Monday 2 June 2008

"We make no apology for foiling Republican plans …"

It was bound to happen, but nonetheless, now that the initial euphoria has worn off, the true nature of the DUP's participation in the government of Northern Ireland is becoming clearer.

The DUP's underlying purpose was set out by their South Belfast MLA Jimmy Spratt on 21 May, when he gloated that: "First Gerry McHugh and now Paul Butler – there is a growing recognition within Sinn Fein ranks that it is the DUP who are setting the agenda in Stormont", and that: "We make no apology for foiling Republican plans whilst advancing the agenda of the pro-Union community". Earlier, on 8 May, North Down MLA Peter Weir published an article in the Newsletter in which he expressed much the same negativity: "I and my party have no love of Sinn Fein and the very sight of them up at Stormont is hard for people to stomach, but the truth of the situation is that the best way Unionist interests can be protected is through using the devolved institutions to push our own agenda and to sabotage theirs. A cost-benefit analysis of the last twelve months would show that it is Unionism that has undoubtedly come out on top. Even Sinn Fein MLA’s have acknowledged that Unionism is in charge up at Stormont."

So, in a nutshell, the DUP is acting as a kind of goal-keeper for unionism. Not scoring, but just trying to stop their opponents from scoring. Their supporters are probably happy enough with this position, as the status quo is already overwhelmingly unionist, and thus any change can only dilute this. The DUP have therefore become ultra-conservative, holding on tightly to the existing reality, and unwilling to allow any movement.

What might be the implications of such conservatism?

In the short term, the DUP will probably benefit from it – their supporters are happy, and it is true that under the current governmental arrangements they can block any and every Sinn Féin proposal.

In the medium term, however, a policy of total conservatism is likely to prove disastrous for the DUP and for unionism. If the world did not change, then conservatism could mean the continuation of tried and tested policies and practices – but the world does change, and after a few years total conservatism becomes simple stagnation. And worse than that, unionism cannot afford the luxury of a permanently disenfranchised 'minority', because that minority is growing as unionism is shrinking. The consequence of effectively disenfranchising nationalists by vetoing every proposal that they or they representative want, is that nationalists build up a head of resentment, with possibly explosive results. The troubles/war of 1969-1994 was caused by precisely the same refusal by unionism to allow nationalism any space. From 1922 to 1972 unionism ran Northern Ireland as a single party state, and nationalism was repressed, ignored, and treated as the enemy within. The results of that flawed policy fill many books (and too many grave-yards). The lesson that unionism should have learned was that if they want nationalists to accept the northern state, then they have got to feel that that state is also their state. From 1922-1972 it most definitely was not. The great hope of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was that both sides had agreed to share both power and the physical space that is Northern Ireland.

The DUP's statements and actions demonstrate that they are trying to recreate a situation of effective unionist veto over all nationalist proposals, and that their policy is to foil and sabotage them. The governmental mechanisms allow them to do this. By doing so they are effectively denying nationalists any real power, and instituting a system of mutual vetoes, in which no initiatives can be taken by either side.

But the world moves on, and two separate factors will ensure that the DUP's policy will fail, to unionism's enormous cost.

The first factor is that real power remains elsewhere, largely with the British government. While in the short term they can tolerate another political slum in Northern Ireland, in the longer term the political stagnation will lead to economic stagnation and possibly unrest. A less sympathetic British government may lose patience with unionism if it perceives it as being the primary cause of economic stagnation leading to high levels of subsidy. A British government co-operating closely with Dublin on political and economic matters may look unfavourably on a Northern Ireland that will not play the game because of a bloody-minded veto being played by a party with no policies other than anti-Irishness.

The second factor that will ensure unionism's downfall if they continue with the DUP's total conservatism is the demographic change that North Ireland is undergoing. Nationalism already represents between 42-45% of the electorate, and this percentage is growing. Unionism still has a plurality of the vote, but no longer the guaranteed majority of the past. If the DUP continues to frustrate the reasonable demands of nationalism, that growing percentage will become more and more frustrated, and more and more likely to vote for whatever option that can rid it of the dead hand of unionism. Given that the Good Friday Agreement gives unionism a veto even when it is a minority (as nationalism today has a corresponding veto), the achievement of a nationalist majority, and a nationalist First Minister, will still not rid nationalism of the 'foilers' and the 'saboteurs'. The only way to do that, and to achieve anything like real power, will be to vote for Irish reunification, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

So the DUP's determination to block anything proposed by nationalism is likely to ensure a stalemate that angers both the British government and the growing nationalist electorate. Taken together, these two groups will have both the ability and the interest to bring about Irish reunification within a generation.

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