Why unionists must unite after Paisley
Published 23/04/2008 | 00:00
Trust Peter Robinson to go to the heart of the problem facing unionism, although he didn't put it quite like this: unless it can maximise its vote, around a single unionist party or a two-party electoral coalition, it has little chance of staying ahead of nationalist representation in future elections.
The European election next year will prove this point. If the SDLP and Fianna Fail strike a deal, to maximise the moderate nationalist vote and win back some of John Hume's following, it may take the UUP seat. That would leave Northern Ireland represented in Europe by two nationalists and the DUP.
Forgotten who the UUP seat is held by? That's understandable, since Europe only grabs the imagination once in five years. Jim Nicholson has been there, helped in by DUP transfers, for longer than anyone can remember — 1989 to be exact.
The importance of the European election is that if it were to result in a 2-1 win for nationalism, the old order would be changed fundamentally. Either unionism would respond by much greater DUP-UUP co-operation or it would split into several factions, incapable of making the same impact in Westminster, Stormont or local government.
Thinking nationalists in both parts of the island are weighing up the possibilities of a moderate come-back, to block Sinn Fein's seemingly upward march here. That's what the Fianna Fail-SDLP breakfast last week was all about; showing how much could be gained by both parties if they could present themselves as a nationalist grouping which operates throughout Ireland and is Dublin's natural party of government.
It's hard to see why the SDLP would turn down the offer when it becomes a reality later this year.
It may have been the instigator of every power-sharing move since 1972, but, alone, it hasn't got the delivery or cutting edge of Sinn Fein.
With Fianna Fail, the party could win back most pragmatic nationalists, dismayed by Sinn Fein's divisiveness.
Never mind the chuckling that eventually ousted Ian Paisley. The unsolved division is between British unionism and Irish nationalism, and the DUP-Sinn Fein pact, which has been likened to the Hitler-Stalin accord, has produced little of substance apart from four unemployed victims' commissioners.
When this becomes more apparent, and voters reject the cynical carve-ups, there are bound to be realignments within the present parties. The moderates could re-group around Fianna Fail-SDLP and a re-born unionist alliance between UUP and DUP, dropping its Paisleyite rhetoric.
For as long as Ian Paisley was DUP leader, there was no chance of liberal-minded, pragmatic unionists, brought up to believe they were part of the United Kingdom, not Ireland, voting DUP.
They were repelled by his religious and political opinions, heightening the fears in a besieged community, and realised that if Northern Ireland was to make economic or political progress, unionism had to find an accommodation with republicans and nationalists.
They stayed away from the polls, unwilling to support either unionist party or even Alliance. That partly explains the rise of the DUP, at the expense of the UUP, and experience of the first year of the new Assembly hasn't made them any less alienated from the system, as they watch Sinn Fein follow its own leftist agenda.
So Peter Robinson has it right. Those who believe in the union, and want it to remain ahead of the growing appeal of the Irish nationalist ideology, have to find a new way, if one exists, of winning the support of a much higher proportion of apathetic pro-union non-voters.
How that is to be done, by a new leader who has to laud the man who did more than anyone to split the unionist vote, remains to be seen. He has to broaden his party's appeal, without losing his own hard core, and he has to make compromises with the UUP, to win seats, that both sides have previously rejected.
If he does nothing, or if he fails in this task, the fragmentation of the unionist vote is inevitable.
The nationalist vote, too, could fragment between those who hanker after pure republicanism or pure social democratic nationalism, but I'd imagine that the centre ground would be larger — and more open to deals on fundamental all-island aims.
In better economic times, Northern Ireland has been able to afford all this division and strife, because it has had the moral and financial support of Britain.
The extras aren't to be had now, though the Republic is helping out, and the pragmatists in all the parties know they have to band together or else. As M& S might say, there is no Plan B.
l Ex-prisoner Richard O'Rawe's row over the 1981 hunger strike rumbles on, only proving that six of the 10 died needlessly. It is agreed the British made an offer to republicans that could have ended it.
Either they killed its effect, by not having a face-to-face meeting with the paramilitary leadership in the prison, who were allegedly impressed, or the external leadership (guess who?) preferred to have martyrs for the cause ...