spectacle, for anyone interested in Northern Ireland and its politics. In a debate featuring all seven European election candidates, the pertinent issues were all but forgotten, as the event degenerated into an embarrassing bun-fight between the TUV incumbent and his DUP rival. Between Allister’s snarling drone and Dodds’ shrill yap, the other contenders were barely heard, and when they were, poor chairmanship from Jim Fitzpatrick ensured that soundbites predominated and little policy was debated. Although last week’s Question Time did not deliver a good examination of European issues either, this chaotic affair, filmed at Queen’s University Belfast, was an amateurish piece of programme making which served only to demonstrate the paucity of talent available to the Northern Ireland electorate.
On Slugger O’Toole Pete Baker has posted the debate’s apogee, a buttock clenching moment when Diane Dodds carried on with an irrelevant and inaccurate tirade, whilst the host, the audience and the rest of the panel attempted to silence her. I have embedded the relevant video to exhibit precisely how poor the candidate whom the DUP has chosen to put before the electorate is. How any thinking person could consider endorsing Dodds to represent Northern Ireland on the international stage is beyond me. Apart from her distinct lack of policy, the woman is almost entirely without charm. She reminds me of nothing so much as a constipated Jack Russell, breaking off her pained straining only to yap dissent at each and every passer-by.
Neither Dodds’ display, nor Allister’s spitting contempt, would surprise any seasoned political observer. They demonstrate precisely why a new brand of unionist politics needs to be offered to voters in Northern Ireland. It was unfortunate, therefore, that Jim Nicholson was not given a sufficient chance to wrest the debate around to considering the type of policies which the Conservatives and Unionists intend to pursue. Although the chairman must assume his share of responsibility for allowing the event to deteriorate, as he failed to bring issues to the fore and allowed the DUP civil war disproportionate airtime, there were opportunities for the UCUNF candidate to outline his alignment’s thinking more clearly, which regrettably he did not take.
Particularly, I felt that when Fitzpatrick queried the relevance of unionism and nationalism to the European election, Nicholson might have given a more lucid answer. Unionism is relevant to the poll, insofar as that part of the electorate which is committed to Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom will want to have a say in national policy towards the European Union. That is what the Conservatives and Unionists are offering and that is what the candidate should have emphasised. Clearly the Queen’s debate offered few chances to summarise the philosophies behind the Conservative arrangement, but to my mind this was one. Additionally it afforded Nicholson an opening to distance himself from the communal understanding at the heart of Dodds’ and Allister’s unionism. It was disappointing that he did not grasp the moment with sufficient conviction.
Whilst the Green party and Alliance might have emerged from the Politics Show with most sympathy, the clear loser was surely Diane Dodds. Jim Nicholson might have more forcefully advocated the thinking behind UCUNF, but nevertheless he still has the soft skills which have gained him respect in Europe. He will continue to be an excellent advocate for Northern Ireland, bereft of the snarling and yapping which other purported unionists offer, and he is preparing to join the UK’s largest delegation of MEPs, putting Northern Ireland at the centre of UK politics.
Authentic unionism is about the United Kingdom, not any conception of a ‘unionist people’ defined by religion or culture. Unionism in Northern Ireland must be about the region participating in the United Kingdom to the fullest extent possible, rather than simply looking after the interests of a perceived ‘community’. The national Conservative party has aligned itself with Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionists in order to foster this political understanding of unionism, as opposed to the ethno-nationalist posturing which is offered by the DUP/TUV. Voting for Jim Nicholson in Europe will nurture the former vision and it will help return an able and experienced candidate. That message was lost in the debate screened last night.