Compassion, not taunting, must be the ethos of the Irish talks process leading to a new, stronger Ulster agreement and the return of the Stormont institutions. The Assembly poll which no one wanted, costing the taxpayers some £5 million, resulted in the same two ruling parties – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein – returned again, with the rest of the supposed Opposition parties, namely the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance, as ‘also rans’.
If the austerity cuts of Direct Rule from Westminster are to be avoided, along with the Stormont Parliament being mothballed again, yet another deal – akin to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement or the 2006 St Andrews Agreement – must be hammered out within the next fortnight.
For the DUP, it must stop taunting republicans by comparing Sinn Fein to crocodiles; for Sinn Fein, its so-called ‘draft dodgers’ – namely those elected representatives with no terrorist convictions – must stop taunting unionists by speaking at commemorations to dead IRA members.
The DUP’s crocodile talk only sparked a nationalist backlash at the polls, leaving unionism the minority designation in the Assembly and signalling the electoral demise of the UUP, which ran Northern Ireland as a majority rule government from the state’s creation until 1972 when the original Stormont was axed by Tory PM Ted Heath.
Sinn Fein’s IRA supporting commemorations have only served to bring about the very situation which effectively propelled the republican movement into power, namely unionist unity. For almost the entire duration of the Troubles, republicans basked in the luxury of watching unionist infighting. The concept of unionist unity among the various pro-Union factions was a political myth. But with electoral nationalism now in the ascendancy and a situation looming more akin to a Scottish parliamentary poll where the SNP is the government party, unionists must finally bury their petty differences and work towards forming a single Unionist Party to represent all shades of pro-Union thinking – and that includes the significant number of Catholic unionists.
The overall Irish conflict has been raging for eight centuries, so the reality is why should anyone be surprised that tribalism was the big winner in this month’s Stormont showdown? Tactically, both unionists and republicans need to return to 1905 – the year the Ulster Unionist Council and Sinn Fein were both launched.
Clearly, before a workable agreement is hammered out between the two communities, political unionism and nationalism need to reach agreement within themselves.
Structurally, the DUP and UUP have to merge. That’s what most of the unionist grassroots want in the aftermath of the poll, which left the DUP still the largest party over Sinn Fein at Stormont – by one seat in a 90-member Assembly! The DUP now has 28 seats with the UUP trailing behind with 10, so a merger is the only solution.
The nationalist camp is more complicated. Sinn Fein has 27 seats, with the moderate SDLP on 12. Sinn Fein’s ace card over the SDLP is that the former is an all-island movement with seats in the Dublin Dail. The main opposition party, Fianna Fail, is already organised in the North and plans to contest future elections. That will dent the Sinn Fein vote, and could condemn the SDLP to the dustbin of history in much the same manner and the SDLP dished out to the now defunct Irish Nationalist Party in the 1970s.
For moderate nationalism to have any relevance north of the border, the SDLP must join with the main coalition government partner in the Republic – Fine Gael. With Brexit looming in a couple of years, the SDLP needs to make sure it is not wrong-footed by Sinn Fein again and republicans gain a united Ireland by the back door, namely through unionist disunity and Protestant voter apathy.
Sinn Fein can use its new Stormont mandate as an excuse to trigger a snap Dail election, which could see party president Gerry Adams – former West Belfast MP – becoming deputy Prime Minister in the Republic as a minority partner in a coalition government. Such political clout would give Sinn Fein almost the same bargaining power it had in 1920 when it negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which brought about the Republic’s forerunner – the Free State.
However, there is one very dangerous elephant, currently sleeping, which Sinn Fein does not want to waken in the Protestant community – violent loyalist extremism. Albeit a minority rumbling in unionism, there are Protestants who see how Sinn Fein’s military wing resorted to armed struggle to bring the British to the negotiating table during the Troubles. Unionist jokes that the time has come ‘to bring the muskets out of the thatch’ may be dark humour today. But in spite of the IRA’s three decades of terror during the Troubles, it should not be forgotten that it was loyalists who committed the worst atrocity of that conflict – the no-warning car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 which cost over 30 innocent lives.