Belfast Telegraph

If unionists are in crisis (and they are), then they are not the only ones

Our reflex is to blame the disconnect between politics and the people on our politicians, but in a democracy that's just a cop-out, says John Wilson Foster

They're selling postcards of the hanging/They're painting the passports brown" - Dylan's great opening lines somehow come to me as I read the newspapers in the wake of the election, an election that unavoidably resuscitated the EU referendum campaign.

There has been a flurry of articles in The Irish Times - 'Fianna Fail working on plan for united Ireland'; 'Micheal Martin seeks to strip emotion from united Ireland topic'; 'A united Ireland - is there something in the air?' (The answer to the last, I thought at first, was "Not really, it's just that the air is hot").

Mr Martin believes that unionists can be emotional about a united Ireland, so like a good horse whisperer, the republican should murmur practical benefits into their post-Brexit ears, unionism having nothing to do with anything deep, like culture.

According to one feature writer, the unionists are spooked, so I guess it seems the right time to try to frighten them to death. There's a touch of the jackal as the southern commentators circle Brexit and the election. Now I know what might be in the air down there - the illusory smell of the wounded.

The optics are not good and up here whatever passes for hackles in horses are rising.

Nationalists in the south may believe they are making ground, but they are simply making mischief.

And I wonder if they are doing so because to fasten on "the north" allows them to ignore their own crisis: their unacknowledged near-panic about Irish life after Brexit. Students of behaviour call this displacement activity.

Mind you, the election result has indeed suggested a crisis in unionism. That "crisis" is twofold: nature and numbers.

I'm told that Sinn Fein and the SDLP together received 28% extra votes this time around and that the Sinn Fein vote rose by 34%. These are grounds for unionist anxiety, but only if this inflated vote was silent support for a united Ireland, Sinn Fein's essential plank.

Was it? How many of the votes were merely a silent protest against Brexit, the RHI scandal and perceived DUP arrogance? I hope many, for that would hint at normal politics.

Brexit itself is a flimsy support for the united Ireland plank. The unionist Remainers were almost certainly not adding a silent codicil to their vote, endorsing a united Ireland as Plan B in the event of Brexit. A second EU referendum in Northern Ireland would probably yield a very different result, now that republicans are visibly making hay with the outcome.

In so far as Sinn Fein knows this, it is deferring its own crisis, since at some point it will find that outrunning the constable (if you'll pardon the expression: pretending Remain votes and the election results mean a united Ireland) will make the rendezvous with reality rather more difficult than had it kept pace with it.

We are experiencing a turn in the weather, not climate change. The real crisis is in the nature of unionism. But it is a familiar one and one that embroils us all.

In a Telegraph article of February 22, I hoped to see a coalition of the liberal unionism of the UUP and the liberal nationalism of the SDLP that would stake out a middle ground, ensure Northern Ireland worked as a devolved government, and leave the prospect of a united Ireland peacefully to the indifferent mercy of time.

That high hope was made a laughing-stock on election day.

Hopes for a fully liberal unionism have never materialised. We are dealing with something chronic not critical. Mike Nesbitt is merely the latest casualty on its behalf, let down by fellow unionists.

So much in our society has recently changed for the good, socially and even politically, that I am sorely challenged by the failure of this to be reflected in electoral terms.

One might have thought that the UUP, with its potential for social reform and a liberal leader, would have attracted the votes of a large urban business, professional and academic class, and the upwardly mobile young, albeit still justifiably concerned about the constitutional question.

Instead, unionism for the foreseeable future is the DUP, and this will be copper-fastened by any Sinn Fein offensive and Fianna Fail delirium.

Unionist numbers will look healthier as a result, but at what cost to any plan to showcase the Union at its best to the Catholic middle and professional classes?

I was disappointed by those to whom Nesbitt was making his appeal. He was let down by the apparently liberal nationalists of the SDLP and the Catholic middle class that would presumably regard itself as enlightened. The scornful reaction to Nesbitt's courageous ploy came from both sides of the divide.

Nationalism for the foreseeable future is Sinn Fein. It won't be reacting to pressure from without, despite its charges of DUP arrogance. They are their oblivious selves alone.

But what if the Sinn Fein vote in the election did register support for a united Ireland? What if most Catholics who voted Remain were silently endorsing a united Ireland as Plan B?

Then the crisis will not be in Sinn Fein, but in the Catholic population, given their apparent indication in recent opinion polls that mostly they are happy enough in the UK.

If the polls were true, this suggests a population at odds with itself.

Just like the Protestant population.

Indeed, just like our society as a whole in which our political reality and our social reality don't square. This is our real crisis - and we are all living it.

Why is there is a dearth of educated participation in our civic affairs and process of government, even from the sidelines? Why is there a troubling disparity between the poverty of public and political discourse and the known achievements of intellect and literature in Northern Irish culture? Why are we proud of our accomplishments and embarrassed by our politics?

It hasn't helped that the public intellectuals are largely voiceless inside the ivory tower of research grants and political correctness. The no-shows from higher education and from the professions have contributed to our predicament (during the Troubles, keeping heads below parapets made more sense, yet in fact public debate was vigorous then).

Thank goodness for Malachi O'Doherty and a handful of columnists, bravely criss-crossing no man's land.

When we see a deep disconnect in Northern Ireland between politics and the people, our reflex is to blame the politicians, but that is the easy way out in an elective democracy.

The truth is that we the citizens are equally culpable, perhaps more so. In the immortal line from Rebel Without A Cause - "We are all involved".

There are occasions in which it is difficult to apportion responsibility. A voter, for example, may hold liberal social views yet vote for a party with illiberal views because it is hardline on the constitutional issue. Either way, it is we who maintain the unhealthy disconnects in our society. And as individuals, though we all like to shelter in groups and "communities" (that divisive term).

It is we who say one thing in public and another behind closed doors. Who tell the pollster one thing and vote differently. Who may live in a generous and rich way, yet support a politics of begrudgery and reprisal. Who despite mingling in the workplace with colleagues from the "other side" don't resist the sectarian allurements of the voting booth.

I can only conclude that as individuals we both embody and internalise the disconnects that our politics perpetuate. If this is not a crisis, what is?

If one virtue in short supply among us because of this is civic awareness and responsibility, another is empathy, which the civic requires.

Empathy allows us to see, understand and above all feel the experience of the other. As things stand, we cannot do this in Northern Ireland, either because empathy is stifled early, or we have inherited its lack. Nesbitt has found this out to his cost.

On our frail ship of state, to quote Dylan again, Ezra Pound and T S Eliot are fighting in the captain's tower, and I fear the fishermen holding flowers will have a very long watch.

John Wilson Foster's latest book, Pilgrims Of The Air: The Passing Of The Passenger Pigeons, will be published by New York Review Books in October

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