Belfast Telegraph

Eoghan Harris: The battle against Sinn Fein's bullying brand of nationalism will not be fought and won at Westminster, but in cockpit of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Nigel Dodds lost North Belfast because he was bewitched by events in London. Unionism needs new thinking - and that starts at home, writes Eoghan Harris

A disconsolate Nigel Dodds in the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast after he lost his seat in North Belfast
A disconsolate Nigel Dodds in the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast after he lost his seat in North Belfast

By Eoghan Harris

On balance, the General Election has been good for politics in the United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland. Let me begin with Britain, where Boris Johnson was deservedly the big winner just as the infantile Leftist, Jeremy Corbyn, was deservedly the big loser.

Many in the Irish media are now covertly climbing on the Boris bandwagon. But, last July, I was almost alone in warning his critics that "Churchill, too, was dismissed as a drunkard, messer and all-round chancer".

I wrote: "I believe Boris Johnson knows well he has been a liar, a lout and a layabout. But, like Churchill, he sees one last chance to redeem a feckless life and he means to grab it with both hands."

Which he did. Dom Cummings supplied the strategy, but what delivered it was what Professor Helen Thompson brilliantly called Boris Johnson's "pagan energy".

Professor Arthur Aughey acutely noted the inversion of the last General Election, when Theresa May was the prim vicar's daughter and Corbyn seemed the voice of pagan youth.

Contrary to groaning by the Guardian, the Conservative Party has been moved firmly to the centre for two reasons.

First, Boris Johnson is, by nature, a pragmatic and personally liberal One Nation Tory and not an ideologue like Margaret Thatcher. Second - and more important - the Tories have been moved to the centre by their new voters.

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Boris Johnson knows he cannot win a second term if he ignores the needs of the Labour supporters who lent him their votes. In sum, it's the ERG who will be marginalised.

The result is also about the resurgence of English nationalism. Here the big question is whether it's a benign English kind of nationalism, or a malign one on the racist East European model.

I believe a Boris Johnson government will not be racist, not least because Johnson is of mixed-race ancestry, describing himself as "blended honey" of many ethnicities.

But for Boris Johnson to win, Jeremy Corbyn had to lose. He did so thanks to the Trotskyites of Momentum, who infiltrated the Labour Party, which will remain unelectable until the centrist socialists split away.

Trotskyites are the purist descendants of Plato, who believed that man can be perfected by society, whereas social democrats know society can only fix a few of our problems.

As we speak, Trotskyite Momentum activists are telling Labour members "we lost because we were not socialist enough".

The same purist PC mindset prevented the Democratic Party from running a Right-of-centre candidate to trump Trump in blue-collar America.

Let me turn with relief from these losers to the real winners in Northern Ireland - Colum Eastwood's resurgent SDLP.

Two seats in the bag and a likely seat in South Down next time round means Sinn Fein's strategic aim of liquidating the SDLP is now a forlorn hope.

Naturally, RTE news did not rub in the fact that Sinn Fein were down seven points, whereas the DUP were down only five points. The DUP were lucky not to be down more. As their sometimes sole defender in the Republic, I am entitled to give them some tough love. If I take flak for them, I have a right to give them some.

To start, I am not devastated by Nigel Dodds losing his seat. Naturally, I am sickened to see John Finucane - equivocal on IRA actions - take his place.

Finucane lost his father to a loyalist murder gang. But he callously refused to condemn the IRA murder gang that set out to kill Nigel Dodds when visiting his seriously ill son in hospital. Finucane also showed his lack of class by his graceless victory speech that failed to mention Nigel Dodds, who had the good manners not to do the same.

But Dodds was also responsible for the DUP's disastrous Brexit policy and for the flawed decision not to support Theresa May's deal, which opened the way to Boris Johnson's betrayal of the DUP.

Dodds is a decent man, but he was psychologically too much in thrall to the Tories in Westminster to pay attention to what was happening at home.

Looking always to London, he lacked the vision of a David Trimble, Ian Paisley, or Peter Robinson, all of whom, in different ways, rightly sensed the best way to subvert Sinn Fein and protect the Union was to make nice to moderate nationalists.

Like other DUP leaders - and I don't mean Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson - Dodds wrongly thought Westminster was where the action was and the Tory party was the final bulwark of the Union.

But as Edward Carson clearly saw, that was a delusion that would eventually run out of road. That time has come. And unionism needs a new strategy that starts at home.

The battle against Sinn Fein's bullying brand of Irish nationalism will not be fought and won at Westminster, but in the cockpit of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Because Johnson's betrayal shows that London is no longer a unionist referee, but more of a linesman leaning to Dublin.

From now on, the referee with the final decision will be a plurality of the people of Northern Ireland who are willing to work the Good Friday Agreement.

That, in turn, means that unionism, which in practical terms means the DUP, must persuade moderate nationalists to settle down for the foreseeable future in a pluralist Union that respects their identity.

Stormont and not Westminster is where that work must be done - and to bring it to a successful conclusion will require the active support of the Irish Republic in keeping pressure on Sinn Fein.

That is why I want to underline for unionists that even someone like me, who loathes the IRA and cherishes the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, believes that unionism is too dependent on unstable British goodwill, rather than on the more stable desire of the Republic to retain the status quo.

The status quo, as Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Micheal Martin spelt out on RTE radio last Friday, means backing the Good Friday Agreement and not Sinn Fein's border poll stunts to spook unionists.

Unionists should take courage from that consensus and from the fact there is no urgent passion for a united Ireland in the Republic.

But to hobble Sinn Fein, the Republic needs reciprocal gestures, like generously recognising the cultural identity of Northern nationalists.

Naturally, unionists would be more inclined to run risks if RTE gave up its green log-rolling and made some pluralist films about the Warrington March and the Peace Train.

Likewise, the Irish Times should give less space to immature comedians and more insights of the sort we got from Ronan McGreevy's inspiring interview with that confident unionist, Senator Ian Marshall: "We are told that unionism is dour and uncompromising, when, in fact, significant sections of unionism are behind marriage equality, pro-choice, social economy, anti-poverty, reconciliation work, restorative justice and the support of workers' rights."

  • Eoghan Harris is a Dublin-based political commentator

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