‘At the Crossroads with O’Neill & Paisley’ – By Colm Dore

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The leadership of Unionism is at another crossroads, with another O’Neill, and another Paisley. 

Historical resonance abounds.
Sinn Fein has rarely been more in tune with such a range of Irish nationalist opinion. 
One reason for that is that this is not the 1980s. The Troubles meant a type of containment and stability. 

It is impossible to avoid Jim Molyneaux’s observation that the ceasefire was ‘destabilising’. 
Today, when the DUP says it will not “bend the knee” and “surrender to SF”, it may be setting its face against something more than SF.

That includes nationalists “with a small n”. They do not see why parity of esteem for Irish identity, and equality in government, should be controversial.

More remarkably, it is possible that rejecting Agreement commitments is a rejection of the constitution of this place. 

The Belfast Agreement was endorsed by the people, to an extent to which Brexiteers can only dream. Is rejecting it a rejection of democracy? In this Decade of Centenaries, some see parallels with the Home Rule crisis. 

The DUP frames debate on other grounds. Parity of esteem is a SF demand which the DUP, the leading exponent of “strong Unionism”, is best placed to resist. 

There is much talk, in NI, of the need to move beyond ‘orange v green’ politics. 

Framing debate on wider grounds might do that. 

When Naomi Long recently expressed solidarity with Irish language activists, it indicated that parity of esteem is not a ‘green’ issue. 

If parity of esteem spills into other questions of equality, could tribal containments crack open? Could it clear the way for wider progressive politics?

Maybe it could invigorate consensus on other issues: Remain, LGBT rights, austerity, immigration, etc. 

That might channel 1790s pluralism, when ideas transcended differences of Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter. 

Some might find that this chimes with James Connolly’s equation of liberation causes. 

In the short-term, parties other than the DUP and SF must be tempted to use the image of equivalence between those two parties. 

That would be a straightforward route to votes. Hearing is freighted with history, and just saying “Orange & Green election” can ping equivalence into minds. 
It can be difficult to follow John Hume’s example, relegating party self interests. 

Spilling parity of esteem into other areas may also deliver a second profound change: creating a shared “now”, upon which to build a shared future. 

That is evoked by Ian Paisley’s remarks about Martin McGuinness, in which he highlighted the need to build relationships. 

To what extent are these thoughts shared by DUP leaders? 

Ian Paisley emphasised that there was no need to qualify his remarks. Others in politics, and media, have tried to do so by asking republicans to unilaterally apologise for the past. 

To nationalists, that is another example of inequality. Official history, as expressed by a statue in Lisburn which extols the virtue of the UDR is not their history.

In his poem, ‘The Nod’, Seamus Heaney described everyday disempowerment in the pre-1969 north:

‘Saturday evenings we would stand in Loudan’s butcher shop. 
Red beef, white string,
 Brown paper ripped straight off for parcelling
 along the counter edge. 
Rib roast and shin
 Plonked down, wrapped up, and bow-tied neat and clean
 but seeping blood. 
Like dead weight in a sling,
 Heavier far than I had been expecting
 When my father shilled out for it, coin by coin.
Saturday evenings too the local B-Men, 
Unbuttoned but on duty, thronged the town, 
Neighbours with guns, parading up and down,
Some nodding at my father almost past him
 as if deliberately they’d aimed and missed him
Or couldn’t seem to place him, not just then.’

The insufficiency of the past as the basis for building a shared future was recently shown by controversy around a film about Bobby Sands.

In discussions, the word “terrorist” came easily to moderate Unionists. Which current nationalist (or PBP) MLA would describe Sands with that appellation? 

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, said Stephen Dedalus. 

A generational shift in SF leadership highlights the possibility of renaissance. Gerry Adams marked it by reciting Brendan Kennelly’s poem, ‘Begin’.

‘Though we live in a world that dreams of ending that always seems about to give in something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.’

The immediate, official, DUP response was social-media imagery which depicted Michelle O’Neill as an extension of old enmity. 

Similarly, nationalists hear echoes of the past, of Lord Brookeborough, in the attitude of some to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McCrory a distinguished lawyer from their community. 

In the South, civil war pain was bridged by agreeing to go forward from a shared “now.”

Is that less necessary in the north, after centuries of division? 

Is there a better way to face down “dissidents”? 

Widespread violence is not in prospect, but it is worth thinking about Philip Orr’s play, ‘Half-way House’. One character says that, although there is little shared understanding, the young have escaped the past. The setting is 1966. 

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About Author

Colm Dore born in Belfast studied in University College Dublin. He is currently studying law with a view to pursuing it as a career.


  1. Hmm. It cud still get noisy.
    Mention of Alliance – (Naomi Long intervention was welcome by those seeking Parity of Esteem) – and Irish language brought to mind my friend Brendan who spoke only Irish to RUC in late 80s.
    Leading Alliance member Justice Basil McIvor sent him to Jail for 6 months for his impertinence. Such attitudes are still out there in many quarters – quarters considered moderate by some.
    That is why this could be as destabilising as Home Rule Crisis or worse. The Status Quo has been passed and we have at last reached a bank of the Rubicon. Let us all hope that common sense, Constitutional creativity and decency rule the day. It is then we might see an equitable solution – otherwise we might well see the Rising of the Moon.

  2. It seems to me that there is an deep inability by the author to escape his belief that unionists are unable or unwilling to break from the past, that there is an inherent resistance to parity of esteem among them. Generalisation like this is unhelpful. The final paragraph is remarkably pessimistic, one would hope that we are not in some sort of 1966 dejavu moment.

    Unionist leadership may indeed be at a crossroads but they didn’t arrive here alone and they are not alone in that they are faced with choices that will shape the years to come.
    If the agenda for a united Ireland is to reflect a transcending of Protestant Catholic and Dissenter then the onus is surely upon those who aspire to it to make sure that happens. It seems to me that there is a choice to be made too by republicans not withstanding the reaching out that has been done in a number of ways by Martin McGuinnes and the journey made thus far by the republican movement to a purely political pursuit of their objective. There is a need to choose between what is most important to them the political or the cultural objective/victory. The pursuit of the political objective of an all Ireland state would be much further advanced if divested of the need to win all cultural battles too. Everytime the republican movement are “perceived” or “actually ” seen to be engaging in a culture war against British or orange identity, it serves only to reinforce the idea among unionists that a United ireland would be an unattractive prospect. Of course much of the British heritage and identity in NI is uniquely shaped by the history local and does not resonate beyond the shore to the east and as such belongs to this island, similarly with orange culture, though successfully exported to other parts of the U.K. and world through pre partition Irish diaspora it too is culture that finds its origin on this island and not the other one to the east. All this to say that republicanism if it is to aspire to the political unity of the island should make it a matter of practical policy to demonstrate that in such a United ireland there would be a space of equality parity tolerance and recognition for a culture that hitherto they consider alien, by embracing it if not emotionally perhaps but certainly practically as a legitimate part of the tapestry of shared history and identity of this island. SF new election posters make much of equality parity and inclusiveness “for all” their biggest challenge though is not to achieve this merely for Irish speakers//learners or LGBT community, or any demographic that fits readily into existing SF policy or ideaology but in terms of their overall desire for s United ireland they must demonstrate how that looks for those whom they are historically culturally at odds with.
    The world is changing rapidly, there is a prospect of a hard border, an independent Scotland and a rewriting of the very fundamentals of what the UK and Britain is, ROI has changed from the early 1900s, so too has NI from the 1960s or 80s. Old tired retrodden prejudices from whatever side won’t produce anything different. And arguments for and against a United ireland have changed too. The argument if it is to be made now must be rooted in the now and in the future envisioned Ireland, much like the case and comprehensive arguments put forward by the SNP for an independent Scotland , but not at all like the slipshod crass nationalism seen in English brexit nationalism, there is a choice right there.

    But careful choices and real policy development by leaders of all traditions here can and of necessity need to create new opportunities to further reshape this island in a positive way for the future.
    If there is to be no going back to the status quo then that will require not just change by unionists but some creative thinking by republicans.

    The onus is on all parties to continue engagement at all levels as this place still finds its feet after generations of turmoil hurt loss and suspicion. It is possible to make that happen.
    The conciliatory words and tone of Ian P jnr demonstrate that, to the point where it was fun to see how this blindsided an unsuspecting media.

    Whether Colm is able to see it or not there is a growing pragmatic and progressive demographic in unionist community that recognises that the relationships we have in the north and in all Ireland need not and should be shaped by the past but by where we are now and what we could be in the future, to drown that out by perpetuating a perception of a unionist community that is by nature unable to change will be to miss an opportunity and to postpone the realisation of the nationalist goal of a United ireland. It would also be to ignore the fact that even back in the GFA referendum where there was much raw grounds for fear and doubt and skepticism the vote carried in NI because there were plenty unionists willing to envision something different from their recent and not so recent past.

    • james, whilst there is undoubtedly a “pragmatic and progressive demographic in unionist community”… we are unrepresented. Perhaps you could agree that political unionisim does fit Colm’s characterization, e.g. DUP & TUV are clearly stuck in the past, and our potential progressive hopes, UUP & PUP responded to Ian og’s gesture/comments with “he was a terrorist… we should never forget”

      so while some unionists (i prob mean people whose family background is not irish) do want to move on surely its fair to note that pol Unionism does not, or cannot

      • Yes Jamie there is a problem of course within political unionism, I think there is a need for courage to tap into that growing and unrepresented unionist demographic. Some hard questions need to be asked, because it is not a given that the Union will survive forever. But my point is that really the onus is on those who desire a United Ireland to persuade the unionist community of its merits. So there are challenges for both sides to offer a different narrative that transcends tribalism. A mutual acknowledgement of cultural legitimacy would be a start, an end to ridicule and demonisation that have been the rhetoric of both sides. Thanks.

      • James,

        The reference at the end, to 1966, is not meant to be pessimistic, but to question whether problems inherited from previous generations need be handed on.



        • In that case I now understand the point, and it’s a good question, I think its incumbent upon everyone in political and civil society to at least find a way to pass on at least less than we ourselves inherited.

      • Yes Colm I read that last post when it was first put on the site, and I did think that it was a good and insightful piece, there has undoubtedly been a brave few backward steps and remarks that have changed the dynamic in the executive and beyond and I think all thinking people will view that as unnecessary and unhelpful. I think the coming election will prove interesting.

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