Thursday, 22 February 2018

Perpetual crisis likely unless unionism finds positive voice

This article was published first in the News Letter, 21 February 2018.

It may have been Sinn Fein that withdrew from the executive and refused to share power for thirteen months, but the way last week’s talks collapsed allowed blame to be pinned squarely on the DUP. The party has to take responsibility for communicating its position clumsily, but the balance of criticism has been grossly unfair.

After all, what exactly was the DUP supposed to do in the circumstances?

The latest impasse cannot be viewed in isolation. Though to listen to Northern Ireland’s increasingly vocal and partisan cohort of nationalist commentators, you’d think that every new political stand-off at Stormont was a unique and novel affront by unionists.

The truth is that Sinn Fein has used the same tactics many times before. Republicans habitually collapse power-sharing, create a crisis and then allow demands to build that unionists should accommodate them by agreeing some sort of compromise.

If Arlene Foster pushed through an Irish Language Act, against the wishes of most pro-Union voters, why on earth wouldn’t Sinn Fein be back with a fresh shopping-list, 6 months, a year or 2 years later?

We’ve not seen the text of the agreement that the two parties supposedly came so close to signing, but none of the rumoured contents would have made Stormont any more stable or less prone to collapse. Nor was the Irish language act that Sinn Fein says was agreed moderate or reasonable. It would have changed Northern Ireland profoundly and for the worse.

If Gaelic were permitted in courts, it could only ever be used for scurrilous or political reasons. No-one who speaks Irish is remotely disadvantaged by proceedings taking place in English and a court of law is a place of business, where utility is paramount, not an arena to promote cultural aspirations.

Likewise, Northern Ireland’s political system is already stuffed with expensive commissioners, all of whom need offices and staff. The ‘advocacy’ function of these posts means that they’re always trying to expand their remits, in order to justify their existence.

Establishing an Irish Language Commission would ensure that the demands of the language lobby would never be satisfied. If our society is ever to function properly, we need to get rid of ombudsmen and commissioners, not add more.

You can rhyme off the various talks and agreements, Stormont House, Fresh Start, the reboot of Fresh Start, Hillsborough, all the way back to St Andrews, which took the Belfast Agreement and made it incomparably worse.

Whatever the apparent cause, they’ve all followed a similar pattern, once negotiations got started. Even when it was the DUP that withdrew from the Executive, because the police accused Sinn Fein’s paramilitary wing of murder back in 2015, we ended up with weeks of republican demands over welfare and legacy, which culminated in the Fresh Start Agreement.

Throughout all these crises, unionists have struggled to articulate their case and have been prone to taking the blame, but the current log-jam is the most dangerous yet for unionism. There is a swelling contingent of liberal remainers across the UK who are so steaming mad that they’re quite prepared to make common cause with nationalists and the Irish government to try to stop or dilute Brexit.

They hate the DUP, its staunchly pro-leave views and its alliance with the Conservative government, with an ardour that even unionists who voted ‘remain’ struggle to accept or understand.

It’s hard to sympathise with that party entirely, because it created many of the problems unionism now faces. When it negotiated the St Andrews Agreement in 2007, it turned a blind eye to government commitments on the Irish language and diluted the competitive element of Northern Irish politics, probably deliberately, by changing the mechanism for nominating the first minister.

It’s impossible to undo recent history or ignore electoral arithmetic, so unionists are left to navigate the situation as it confronts them.

One quite understandable response is fury, because unionism continues to be demonised, even though nationalism has allowed itself to be dominated by leaders who take their direction straight from the Felons’ Club of former IRA prisoners.

Yet anger won’t solve anything by itself.

Unionism is in real trouble if it can’t find a positive, upbeat way to promote its values and challenge the sense that Northern Ireland is in perpetual crisis. And if Stormont is eventually restored, it will certainly crash again unless unionists broker a deal that reforms the institutions, so that they cannot be continually collapsed and politics here become competitive again.  

Friday, 12 January 2018

Unionists and republicans aren't equally to blame for crisis

In his News Letter column (1 January), Alex Kane says he gets accused of “lazy analysis” when he blames both the DUP and Sinn Fein for the lack of power-sharing at Stormont. I don’t think Alex’s analysis is lazy, but I can’t agree with his implication that the two parties are equally responsible for the breakdown of devolved government.

Undoubtedly, the DUP deserves criticism for its conduct in the Assembly. Its role in the RHI scandal was an indictment of its attitude to tax-payers’ money and it gave Sinn Fein a pretext to pull down the Executive. Equally, the party’s intransigence on some issues has allowed republicans to pose as progressives and attract sympathy from naive young liberals.

Yet it’s glaringly obvious that the DUP didn’t collapse government and hasn’t prevented it from being reformed. Indeed, the party has even shown signs that it’s prepared to be flexible on parts of the list of sanctimonious demands, or ‘red-lines’, set out by Sinn Fein.

When commentators try to decode what’s happening at Stormont Castle, it’s easy to get distracted by the tactics of deal-making and miss the brazen lies and distortions that constitute the entire republican strategy.

In his column, Alex didn’t really look at any of the themes of Sinn Fein’s case for refusing to share power with the DUP.

You could summarise them broadly in three parts. An untruthful claim that nationalists are not accorded “rights” and “equality”, a shameful attempt to focus Troubles’ “legacy” investigations on deaths caused by the state rather than the overwhelming majority of murders committed by the IRA and a stubborn insistence on a standalone Irish Language Act (not a face-saving ‘Culture Act’ as the DUP might prefer).

In addition, Sinn Fein has decided to advocate gay marriage, transparently so that it can portray unionists as old-fashioned and unreasonable. While, as a backdrop, nationalists won’t accept Northern Ireland’s entitlement as a full part of the UK to leave the EU with the rest of the country.

Surely it's important to look, even briefly, at all this context and offer an opinion on the merit of these republican positions?   

For its part, the DUP is willing to go back into government tomorrow with unrepentant murders and apologists for murder, who have repeatedly crashed power-sharing at the least excuse, to try to wheedle selfish concessions from political opponents and the government. What is blameworthy in making it difficult for them to do the same thing again?

It’s important for commentators, particularly unionist commentators, to criticise parties that fail to serve their voters properly, promote the Union effectively and tackle issues sensibly. It’s something else to give the impression that the DUP and Sinn Fein are equally to blame for what has happened over the past year, particularly when the media is awash with pundits who are eager to endorse republican claims.

Alex says that Northern Ireland needs ‘stable government’, which is not contestable. He doesn’t say whether he thinks that Stormont should provide that government.

If a deal would create another Executive that ducks important decisions, wastes public money and can be collapsed any time Sinn Fein doesn’t get its way, then, regrettably, direct rule is currently the more palatable option.