Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Unionists need friends, not foes in the chamber

After all these years of peace-processing, there is still a feeling abroad that, when all is said and done, politics is still a zero-sum game between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

This old tribal spirit is probably felt on both ‘sides’ of the community, but unionist parties articulate it most clearly.

Take the current row at Belfast City Hall, where unionist city fathers feel diddled because seats and offices are given out on the basis of party strength, rather than on the basis of tribal blocks.

Their case is simply put by the DUP. There are nearly as many unionists on the council as non-unionists, yet with four lord mayors in the life of the council, unionists will fill the post only once under rotation arrangements.

The first flaw in the argument is that it isn’t quite true.

There are 20 unionists — 21 if you count the independent Frank McCoubrey — spread among three parties. There are 24 nationalist — 16 Sinn Fein and eight SDLP. Yes, 21 to 24 is close, but not that close.

Then there are the six Alliance members, giving a non-unionist total of 30. It isn’t that close and, since there are only four mayoral positions, there is no logical reason why unionists should get two instead of one; either outcome would be unfair to someone.

And why should Alliance, with twice as many seats as the UUP, be left out of account? Why should the SDLP lose a mayorship to a smaller party like the UUP or PUP?

The implicit message of the unionist complaint is that only unionism and nationalism counts; everything else is window-dressing.

We are supposed to have got past these sectarian headcounts and to have reached a point in our development where we accept the outcome of elections.

Everyone knows that Belfast City Council can’t remove the border. It may make a decision on how often the Union Flag should fly above the City Hall, but that will depend on voting strength in the chamber and not on who holds the perks of office.

Unionists can only hope to win that debate by persuasion. Forming a Belfast City Council unionist group to try to make a grab for the top jobs won’t convince anyone left outside its ranks.

It is a doomed tactic which brings back ugly memories of the days when unionists used their majority to effectively bar nationalists from the main ceremonial offices.

They also roared, shouted and let off rape alarms when Sinn Fein spoke. The end result was that the council became a laughing-stock, a regular stop-off for foreign journalists looking for colourful illustrations of strange ways and deep divisions.

Now that they are in a minority, unionist parties need to put those days, and the thinking of that time, behind them. They need to win friends and influence people — not close ranks, or give themselves airs.

The smaller unionist parties also need to consider where this thinking leads.

If, as they seem to be saying, elections are really all about left-footers and right-footers, doesn’t that write them out of the script and encourage people to vote DUP next time?

We’re meant to have got to the point where we accept the outcome of the elections

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