Belfast Telegraph

Union can only be saved by showing respect for Irishness: Malachi O'Doherty

Catholics who have been alienated must be converted to the idea of remaining within the UK, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Arguably the stupidest mistake made by a unionist was Gregory Campbell's speech to his party conference in which he said that the DUP would treat Sinn Fein's wish-list like toilet paper.

I can imagine people in the Sinn Fein strategy team watching that and saying: Gotcha!

Campbell had broken one of the simpler rules of politics - never say never. He committed his party to never conceding anything to Sinn Fein on the Irish language and treating with contempt their aspiration to have an Irish Language Act.

From that moment on Sinn Fein had it in its power to humiliate the DUP by getting it to climb down from that proud boast, or to break it.

This fits with the DUP's understanding of the Trojan Horse theory expounded by Gerry Adams, by which the equality agenda is presented as a tactic to undermine unionism.

But the thing about Trojan Horses is that the gates of Troy have to be opened for them.

And Campbell and others in the DUP leadership effectively opened the gates, invited the horse to come in and walk around, presuming they'd be able to chase it away again.

Because, by the logic of the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing, Sinn Fein needs the DUP as much as the DUP needs Sinn Fein. This has been a calamitous misreading in the situation by unionists.

Sinn Fein is a bigger and more extensive party than the DUP.

Yes, the DUP vote thrives on contention every bit as much as the Sinn Fein vote does.

The logic of that is that contention serves both well but ultimately drives them apart.

Therefore, in time both have to get on. Both lose if they don't.

But the DUP loses more than Sinn Fein does.

The DUP, if it loses Stormont, keeps six councils of the 11 in Northern Ireland and 10 seats in Westminster.

The seats in Westminster have huge value for now because the DUP is indispensable to shoring up the Tory Government.

But that advantage could be gone by Christmas and might not come back for another 20 years.

The party currently has a seat in the European Parliament but is determined to be rid of it.

So, without Stormont the DUP will have very little.

Contrast that with Sinn Fein's position.

It has a clutch of councils in the west of Northern Ireland. It has seven seats in Westminster but doesn't take them. It will continue after Brexit to have representation in the European Parliament through the Irish Republic, where it also has councillors, TDs and senators.

Compare Sinn Fein's position in the Dail with the DUP's in Westminster. Currently Sinn Fein is polling at 20% of the vote down there. It stands a good chance of being in government; not a great chance, but not a negligible one. What prospect is there that the DUP will have seats at the Cabinet table in Westminster? None.

It will be outside looking in if one day a British Secretary of State is sitting down with a Sinn Fein Tanaiste to discuss repairing devolution. Couldn't happen?

So, while it looks as if we have a deadlock that damages both parties equally, Sinn Fein has such a broad base and so many platforms that it can more easily sustain the loss of Stormont than the DUP can.

This hasn't sunk in with people who still think in terms of majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland and always calculate on the assumption that unionism has more clout than nationalism.

That's how it used to be.

Sinn Fein does not only have more platforms than the DUP, it has a hand to play.

It will now focus on opposing direct rule and Brexit.

And it knows also that these positions will appeal beyond the voter base.

Northern nationalists do not like the DUP. They feel that the DUP gave no consideration to protecting their Irish identity inside the European Union, the one structure that gave it parity with Britishness.

And since the border is now back at the heart of political dispute, the last thing many nationalists want is for the DUP to hold power in Northern Ireland or be in a position to represent Northern Ireland in talks with Europe.

And this is bigger than Sinn Fein. People who will never vote Sinn Fein are turning their backs on power-sharing because they don't want to be even part-governed by the DUP.

So what can the DUP do to win them back, for win them back it must?

The Union is not secure if only the Protestant community wants it, because the demographic shift is rapidly eroding a Protestant majority.

The only way to save the Union is to convert Catholics to it.

And that was not such a hard job until very recently.

At least a third of the Catholic, nominally nationalist, community lived content with the Union. They worked in the Civil Service and the institutions of state.

A civic unionism might have acknowledged that silent assent.

But a unionism which pegged its commitment to evangelical religion and the monarchy was never going to bring significant numbers of that community out of the closet to declare their preference for the United Kingdom over a united Ireland.

There was a time when unionism could indulge the fantasy that it was a bulwark against religious heresy, when the Orange banner symbolised loyalty.

But what is a unionist to be loyal to now? To a retrenched evangelical culture which can lose them the Union, or to the Union itself, which it can only hold onto with confidence by including Catholics and respecting Irishness?

And even that might be a hopeless pipe-dream now, depending on the outworking of Brexit. If it goes badly for British-Irish relations, then it will go badly for nationalist-unionist relations in Northern Ireland.

This isn't to say that there can be a united Ireland very soon, though more people are now talking up that prospect than before.

I suspect that if Labour comes to power, direct rule will take a colouring much more to Sinn Fein's taste. I think Corbyn might prove perfectly obliging when asked for a border poll.

Though if his own prospects fall on a refusal of Sinn Fein to take their seats, he'd hardly be daft enough to think he owed them favours.

Sinn Fein does lose out after last week's collapse. The LGBT community now sees that giving their vote to Sinn Fein got them nothing, and if there is an election they may pay for the betrayal of those hopes.

But it is unionism that seems bereft of a vision today. It is unionism that must rethink its entire prospects if it is to have any significance at all.

Belfast Telegraph

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