Having now had the weekend to digest the election results from Northern Ireland, I feel better able to make a number of comments and conclusions. Chekov and others may very well disagree with these, but, in summary, I believe that there are more reasons to be cheerful in the aftermath of the election than to be despondent, if, and only if, courage is shown by moderate unionists in these coming months.
As someone from a ‘nationalist’ background, who currently lives and works in the south of England, and as someone who is a Labour voter, I approach the subject of unionism and unionist politics with a measure of caution. I have no wish to sound patronizing or lay claim to knowledge in an area where my understanding is limited. Nevertheless, as someone who is not unsympathetic to their position, and who cares about the shared future and prosperity of my own people of Northern Ireland, I would like to make this contribution so that others may express agreement or disagreement with it as they see fit. My overall view is that unionism as a political entirety now faces a tremendous period of thinking and planning, but this need not by any means spell doom and disaster for the movement.
Dispelling the Gloom
The Saturday 8th May post by Chekov, in which he “picked through the wreckage of the general election” had, in my view, a melancholy strain running through it. I hope that this is not a precursor to a long post -mortem about what went wrong for the UCUNF, followed by a period of deep depression, because this is a luxury that articulate unionist commentators and strategists cannot afford at present. There are simply too many decisions to be made about the future of unionism, and too much hard work to be done to allow regrets for the recent past to cloud judgment. It is not for nothing that David Trimble is a greater admirer of James Craig than Edward Carson: after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the latter sunk into manic depression, while Craig threw himself headlong into the task of salvaging the best deal for unionism.
Although I perhaps did not possess the courage of my convictions to say it on this blog, I did harbour deep doubts about the entire UCUNF project. Even from a superficial viewpoint, it seemed artificial, ill-conceived and hastily contrived, and tied the UUP’s fortunes to the Tories, when the latter have never been popular in NI and always have had difficulty getting on the same wavelength as local unionist voters. As Chekov himself has acknowledged, the UCUNF was very badly administered, especially on the issues of drawing up the list of candidates and the single candidate for FST. It smacked of attempting to foist a “top-down” agenda on NI voters, when, as Professor Henry Patterson has stated, Ulster Unionism has traditionally consisted of an alliance between working class and middle-class unionists. Given the fact that in NI the public sector accounts for around 70 pc of the economy, and the Tories plan to initiate deep public sector cuts as soon as possible, working class unionists voting for the UCUNF would have been, as Professor Patterson argues, like turkeys voting for Christmas. All said, the electoral pact between the Tories and the UUP was an attempt to achieve too much change too soon.
In defence of Chekov and his enthusiasm for the UCUNF, I fully acknowledge that the pact was conceived largely out of the most laudable and praiseworthy of motives. I can put it no better than the man himself:
The rationale of the UCUNF project was that it was supposed to make unionism look outward, towards mainstream UK politics, and Northern Irish MPs in government. Its failure gives the whip hand to inward looking unionism, focused on traditional community divisions, and based around a single identity.
For the sake of people like Chekov and Sir Reg Empey and others I feel disappointed that things did not turn out better.
However, in reference to the second sentence in the quote above, the ascendancy of “inward-looking unionism focused on traditional community divisions” can only come to pass if articulate, intelligent, and able unionists from the secular, pluralist and civic traditions of the doctrine decide, in a fit of pique, to roll over and die. Cultural unionism can only gain the whip hand if it is not counterbalanced by this secular, outward-looking “blue chip” unionist vision, represented by people such as Chekov and his fellow blogger O’Neill, Empey, Trimble, Nesbitt, et al. The intellectual initiative MUST be regained by moderate unionism.
In the coming weeks and months real courage and fortitude will be required on the part of moderates to fight and fight again for their vision of unionism in the event of a realignment of this ideology, which appears increasingly more likely. This will entail hard bargaining, articulate argument, and striking a balance between stubbornness and compromise. Citing Churchill, there is nothing on offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, but why should liberal and secular unionists leave the field wide open for their more reactionary counterparts, whose electoral base is in any event shrinking? Making an analogy with politics on this side of the water, the departure of the SDP from the Labour Party in 1980 lead neither anywhere except a long period in the wilderness. Does unionism want to go in the same direction? Strange though it may sound, any realigned unionism could look to the governing Fianna Fail in the south for an exemplar of how to manage a diverse political grouping with a number of different ideological facets. In a sense, the political shrinking of Peter Robinson and the rout of the TUV may make the case of unionist moderates easier in the event of a unionist realignment.
In a sense, one real result of the recent recession has been to push most people’s plans back by at least four or five years. It is the same with politics. Now is simply not the time to try to break the mould of sectarian politics in any grandiose way – instead, patience is required. For example, I was very much in favour of the idea to turn NI into an enterprise zone, lowering the rate of corporation tax for the Province, thereby supplying a welcome counterbalance to the vast public sector at home, and offering the prospect of a period of unparalleled prosperity for our people. However, it will have to be accepted that this prospect cannot be achieved immediately, and those who championed the idea in the UCUNF will have to ensure that it does not die, even if there is some form of coalition government between Labour and the Lib Dems. At present, the time is simply not right for it. Again, this will require the most articulate and intelligent Unionists facing up to their detractors from within the fold, in particular those from the DUP who adhere to the “pork barrel” philosophy when dividing up the annual block grant. Of course it is not an ideal situation, but nevertheless, it must be faced up to.
It is only by unionism and the SDLP dragging SF into the territory of realistic economics can their true paucity of their philosophy be exposed to the light. The nature of the NI executive and the local economy allows them to hide behind the safety and security of the block grant. In addition, beyond the present travails of unionism, I would argue that nationalism has issues of its own to contend with. These I will go on to develop.
What about nationalism?
Much has been said over the past few days about the challenges facing unionism, but little about the difficult issues that nationalism, in particular Sinn Fein, will have to deal with over the next decade or so. Perhaps this is because the seemingly settled nature of the nationalist vote on Thursday past, and the fact that no nationalist or republican MP lost their seat.
However, there is one key question on nationalist politics which has, to my knowledge, not been dealt with at all adequately: what happens to Sinn Fein when the “protest” generation of Adams and Mc Guinness et al begin to pass from the political stage? No commentator appears at the time of writing to have examined this ground, yet with each passing day it becomes more pressing. Adams himself will be 62 in the autumn. Mc Guinness is approaching 60, as Gerry Kelly will be soon. Not very old in terms of political careers, but old enough perhaps for some in the SF hierarchy to start thinking of whom will replace them. Within a few years it will be the 20th anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire. Some of the figures of that vintage such as Brendan Hughes, Brian Keenan, and Martin Meehan have passed on already.
Who, from the rising generation of SF activists, has so much first-hand knowledge of the pre-Troubles period in the north, or was so intimately involved in that period of our history known as “the Troubles” than figures such as Adams and Mc Guinness? Who nowadays has personal experience of the turbulent days of the late 1960s and the factors which precipitated the Troubles? Who else can command such support within the nationalist community, even beyond their bases of West Belfast and Derry? I personally can think of none. I hardly think that someone like Catriona Ruane, for example, fits the description of a charismatic leader in the Adams or Mc Guinness mould. Conor Murphy has limited appeal as a leader (although conceivably he may have hidden magnetism unknown to the wider electorate), as has Michelle Gildernew.
The reality for SF (and some non-SF nationalists) is that their star is hitched to a fading generation. With each passing year of social change memories of the types of discrimination suffered by the nationalist population of the north, gerrymandering, and the events and sufferings of the Troubles themselves will fade into the pages of the history books. It has frequently been said that Irish people have long memories, yet even at that it is difficult to see how a melange of tribal folk-memories, extreme cultural nationalism, and a vague aspiration for a 32 county Irish Republic (something that SF themselves have now acknowledged will not happen until the unionist population in Northern Ireland population wishes it) will continue to exercise a hold over the imaginations of future generations of northern nationalist electors. Gerry Adams himself set the goal of SF being in government both North and South of the border by 2016 (centenary of the Easter Rising), and thus able to beat a political path towards a de facto united Ireland. We are now only six years away from this deadline, and, if SF fortunes among the electorate in the Irish Republic continue as they have in the recent past, then there is little chance of either of these dual aims being achieved.
What then? Will the deadline be put back to 2021 (centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty)? Or 2037 (centenary of the Irish Constitution)? 2049 (centenary of the Irish Republic)? Or 2081 (centenary of the hunger strikes)? It is like searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and even commentators such as Jude Collins in a recent newspaper article recognise that:
“In the north, the superficially-reported bombings reflect a
neutered media and a growing disillusionment among
nationalists that, at best, progress towards a united Ireland
is happening at tortoise-pace.”
I think that Jude’s description of progress towards a united Ireland at a “tortoise-pace” actually exaggerates the speed of progress by several gears. In fact, there has been no development in favour of the traditional nationalist/republican aspiration of a 32 county Irish Republic. The first reason for this is that, as mentioned above, the unionist population (and a significant number of nationalists) in the north do not want it. The second is that the priority importance of a “united Ireland” to the Government and political establishment of the Irish Republic is, metaphorically speaking, about 999th on a list of 1000. They have their own more pressing agenda of problems to deal with, namely restoring the fortunes of the economy after the recession, reducing the crippling rates of government borrowing, and preventing another Irish brain drain to the rest of the English speaking world and Europe.
One reason for SF’s lack of support among the electorate in the Irish Republic has been very well articulated in an article in the Sunday Business Post (February 28, 2010) relating to the up-coming SF Ard Fheis where the focus will be on the Irish Government’s expected fiscal and spending austerity measures:
“The delegates will agree that the government is attacking the
poor and public servants – Kerry TD Martin Ferris was one of the
few Oireachtas members to come to the defence of air traffic
controllers recently. They will also claim that the banks and
developers are being protected. But as a party, Sinn Fein isn’t
at all sure what to do about it. ” (author’s emboldening)
This last sentence sums it all up very succinctly. SF simply do not know what to do, think, or say in relation to the crucial area of economic management. To be sure, they can continue to jump on protest bandwagons for publicity reasons, but when it comes down to hard economic decisions and policy, the political tools and analytical skills which have served the party so well in the north and during the “peace process” fail them absolutely. Caught between two stools, that of being a squeaky clean left-wing party who stand in splendid isolation from the squalor of the Irish political establishment, and their hunger for power and a role in executive government, SF know not which way to jump. This much has been admitted by Toireasa Ferris in a statement last year:
“It hurts to say it, but the fact is, Sinn Fein simply means
nothing to the bulk of the people in the south.”
Even in the north, Catriona Ruane’s career as Minister of Education has demonstrated that SF does not yet know whether to be a party of government, making compromises and hard but realistic choices, or a party of protest calling for political utopia. In the flesh and blood form of Ruane, SF is attempting to ride those two horses with one backside. They wish to be in power, but not in government. The party is beginning to learn the lessons that all glory is fleeting, and that all political ideas and personality cults have a shelf-life.
The great lawyer and Serjeant Sullivan once quipped that “The departure of the bravest leaves the comedian to play the hero.” I would urge that the remnants of the UCUNF, at this crucial time, do not simply walk away from the task that faces them. Yes, it will be difficult, and there are no easy answers for what must be done now, but bear in mind that there is much to fight for, and it should not be forgotten that however deep the problems of unionism appears, similar problems always lurk on the other side. In sum, as far as moderates are concerned, there are more reasons to be cheerful than despondent.