Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Divided, mired in scandal and out of touch, unionism needs to take hard look at its image

 

Arlene Foster is the first unionist leader in Northern Ireland’s history not to reflect majority opinion
Arlene Foster is the first unionist leader in Northern Ireland’s history not to reflect majority opinion

By Ed Curran

Not since half a century ago has unionism been in such a mess. Hopelessly divided. Mired in scandal. Out of touch with a majority of Northern Ireland.

Even on issues of human rights failing to embrace modern norms. And now paying a huge political price as evidenced by the General Election results.

In the cold light of a December day, harsh reality beckons for unionism.

The DUP returns to Westminster without its most influential figure.

By its own hand, the party has detached itself from majority opinion in Northern Ireland on Brexit, the most important issue of our age and, in doing so, has paid the cost in lost seats and votes.

After three years of propping up the Conservative governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson, what price unionist influence now?

What price a border down the Irish Sea?

Sign In

What price Northern Ireland's very future in an increasingly disunited United Kingdom?

The questions keep coming, but has the DUP any answers beyond sticking to a Brexit mantra that has led many lifelong unionists to seek another home for their votes in what has been a disastrous General Election for both the DUP and the Ulster Unionist party?

This is not the first time the political pendulum has swung for unionism in Northern Ireland. It did so in 1972 when majority rule at Stormont was swept away and a succession of unionist leaders were pushed from office. It did so again 30 years later, when today's DUP capitalised on unionist discontent over the Good Friday Agreement and took power from the Ulster Unionists.

And now in 2019 the pendulum has clearly swung again, as evidenced by the continuing surge of support among unionists for the Alliance Party.

The message is clear, but is there anyone in the unionist leadership listening? Despite all its failings in the past three years, from Brexit to the RHI scandal, the DUP displays a smugness, even arrogance, which emanates from the top and fails to acknowledge that just maybe, the party has made the gross mistake of taking the unionist population for granted.

There have been many disappointing unionist leaders over the past half century. Arlene Foster promised much, but she has delivered little. Not only is the pro-Union community more disunited than ever, as evidenced by the election results, but Mrs Foster's personal stock has been deeply flawed by the RHI scandal.

John Finucane at the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
John Finucane at the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Nigel Dodds during the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
SDLP's Claire Hanna wins a seat in South Belfast at the General Election Count at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast during the Early hours of Friday morning. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Emma Pengelly and Arlene Foster during the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood is elected MP (Niall Carson/PA)
Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion pictured at the count centre in Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party with party leader Naomi Long after he won the North Down constituency in the UK General Election at the Aurora Aquatic and Leisure Complex, Bangor, Northern Ireland. Michael Cooper/PA Wire
Alex Easton, DUP pictured at the count centre in Bangor. Photo by Brian Little / Press Eye
Gavin Robinson with his wife Lindsey and party leader Arlene Foster pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Naomi Long during the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Michelle O'Neill and Paul Maskey pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Election count at Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast for Belfast East, Belfast South, Belfast West, Belfast North, East Antrim & South Down. Sammy Wilson pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Steve Aiken pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
The DUP’s Gregory Campbell is returned s MP for East Londonderry. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew pictured with Michelle ONeill at the count centre in Omagh after winning the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat. Photo by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
UUP Tom Elliott pictured at the count centre in Omagh. Photo by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has held his seat in Lagan Valley pictured at the count centre in Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Sinn Féin Francie Molloy is returned as MP for Mid Ulster. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Sinn Fein's Mickey Brady(centre) is returned as MP for Newry and Armagh. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
The DUP's Ian Paisley (left) is returned as MP for North Antrim. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 12th December 2019 General Election 2019 - Election count at Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt for Newry & Armagh, South Antrim, North Antrim, Upper Bann, East Londonderry, Foyle, Lagan Valley and Mid Ulster. The DUPÕs Paul Girvan(left) is returned as MP for South Antrim. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Chris Hassard, centre, pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 12th December 2019 - General Election 2019 - Election count at Aurora Leisure Complex, Bangor for Strangford and North Down. Jim Shannon, DUP with his mother Mona and wife Sandra after being elected in Strangford. Photo by Brian LittleÊ / Press Eye
The DUP's Carla Lockhart is returned as MP for Upper Bann and is pictured with her baby boy Charlie. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Sinn Fein's Orfhlaith Begley pictured after she won her seat back in West Tyrone Photo by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.

Under her leadership, the DUP pinned its colours so emphatically to Brexit that Arlene Foster may lay claim to being the first unionist leader in Northern Ireland's almost 100-year history not to reflect majority opinion on such a fundamental, and potentially constitutional issue as Brexit has proved to be.

The DUP has paid the price for her failure to take more account of the referendum result in 2016 and the 56% here who voted to stay in the EU.

The DUP - and Sinn Fein - are also shouldering blame among many voters for the empty corridors of Stormont and the unacceptable crisis in health and education.

The coming weeks at Westminster and at Stormont will chart our political path for good or ill and determine if Northern Ireland really has a stable, peaceful future beyond its 100th anniversary in 2021.

Unionism, most of all the DUP, cannot afford to lose the goodwill of any British parliament or government. The party needs to take a long hard look at itself and the image of unionism it portrays beyond these shores.

Brexit has focused media attention on this island, not known since the years when our violence hit the world headlines. Unfortunately, much of the reporting has painted Northern Ireland as a place apart, far from being an integral part of the UK.

Alarmingly, many MPs returning to parliament next week confess little or no interest in Northern Ireland.

Some may see it as a place ungovernable. Others may believe unionism is entrenched in old-fashioned social attitudes. On both counts, the DUP is culpable.

By its unwillingness to embrace human rights issues which are taken for granted in the rest of the UK and have swept over the rest of this island, the DUP has contributed to Northern Ireland's place apart image.

Under Arlene Foster, the DUP remains a prisoner of its evangelical wing. Will it ever wake up and smell the coffee of the 21st century and recognise that life today has immeasurably changed in the rest of the UK and in the Republic on our doorstep, especially among a new generation?

Whatever hopes there were that Arlene Foster might reform the DUP towards a more mainstream non-sectarian style of unionism, have been dashed.

She has led a party which threw all its eggs in the Brexit basket, unwilling to recognise that Northern Ireland and even the pro-Union community did not share her view.

When the party's depleted MPs return to Westminster, will they even at this late hour take any account of the message of the local electorate? No longer does the DUP have the floor to itself at Westminster. Much through its own misjudgement on Brexit and failure to reflect the broader opinion in Northern Ireland, the DUP will not have things its own way and the voices of Stephen Farry, Claire Hanna and Colum Eastwood will surely see to that.

How all this pans out in the year ahead is anybody's guess. Like it or not, Northern Ireland's future is at the Brexit mercy of Boris Johnson and his new government.

The interests of everyone here will be better served if the eight DUP, one Alliance and two SDLP MPs show they can come together at Westminster for the greater good of Northern Ireland's future stability outside, or inside, Europe, and if the DUP and Sinn Fein, chastened by the message of the electorate, can end their differences at Stormont and set us all on a better course in 2020.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph