Wednesday 9 January 2008

Moving backwards

It is 2008 – almost ten years after the Good Friday Agreement, and almost 150 years since the publication of 'On the Origin of Species …'. Free education has been available for all for several generations, and university education is no longer the preserve of the rich.

Why then, in Northern Ireland are we still subjected to the primitive and ridiculous ramblings of the foolish, presented as if they are valid arguments?

Over the past few weeks the (unionist) newspapers have been filled with a variety of complete rubbish, usually inspired by religious dogmas that are so obviously wrong that the rest of the world, bar the US fundamentalists, has ditched them and moved on. Only in the unionist media in Northern Ireland are these tired old arguments still presented as if they matter. For example, the Belfast Telegraph and the Newsletter have been trying to stir up controversy over one Presbyterian Minister's refusal to let another one preach in his church, because the second happened to be female. And some people are actually motivated by this to write letters to the papers, citing epistles written by Saint Paul to the Corinthians in 115 AD! Here's a suggestion to all such people – open your eyes and get an education. There is no god, and the scribblings of some misogynist in the Stone Age are utterly irrelevant. Your religions, and all their ministers and priests, are all wrong.

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just confined to the lunatics (though why respectable papers give them column-inches is a mystery), but even some unionist politicians appear to believe things that are clearly wrong – who votes for such fools?

The issue of the age of the Giant's Causeway has exposed the sheer stupidity of several members of the DUP in particular. Mervyn Story, a North Antrim DUP MLA, reckons that it dates from the 'flood', and Minister Edwin Poots is on record as thinking that the whole world is only about 6,000 years old!. In the Belfast Telegraph (of course), the same old stupidity reared its head again recently: a certain Tom McIvor wrote that "the vegetation buried within the Giant's Causeway is too well preserved to have been there more than a few thousand years." Where else in the world would someone so stupid be prepared to put their name to such rubbish?

It just seems that as the rest of the world moves on, some unionists in the north of Ireland stay resolutely in the past. They ignore, or even argue against, scientific advances. They refuse to compromise with their fellow citizens. They seem not to have gained anything from the educations that they have received. They appear incapable of actually joining the world and making it a better place. For them all change is a threat, and they cling to the past like a lifebuoy. They argue against anything that offers any acknowledgement of the rights and aspirations of the 45% of the people who are nationalist: the Irish language, the response to the troubles/war, the inclusion of the H Block in the redevelopment of the Maze, the Bill of Rights, and so on ad nauseam.

The question that this raises is whether such backward-looking, regressive and uneducated positions really represent unionism, or more widely Protestantism? If it does, can unionism compete in the 21st century? Will educated people continue to take it seriously, or will other more rational and progressive groups arise to take their votes? If the kind of religious nonsense we see every day does really represent unionism, then where can it go? If the religious right controls unionism, then it has painted itself into an intellectual and political corner. The increased light being shone on it, as a result of the restoration of the Executive in 2007, can only highlight unionism's obstructionism, conservatism, refusal to compromise, and inability to cope with the modern world.

If, on the other hand, the dinosaurs do not really represent the educated unionist voter, then what lies in store for unionism? Having attained power, will the weight on the DUP's shoulders now start to cause its foundations to crumble? To use a biblical reference, those foundations are built on intellectual sand. A modern co-ruling party needs to have rational, logical, arguable policies. It needs to co-operate across the border, and with the UK government, and sometimes with Brussels. If its positions are guided by half-witted religious cranks, then its ability to provide credible co-government will be severely compromised.

So if the DUP starts to crumble, who will benefit? Undoubtedly some unionists will drift back to the UUP, and some to the loyalist micro-parties. Some may vote for the Alliance Party, and some may opt out of the political arena altogether. In overall terms, though, unionism will lose out, and this may happen at a crucial moment, just when the two tribes are approaching parity. Attaining power, therefore, might just turn out to have been a catalyst for the eventual, and final, defeat of unionism.

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