Nelson McCausland: Why unionists should take a leaf out of SF's book and start mobilising their own community
This past week we have had two interesting events in local politics, one concerning the leader of Sinn Fein and the other concerning the former leader of the DUP.
Mary Lou McDonald must have disappointed many of her supporters on Monday with her assertion that now is not the time for a border poll. Their only hope of achieving a united Ireland is to win a border poll, and so Sinn Fein politicians keep calling for a border poll “within the next five years”.
That is why Mary Lou went into reverse so quickly, and on Tuesday she said: “Sinn Fein wants to see a referendum as soon as possible.”
This brought her back into line with her mentor, Gerry Adams.
In 1999, at the time of a European election, Sinn Fein rallied its troops by claiming that there could be a united Ireland by 2016, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
That prophecy was repeated on various occasions by Adams and Martin McGuinness, and in 2003 McGuinness said: “It can be accomplished over a short time. Gerry Adams has said 2016 and I think that is achievable.”
However, the year 2016 is over and gone and there has been no united Ireland in spite of all the Sinn Fein promises.
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Mitchel McLaughlin has retired, Adams has moved south of the border, McGuinness is dead and the false prophecy has been quietly forgotten.
That is why Sinn Fein has now settled for periodic calls for a border poll. It affirms its republican vision and, at the same time, it unsettles many unionists.
Its strategy is a longer-term strategy, with two main strands.
The first is to build up its party as a nationalist movement by radicalising and mobilising nationalists and by sanitising Sinn Fein, to make it a more palatable option in the Republic.
The second is to demoralise unionists and erode as much of the unionist vote as it can.
The other controversy was around some remarks made by Peter Robinson at the 38th annual MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal.
His remarks about preparing for the unlikely event of a united Ireland were carefully qualified, but they were incautious, and former party colleague Sammy Wilson described them as “dangerous”.
Indeed, I have not heard any mainstream unionist come out to endorse what he said.
Over many years there has been a constant output of Sinn Fein propaganda about the “inevitability” of a united Ireland.
At a Sinn Fein Easter Rising commemoration in April 2003, Adams said: “The creation of a united Ireland is an inevitable consequence of the peace process.”
There was a temporary lapse last autumn when Adams addressed a republican book launch in Tralee and said: “We believe that Irish unity is achievable and winnable, but it is not inevitable. It has to be worked for.”
However, he qualified that by calling for a border referendum “within five years”.
Of course, most unionists dismiss it as Irish nationalist and republican propaganda and recognise that it is designed to unsettle and demoralise them.
Nevertheless, it behoves all unionists to choose their words carefully and to say nothing that might be seized upon by nationalist propagandists or hostile elements in the media.
At the same time there is a need for forward thinking and for thoughtful analysis and, in that regard, there has been a weakness within mainstream unionism.
Too often unionism has been short-sighted, with a focus on immediate problems. Of course, these need to be addressed, but there is also a need for a longer-term strategy for Ulster and for the Union.
What is the unionist vision for the future? What is the strategy by which we can advance that vision? How can we advocate for the Union and increase support for the Union? How can we energise and mobilise the talent that is there within the broader unionist community?
Sinn Fein is the foremost nationalist party, but it is more than a party.
It leads a broad movement with strong links into community, business, culture, academia and the professions.
Perhaps we can learn something from that.