Friday 18 January 2008

The strain is starting to show

Liam Clarke, writing in the Sunday Times on 13 January, echoed a theme already alluded to in this blog on a number of occasions – the willingness of the DUP to actually enter into the spirit of the Good Friday (and St Andrews) agreements, rather than just the institutions. This blog has argued that the DUP neither wants to, nor is capable of, co-governing on behalf of all of the people of Northern Ireland.

In his article, Liam Clarke notes that "until now the mood in the DUP seems to be that it is safest to say no to anything Sinn Féin wants unless there is a clear self interest in playing along", which is a polite way of saying that the mood in the DUP is to give nothing whatsoever to Sinn Féin unless there is no alternative. While for reasons of salonfähigkeit this is often argued as being a reaction to "terrorism", in truth it stems from the much older, deeper, and more persistent anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish bigotry of the DUP's members and supporters. This bigotry seems to be as strong as ever, and calls into question the DUP's ability to give as well as to take. It is a fact that for the government of Northern Ireland to work, both sides have to give, and to receive. Up to now, the DUP has consistently refused to give – a fact noticed by both Gerry McHugh, former Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, and by Clarke.

How long the one-sided approach of the DUP can last is uncertain. Sinn Féin cannot force the DUP to do anything, and vice-versa. But the corollary is that the DUP can block any proposals that it perceives as favourable to Sinn Féin. To date they have blocked the Irish Language Act, and they are making loud noises about the Maze redevelopment, the Bill of Rights, and the reorganisation of the district councils. As Clarke also points out, "it is becoming increasingly difficult for Sinn Féin to support the DUP line without receiving something in return".

For the DUP to give anything meaningful in return, it would have to be something that Sinn Féin can publicly point to as a success. The backwoodsmen of the DUP would then choke on their cornflakes.

This year may see a semi-public battle within the DUP for the leadership post, and 2009 will almost certainly see several heated election battles, so the DUP has very little room for manoeuvre in terms of visible concessions to Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin members, while not yet choking on their cornflakes, are at least starting to feel the frustration of having their aspirationss blocked by an immobile DUP. Gerry McHugh spoke for many when he criticised the control that unionism appeared to have within the Assembly structures. So it is perhaps no surprise that, feeling their aspirations blocked by intransigent unionism in the Assembly, they start a low-level fight-back in the District Councils. In Limavady District Council Sinn Féin has fired a warning shot over unionist bows by drawing up a list of the items that must be removed in order to create a neutral working environment.. These items are, of course, the type of totems that unionists appear to be obsessed by – a fact not lost on nationalists and republicans. The underlying message seems to be, "equality is our right – either give it voluntarily, or have it forced upon you". The almost complete absence of any official nationalist (let alone republican) symbolism in public places is, of course, irrelevant to unionists – their position seems to be no further advanced that it was 50 years ago. To unionists, Northern Ireland is rightly theirs and only theirs. The actions of the DUP in the Assembly stem from this misguided belief, and their outrage at any proposal whatsoever to give recognition to the nationalist 45% of the population echoes this.

So is Northern Ireland heading for a cold war? One in which unionist intransigence will lead to nationalist intransigence, crippling government, and condemning yet another generation to the pointless and futile hatreds of the seventeenth century? The one single light at the end of this depressing tunnel is the fact that this generation may be the last to be condemned to the stagnation of unionism, as unionism is in relative decline and will soon be a minority creed. The irony for unionism is that its inability to mature, and to become a more pluralist and tolerant movement, will hasten its decline, as moderates steer clear of it. As this blog has pointed out before, the very 'success' of the DUP may be the catalyst of unionism's ultimate and unlamented defeat.

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