Belfast Telegraph

Eoghan Harris: Unionism must now break its dependence on the Tories, look less to London and more to Lisburn... and warm up the house for moderate nationalists

The DUP, for all its defects, will do well in the election. But it is vital for decency that they do not gloat, says Eoghan Harris

Arlene Foster with Boris Johnson at last year’s DUP party conference
Arlene Foster with Boris Johnson at last year’s DUP party conference

By Eoghan Harris

Long ago, when my mother would hear of some dirty deed, like a solicitor defrauding some poor devil of his due, she would say, "He'll have no luck out of that".

Boris Johnson's betrayal of unionism, after his talks with Leo Varadkar in Liverpool, has been greeted with glee by most of the British and Irish media.

Johnson's formerly bitter Irish critics now say this is a good deal. But as a republican, I reject any deal that helps a British Prime Minister betray a million Irish Protestants.

The Johnson deal is a poor deal, is bad politics and will bring bad luck, bad karma and bitterness to both parts of the island.

Naturally, my belief is not widely shared just yet. No matter. I can wait. Meantime, here is a crash course on why the Liverpool deal will be dogged by its bad faith.

The Johnson deal fails its first test in Northern Ireland: will it promote peace and harmony? No, it will only promote the Sinn Fein project.

Northern Protestants pose no threat to peace. They just want to be left alone. But Sinn Fein has no intention of leaving them alone. If it succeeds, we will eventually see the same mass exodus of Irish Protestants from Northern Ireland we saw in the south from 1919 to 1926.

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We in the Republic only indulge Sinn Fein's provocations because of our bile against the thran unionists, who will not do our bidding. Most of us are not normally racists, or bigots - with one exception. We descend to tribal abuse when the DUP defies our agendas to pursue its own ones.

Unlike Brit-bashing, which is mostly rhetorical, our media's bile shows that we detest the DUP for doing what we might have done in their shoes - although I am certain we would have done it much better.

Moving on, I believe Boris Johnson's bad karma led to his first mistake - six weeks is too long for an effective election campaign.

The longer the lead-up to voting, the more likely that fresh problems will keep surfacing. Farage is the first such problem. Corbyn's proven prowess as a campaigner is another.

Accordingly, after a tight election, Boris Johnson could again find himself looking to the DUP for support. He won't get it.

In the past, a bit of patronising by posh Tories would see the DUP swallowing any Tory toad. Not anymore. The unionist people would destroy the DUP if it mooted a deal with Johnson.

Few people in the Republic have registered the seismic shock of Boris Johnson's betrayal, because we mostly hear from Alliance-type pundits favoured by The Irish Times. But even unionists are still struggling to come to terms with Johnson's treachery.

In stark terms, this is the greatest betrayal of unionists in the history of Northern Ireland. Not only that. The vote on the Withdrawal Agreement revealed that unionists have few friends in British politics, media, or society as a whole. All of which adds up to a mortal threat to the future of Northern Irish unionists.

Since Harold Wilson's time, most British Governments wanted to disengage from Northern Ireland. But they couldn't do so without the shame of expelling a million of their own citizens from the United Kingdom against their expressed wishes.

But Johnson's shameless deal provides a political face-saving process, through which they might eventually effect a phased disengagement.

Faced with this sickening sell-out by English Tories, the rational response of unionists should be to create a united Ulster Unionist Party to cope with the current crisis.

Such a merger was precisely what I suggested in a major speech delivered at the annual dinner of the Castlereagh branch of the Ulster Unionist Party in September 2007.

Talks followed between the UUP and DUP and then petered out as the Good Friday Agreement seemed to be bedding down fairly well.

But as a lifelong watcher on the northern wall, I knew Sinn Fein strategists would not long let sleeping unionists lie in peace.

Today, in the teeth of Tory treachery, it is suicidal for unionists to fight over worthy, but secondary, concerns like the Irish language, or identity issues. Not when the Good Friday Agreement, the foundation of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, is under siege from Sinn Fein - and Boris Johnson is playing Lundy.

But, incredibly, the UUP and Alliance, for a complex of reasons - social snobbery, distaste for the DUP's position on abortion and its support for Brexit - cannot seem to grasp that unionists are in a grim place and the last election, in 2017, is no guide to the anger surfacing from deep in the unionist psyche.

Proof of this was provided by the universal unionist rejection of Steve Aiken's proposal to run a UUP candidate against Nigel Dodds in North Belfast, which, to his credit, Steve has dropped.

Alliance is also out of touch. Newton Emerson, writing in The Irish Times, told us that Alliance supporters might be happy to let Sinn Fein win a seat. He writes: "The DUP does not know how to appeal to such people. If it warns them it is likely they could let Sinn Fein in, they are likely to respond, 'So what?'"

Now, I have a pretty good notion of the preppy politics of "such people". There are lots of "such people" in south Co Dublin.

Although I am an atheist, I abhor their snide secular politics and their perpetual finger-pointing at those who lag a little behind in the liberal marathon.

Their equally preppy pundits say that Alliance represents a permanent third force, neither unionist nor nationalist, in Northern politics. But a third force can only become permanent if Sinn Fein permanently lifts its siege.

In the meantime, no third force can indefinitely transcend the intense tribal tensions that have been stirred up by Boris Johnson's Great Betrayal.

Now, it is no secret that I am not a fan of Alliance, which I refer to as the "Dalliance Party" because of its chummy relations with Sinn Fein, based on a "liberal agenda" and opposition to Brexit.

A few months ago, I was struck by the relaxed body language in a photo of Naomi Long of Alliance and Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy at a meeting with Michel Barnier.

Clearly, Sinn Fein hopes to lull Alliance, first into complacency and then into complicity in Sinn Fein's pseudo-liberal agendas.

Naomi Long nobly sees Alliance transcending tribal politics, but the nobility goes no further than herself and her party.

Sinn Fein never nobly rises above its nationalist agenda. And it sees Alliance as a political pawn in its pan-nationalist project.

But as even liberal unionists grasp that Boris Johnson has wheeled in a Trojan Horse packed with Sinn Fein projects, their patience with the UUP and Alliance will eventually wear thin.

That is why the DUP, for all its defects, will do well in the coming election. They do not deserve to do well, because their support for Brexit opened the door for Boris Johnson.

But deserve has nothing to do with necessity. It is vital for democracy that the DUP provide an alternative to wilder actions. It is vital for decency that they do not gloat if they hold their seats.

If the DUP does well, it must eat humble pie for the sake of unionist unity and seek to form a new party of realistic unionists.

One strong party would make unionists feel safer - and thus more likely to reach out to constitutional nationalists.

The DUP has a duty to purge its past mistakes by merging with the UUP to build a new, progressive, mass-unionist party, looking to Northern Ireland more than London and offering a warm house for Catholic unionists - which must include an Irish Language Act of the balanced sort offered by Arlene Foster.

Above all, unionism must break its dependence on the Tory party, look less to London and more to Lisburn, restore its Assembly home in Northern Ireland and warm up the house for moderate nationalists.

As a first, small step to good politics and political stability, smart unionists should make sure Colum Eastwood wins Foyle.

Eoghan Harris is a Dublin-based political commentator

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