CRISIS in UNIONISM
Reflecting on these numbers, one commentator wrote: “This is what unionists should be really fretting about because their love for Britain is increasingly unrequited. They are in a cold marriage where their partner is bored, indifferent and disconnected.”
Prime minister Sunak went to Belfast with considerable fanfare to sell the Windsor Arrangement. He didn’t have to worry about the nationalist community. All their leaders had welcomed the deal because they want local government in Stormont restored, followed, they hope, by the re-emergence of some semblance of normality in Belfast politics.
However, convincing the loyalists presented a major challenge for the prime minister because a majority in their community views the proposals negotiated between Brussels and Westminster as continuing to leave the North with a divided status, keeping them with a leg in both camps.
Mr. Sunak, buoyed by a positive response to his proposals in London, pressed an argument in Belfast that is loaded with irony. He told the unionists that in addition to maintaining access to British markets business people in Northern Ireland – unlike their compatriots elsewhere in the United Kingdom - will benefit from full and unconditional access to the huge EU markets that encompass 447 million people.
The Prime Minister argued that this important entitlement should sway unionists in favor of the Windsor document. In particular, he stressed that big American companies would be drawn to Belfast because of the open European market.
He was hoping that they would set aside the central argument made by his Conservative Party that urged people to vote for Brexit, their claim that Britain would do better outside of the cumbersome trading rules mandated by Brussels.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has set up a committee of elders to reflect on all the complexities of the Windsor proposal. Their deliberations will last into April, a clear indication of long-fingering a decision because they find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Saying yes to the Windsor deal would enrage their own hardliners who might well defect to the more militaristic Traditional Unionist Voice, but a negative response to a Tory government with a massive majority in parliament would surely have serious consequences for their continued place in the United Kingdom. Expect an effort at some kind of a fudge by the DUP.
Unionists have a long history of saying no. They prefer the old shibboleths that worked for them when they enjoyed a clear majority in the Belfast parliament. However, in the last Stormont election they were beaten into second place by Sinn Fein, their bete noire, whom they barely talk to, not to mind sharing power with them.
In past instances when they disagreed with particular government policies promoted in Westminster, they would always stress their primary allegiance to the monarchy. This time, they were irate that the Windsor agreement was signed in the King’s home with Charles all but giving it his benediction by formally welcoming the European leader Ursula von der Leyen and the Prime Minister. Unionists condemned this involvement of the royalty as deeply offensive to their sensitivities.
What about the people back in the six counties of Ulster that remain under British control? A LucidTalk poll conducted two months ago suggests that the unionist community is in disarray, unsure where to look for encouragement. 64% of the respondents in the North said that they still support the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) but only 35% of unionists view it favorably.
That agreement, which led to the establishment of local government in Stormont, was approved by 71% of the voters across Northern Ireland in a plebiscite in 1998. It initiated the end of thirty years of daily violence which all sides dubbed The Troubles. Not surprisingly because of the peace dividend, two thirds of the population there still applaud the GFA. However, a majority of unionists say that they would vote against if it was on a ballot tomorrow.
The respondents in this poll also supported the restoration of Stormont, irrespective of decisions in the wider Brexit negotiations, by a majority of 60% overall but only 21% of DUP voters concur.
Complicating efforts to achieve progress, the loyalist community in the North feel under siege because demographic changes are evident in all parts of the province, especially in the Catholic majorities attending schools and universities. Stuart Brooker, an assistant grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, expressed clearly this growing sense of isolation: “We feel diminished. It is a lonely position.”
Predictably, this sense of grievance has led to increased recruitment by paramilitary Loyalist groups who feel that their services may be needed to defend their version of who should exercise political power in the statelet. Reliable estimates suggest that these militias now have 12,500 members.
It is noticeable that the nationalist political parties in Dublin and Belfast are muted in their criticism of the DUP. They see the party dealing with a crisis of identity with no easy solutions, as they try to negotiate their way out of a challenging dilemma which is only a sideshow in the wider negotiations between Brussels and Westminster.
They realize that they are dealing with a group of people that feel isolated, stuck with a defiant culture that perhaps served them well in the past but is no longer relevant. Political vitriol from leaders in Dublin or Belfast would only make the situation worse. Stuart Brooker’s plea for understanding resonates with many of them.
Loyalists used to rally against what they called popery, clear in their own beliefs in biblical Christianity and always denigrating Catholic teaching emanating from Rome. Their most powerful voice and founder of the DUP, Ian Paisley, led the charge in Europe against the man he named “old red socks.”
Today, the Catholic church in Ireland has been emasculated and is on its knees because of the deplorable history of clerical sexual abuse of children and the terrors of the Magdalene laundries. Just one priest was ordained for Irish dioceses last year – and two bishops.
All the parties in Northern Ireland – Sinn Fein, Alliance, SDLP, the Greens, and UUP - want the restoration of a government in Stormont, but the main unionist group, the DUP, holds a veto over this and is still saying no with dire consequences for the provision of government services there.
The DUP has to decide whether they will continue to court obsolescence or move away from their role as surly and recalcitrant unionist leaders opening their party to new possibilities suggested by the Good Friday Agreement and the Windsor Arrangement.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com
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