During the Troubles a visitor from the Republic of Ireland who familiarised himself with Northern Ireland including the fractured debris strewn streets of West Belfast and the prosperous Protestant rural/farming areas of North Down and North Antrim – concluded:
“I wouldn’t blame the unionists for wanting to hold onto what they have and I wouldn’t blame the nationalists for wanting what they haven’t got.”
In those days the Good Friday Agreement had not yet become a reality and nationalists still felt second class citizens with Belfast City Hall a bear pit where Sinn Fein councillors were treated like lepers and pariahs.
The Good Friday Agreement and ultimately the St Andrews Agreement were meant to consolidate the principle of ‘parity of esteem.’ This aspiration was still born and therein hangs today’s tale of woe.
The architects of the political structures miscalculated how long it would take for the two traditions in Northern Ireland to come to terms with each other.
Historically Northern Ireland was a one party State with unionists feeling they were ‘born to rule.’
The architecture and scaffolding of the Good Friday Agreement were well intentioned but contained a fatal flaw.
While aspirationally the First and deputy First Ministers were meant to be co-equal, that is not in reality how it played out. The enemy of ‘parity of esteem’ resided in the term ‘deputy First Minister.’ That branding perpetuated the notion of diminished status of the ‘deputy First Minister’ for each nationalist holding that post. That argument would hold water were the contrary the case. This nuancing of title in what is supposed to be a co-qual office informed the notion of hierarchical superiority – regularly exploited by Unionist First Ministers in declarations such as “I am the leader of Northern Ireland.”
Factually Seamus Mallon, Mark Durkan, Martin McGuinness have been viewed in the Catholic community to be playing second fiddle far too often to their Unionist counterpart.
By dint of his personality Ian Paisley could not help himself from liking Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy and that bond encapsulated in the sobriquet ‘Chuckle Brothers’ was one of the drivers leading to the toppling of Mr Paisley as First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. It was not the only motive.
A senior DUP representative claimed the architect of the ‘sending Sinn Fein to Coventry’ policy was Nigel Dodds who reportedly instructed colleagues to engage Sinn Fein Assembly members strictly on a business basis – this meant no fraternising, socialising or over familiarising. Martin McGuinness claimed to have experienced this ‘cold shoulder practice’ in the corridors of Parliament Buildings.
An anti Sinn Fein attitude played out habitually in the Assembly Chamber with DUP elected members such as Gregory Campbell wilfully bastardising the Irish language and jibing Sinn Fein MLA and hunger striker Raymond McCartney about not being “successful” at hunger striking.
This behaviour in no sense exculpates those Sinn Fein MLAs diminishing the Irish language to taunt Unionists when addressing Ian Paisley Junior as “Ian Óg.”
True lovers of the Irish language want people to be attracted to Irish on its own merits.
They don’t want Irish to be used as a political football or weapon to goad fellow Protestant citizens.
Once Ian Paisley was out of the way regrettably Unionism set about reasserting the pre-eminence of the notion of a hierarchy in the office of FM/DFM.
No single issue in the catholic nationalist psyche crystallised this more clearly than Peter Robinson’s ‘letter from America’ killing off the Maze project despite Martin McGuinness thinking the project was an agreed, ‘a done deal’ only a few weeks earlier.
Martin McGuinness just about ‘got away with it’ in the nationalist community on that Maze question. The principle of ‘co-equality of status’ was perilously undermined.
That was a seismic moment in nationalism and laid bare what ‘parity of esteem’ really meant in the highest office in the land.
On the issue of the Maze, Peter Robinson told a well placed figure in society:
“I was the last man standing supporting the Maze enterprise but I was left with no choice.”
A heritage centre on the Maze site was a bridge too far for the Gregory Campbells, Sammy Wilsons etc. Mr Robinson had a choice ‘kill off the Maze project or be killed off.’
Peter Robinson’s attending the McKenna Cup GAA final in Armagh in Jan 2012 along with Martin McGuinness was another bridge too far in a party in which many members bristle at the mention of GAA or the Irish language. ‘No parity of esteem’ is the credo of many DUP MLAs.
No one can underestimate the impact of the RHI scandal right now across the communities in Northern Ireland regardless of where the blame for it rests. Hopefully an investigation will deliver an answer to this conundrum.
Ironically the loss of potentially £600m to the Northern Ireland tax payer over twenty years as a result of RHI, (if this is not recovered) might not have proven the fatal blow to the Stormont administration.
Instead, a decision by Communities Minister Paul Givan to withdraw a £50.000 Líofa bursary scheme which supports those on ‘lower incomes’ to avail of the Gaeltacht experience in native Irish speaking areas of Donegal, has turned out to be the straw that has broken the camel’s back for the broad nationalist community.
This decision served to underscore a disregard for the feelings of those espousing the Irish language. It was the latest in what nationalists deem ‘DUP contempt’ for that electorate. This added insult to injury with The Irish Language Act continuing to languish in oblivion. Mrs Foster refusing to sign off on funding for inquests as sought by Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan has further infuriated nationalists.
In the eye of the storm over the RHI scandal the FM repeatedly referred to herself as ‘the leader of Northern Ireland.’ Arlene Foster does not enjoy the equivalent status of Theresa May or Angela Merkel. She is not the leader of a one party State or of a one party government but this is the prism through which Unionist leaders view Northernm Ireland. This is the defective prism which is going to render us all potentially governmentally blind in the coming months.
The recent Assembly election results sent a message to Sinn Fein. The party lost ground in their heartlands and the realists in that camp know there could be worse on the horizon if they concede more ground to the DUP in Parliament Buildings.
Arlene Foster’s party shed no tears for Sinn Fein and will be shedding less in the face of a worse election outcome for Sinn Fein should they end up there. DUP MLA members are not interested in wishy-washy liberalism and love-in gesture politics with Sinn Fein.
History has taught the DUP there are no votes in cosying up to the perceived enemy. The local government result which witnessed the UUP take the Dromore Council seat in 2008 shook the DUP to the core.
The party interpreted the result in several ways:
‘The Chuckle Brothers imagery,’ and the public togetherness of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, so comfortable in each other’s company, were deemed deleterious and a vote loser.
The sight of Ian Paisley entertaining Taioseach Bertie Ahern in his North Antrim constituency unsettled that old anti Dublin, anti Home Rule brigade which had witnessed Mr Paisley snowballing former Irish Prime Minister Sean Lemass.
In her opening shots of the last Assembly election the DUP leader warned:
“Make no mistake, this election is very close. A swing of only two votes in every hundred from the DUP to Sinn Fein would see Martin McGuinness become the next First Minister.”
That message put the fear of God into the Unionist grassroots and they came out and made a point of voting DUP to stop McGuinness becoming First Minister. Nothing has changed. That card will be played again in the coming weeks. McGuinness the ‘bogeyman’ will be dusted down and re-introduced.
Arlene may be perceived in some quarters not to have faced up to either accountability or responsibility over the RHI fiasco – that may be so but there will be no buckling or bowing the knee to Sinn Fein. There will be no ‘stepping aside.’ The view is – ‘time for a stiff upper lip and no surrender.’ To answer Sinn Fein’s step aside call would be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the DUP camp which is deeply suspicious of the true motive weakening and damaging Unionism.
There is a fear that if Arlene gives an inch Sinn Fein will be back for more and more very soon.
The ghost of Dromore reigns – there will be no hostages to fortune – no cat-flaps will be left open through which the TUV/UKIP/UUP will pass to steal DUP votes. A hard line stance has shown itself in the DUP to be more electorally favourable. There are still echoes of “Smash Sinn Fein” in DUP waters.
Factually Arlene Foster has lost the propaganda war over RHI with the commentariat, analysts and academics. Her righteous tone, sometimes imperious and at other times self pitying are not washing with sections of the media.
The media doesn’t elect the DUP. The goal is to keep the base solid. Let the blame fall where it will over RHI is the attitude of the DUP. Keeping Arlene’s bicycle upright is what is more important right now with an election likely to be on the horizon if either Martin McGuinness or Mrs Foster concludes the game isn’t worth a penny candle.
The DUP are pushing to publish the RHI applicants’ names and as much information as possible, including the amounts of monies received, the numbers of boilers bought etc.
House-keeping is well underway to clear the way for Simon Hamilton and the Department of the Economy to publish the names and details. There will be an imminent development on this front.
A whiff of scandal has lingered in the Unionst air in Fermanagh for decades.
This will not be lost on DUP leader and FM Arlene Foster. She believes going public with RHI users’ names replete with details of funding received will erase the notion that a cloud of scandal has settled over the party she leads.
Final thought – in the event of an election and regardless of the outcome one shouldn’t automatically conclude normal service will be restored at Parliament Buildings.
Sinn Fein is adamant it will not be party to structures as currently operated by the DUP.
Sinn Fein might be presumptuous in thinking that the DUP would want to go back into government with it. This could be a double edged sword.
A political footnote: In August 1969 Gerry Fitt begged Home Secretary Jim Callaghan to send British troops into Northern Ireland to protect his beleaguered constituents.
Jim Callaghan’s answer was prophetic: “I can get the army in but it’s going to be a devil of a job to get it out” he declared. ‘Operation Banner’ saw troops leave in July 2007.
Bringing down the current administration and government is the easy part. Putting it back up is going to be more problematical.
Arlene and Gerry Adams I remind you – Ash Wednesday is not that far away – March 1 – and ‘ The Ides of March’ come two weeks later. “Be ware!”