In the May 2010 general election I got a sniff that Naomi Long of the Alliance Party might be poised to topple the long standing East Belfast MP Peter Robinson of the DUP. I eventually spoke with Michael Long husband of Naomi and he confirmed precisely what I had heard. After notifying my incredulous news desk of this momentous development I chose to share the news with colleagues in the count centre in the King’s Hall in earshot of some elected DUP representatives. One of the DUP personnel confronted me wearing a fury mask spitting out the words “fuck you Eamonn. That’s just what you wanted to hear.” I stood aghast looking at my accuser.
It was one of those moments – the king was dead and his subject had lost control of his emotions. I accepted that was uncharacteristic of the young man in question.
The shock that the DUP’s master strategist Robinson had fallen to the Alliance party leader Naomi Long was a body blow.
One of the senior members of the DUP’s team overheard what had been said to me and graciously apologised for his colleague’s outburst.
It so happened that it was a DUP source who confirmed to me in the early hours of Friday morning that Sinn Féin’s John Finucane had defeated Nigel Dodds in North Belfast by almost 2000 votes.
It was another of those Peter Robinson moments – the unthinkable was happening – the corner-stone of the DUP’s edifice had been sledgehammered away by Sinn Féin in North Belfast, reversing one hundred and twenty-four years of unionist history with republican John Finucane taking the seat.
The defeat by Sinn Féin of the DUP’s party leader at Westminster, left the DUP crest-fallen. The loss of the North Belfast seat by Mr Dodds (sarcastically branded the “Mighty Dodds” by his former leader Ian Paisley) compounded a worrying trend in the ranks of the Arlene Foster led DUP for different reasons in different constituencies. Loyalists and all shades of unionists had rallied to Dodds but all in vain.
The DUP appeared to have failed to factor into their equation that a majority of people in Northern Ireland had opted to remain in the EU among them many unionists, from all walks of life.
There was one constant in the outcome of the elections in Northern Ireland: there was a surge in Alliance party’s votes in predominantly Unionist constituencies. Lagan Valley was proof positive of this with Sorcha Eastwood of the Alliance party growing her party’s vote dramatically resulting in the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson’s majority dropping from 19000 to 6000.
This was a pattern in many unionist constituencies. In East Belfast, a unionist stronghold, the DUP’s Gavin Robinson vote was slashed with the Alliance party leader Naomi Long cutting his majority significantly. This trend was replicated in other areas, in Strangford and North Antrim where Ian Paisley saw thousands of votes lopped off his majority thanks to the Alliance Party.
The DUP had not budgeted for pro remain unionists daring to vote for any party other than a unionist party. With the ball at their own feet at Westminster DUP MPs deluded themselves or deliberately chose to promote the notion that they spoke for every citizen in Northern Ireland. This would prove to be a fatal delusional notion.
The proof of the pudding was in the eating of it and this was quickly revealed on Thursday nightin North Down a long standing Unionist bastion. The Alliance Party’s Stephen Farry won with a 3000 majority over the DUP’s candidate Alex Easton who was deemed a “shoo-in” from the outset. That seat was held by outgoing independent unionist MP Sylvia Hermon. DUP arrogance had blinded it to the possibility that unionists would vote outside the family.
The DUP exposed a further deficit in their understanding even in their own traditional heartlands.
They sought to defy the voices of those speaking for the farming community and for the business community vis à vis the implications issuing from Brexit.
One DUP MP had the audacity to suggest the specialists hired to advise business didn’t really understand the essence of the government’s Brexit negotiations and Withdrawal Agreement.
I regularly challenged people like Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson throughout the Brexit saga to say how many cows they had milked, how many lambs they had reared. I also challenged the upper echelons of the DUP to spell out what they knew about running a business over and above what people at the coal-face knew.
During that period DUP leader Arlene Foster and her colleagues were traipsing in and out of Downing Street treating it as if it was their pied à terre In London. Sammy Wilson boasted about speaking at meetings in Great Britain, being the toast of The European Research Group (hardline Brexiters) who wilfully used the DUP arguments to cripple parliament and Theresa May’s EU deal – a deal for Northern Ireland scuppered by Arlene, and her colleagues.
Back in Belfast ‘old hands’ had no need to do refresher courses in history. The folk memory is alive and well on the island of Ireland. Perfidious Albion, a pejorative anti-British sobriquet dates back centuries. A 17thCentury French text speaks of ‘L’Angleterre, ah, la perfide Angleterre‘ (England, oh perfidious England).
Boris had received an invitation to come into the DUP parlour, and was vaunted like a prize bull at the Balmoral Show. Mr Johnson played the game declaring, “we would be damaging the fabric of the Union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on top of those extra regulatory checks down the Irish Sea, that are already envisaged in the withdrawal agreement.”
Boris went further at the DUP annual conference adding “Now, I have to tell you that no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement.”
What has Boris Johnson done after all that he promised the DUP back then? He has come close to doing what Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath told Ian Paisley he’d like to do with Northern Ireland “tow it out into the Irish Sea and let it sink to the bottom.”
The DUP fell for Boris Johnson’s baloney and it can only get worse now with the omnipotent Boris as PM at the helm. A senior civil servant told me (though this is an allegation to which I cannot personally lend credence) that an advisor to Johnson, Dominic Cummings, reportedly said at one stage, “I don’t care if Northern Ireland falls into the fucking sea.”
The DUP’s faux privileged position in Downing Street is finished and there will be a border down the Irish Sea.
Economics correspondent Jamie Delargy stated over two years ago there would be a border in the Irish Sea contending there was no alternative between a non-EU country (the U.K.) and a member of the EU, the Republic of Ireland.
Delargy’s prediction has come to pass and Sammy Wilson, Nigel Dodds et al are whistling in the dark if they think that will be undone.
The BBC’s Andrew Marr crystallised the relationship between Northern Ireland and GB like this “The entire constitutional balance between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has changed. It’s like a wiggly tooth. Nothing dramatic but it’s a real moment.”
The behaviour and coarseness of the DUP at Westminster may not serve the unionist cause well in the long term. A senior British civil servant suggested to me “the knives will be out down the road for the DUP because of the manner in which they treated Theresa May.”
The thesis being prosecuted by one DUP source to explain the surge in the Alliance vote (which undermined his party’s performance) is, that the ‘remain’ voters in unionist constituencies opted to vote for the Alliance a pro remain party. The source argues that the Alliance vote will eventually come back to the DUP when a complete break with the EU kicks in and the economy picks up.
The counter to that argument resides in the integrity and the leadership afforded by Alliance party leader Naomi Long. She is perceived to be honourable, non-sectarian, courageous and fearless. The Alliance as a party has been growing its share of the vote gradually and the most powerful manifestation of this was the election of Mrs Long as MEP in 2019.
Alliance party members stand for fair play for all and act with courtesy and civility. These too are common traits in the SDLP which, despite experiencing a dip in the overall percentage of its vote won two seats in the General Election with party leader Colum Eastwood in Foyle recording the highest vote ever for the SDLP there. He had a majority of 17000 over Sinn Féin’s outgoing MP Elisha McCallion while Claire Hanna delivered an SDLP majority of more than 15000 in South Belfast helped by the absence of the Green Party and Sinn Féin candidates in the field.
It was a master stroke and noble of Clare Bailey the leader of the Green Party to put ‘Remain’ interests before selfish party interests. She was the first party leader to propose ‘remain’ parties should work together to oppose pro Brexit forces.
The electorate clearly spotted something in the Alliance party and the SDLP which was appealing and rewarded them.
Perhaps the Northern Ireland electorate is beginning to mature politically and is rewarding ‘civility’ when it is put on offer. Could it be that the electorate has grown weary of the crudeness, coarseness and endless bickering among politicians?
Though, as yet there is no quantifiable scientific data or evidence to definitively demonstrate a weariness with the noise in politics in Northern Ireland there are trends to support this thesis with the upward swing in support for the Alliance party which appears now to be forming part of a pattern.
Northern Ireland exported some of its coarseness to Westminster politics and some of that virus spread through Parliament particularly manifesting itself in the Conservative Party from the top down: reference Boris Johnson’s ‘humbug’ response to a concerned parliamentarian speaking about the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox.
This coarseness is not uniquely one sided in Northern Ireland. I will address this later in this contribution.
Why are people walking away from the DUP?
Middle class Unionism is embarrassed by what it hears coming out of the mouths of DUP politicians. I hear this no matter where I go in Northern Ireland. The young Protestant upwardly mobile community wants nothing to do with this from everything I hear when I am out and about.
No sooner had the returning officer announced the result of the North Belfast election than Arlene Foster was talking of ‘pan nationalism’ being a factor in John Finucane’s win. The irony is, the first pact in this election put in place was a unionist one. The would-be Ulster Unionist party leader Steve Aiken announced that the UUP would not stand against the DUP’s Nigel Dodds in North Belfast. Any suggestions as to describe that arrangement?
Why does Arlene Foster not learn from her mistakes? She had already heaped so much hurt on nationalists with her offensive ‘crocodile’ reference about the Irish language and lovers of Irish. Deploying the term ‘crocodile’ to denigrate those in Sinn Féin promoting the Irish language was not just a dagger to the heart of those in Sinn Féin interested in Gaeilge but it was also a dagger to the hearts of all lovers of the Irish language. Everyone knew the target was in reality ‘parity of esteem’ – a recognition of one’s right to be Irish.
It’s time to nail this for once and for all. The DUP says nothing and does nothing to reassure those espousing an Irish way of life. ‘Parity of esteem’ is a foreign language to the DUP and indeed to many other unionists. Any concessions on this front are an endless battle.
The word ‘crocodile’ uttered by DUP leader Arlene Foster in her reference to aspirants for the Irish language in 2017 proved to be an epiphany moment for a silent section of the catholic nationalist community – the professional classes.
In areas like South Belfast professional Catholics, during the IRA campaign of violence remained silent ashamed of what was happening. Many of these people were doctors, chemists, business people mixing with Protestants in their workplace daily. Their silence was a shield to protect them from embarrassment in their cross-community surroundings particularly where the IRA might have killed a police officer or a relative of a fellow worker. With that ‘crocodile’ reference Mrs Foster touched a raw nerve in every nationalist, not just those who speak and love the Irish language. This was in the same acoustic of a remark attributed to Basil Brooke in 1933 in which he reportedly said he would not employ a catholic. The DUP leader’s ‘crocodile’ remark led practically every thinking professional catholic nationalist to question if their Irish-ness will ever be accepted by certain sections of Unionism.
The DUP leader’s sense of entitlement to speak for all the people of Northern Ireland didn’t stop with her.
The nightly presence of Nigel Dodds on TV screens during the Westminster Brexit debates in Parliament further alienated that section of the Catholic nationalist community. Though Mr Dodds was not speaking for them he arrogated to himself the right to do so. That was a bad mistake driving even a bigger wedge between nationalists and unionists determining for all shades of nationalism to work to unseat the DUP’s Mr Dodds in North Belfast.
The comment of an SDLP South Belfast stalwart crystallised this determination:
She said ‘I want John Finucane to win for two reasons. That wee woman Geraldine Finucane deserves a victory. Her husband was shot dead and she still hasn’t got justice from the State and I want that Brexiter Dodds out.” She added “I will skip the full length of the Lisburn Road if John Finucane wins.”
If the DUP have lessons to learn from the experience of the General Election and the whole Brexit debate, so too have republicans. Hubris and absolutism very often make prisoners out of politicians.
There is a generation in the Protestant unionist community still very live to the IRA’s campaign of violence which left empty chairs at the table in many homes as there is in nationalism a generation still bearing the scars of loyalism and State violence.
What is remarkable is that these two communities a quarter of a century after the ceasefires still haven’t found a way to acknowledge this mutual hurt, to help them to see the world differently instead of the old world of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
There should not have been any tolerance of the grotesqueness of some anti republican messages on billboards and on posters during the election campaign but republicans should be called out also for provocative public utterances which do nothing to heal a divided community.
Sinn Féin’s Declan Kearney talks regularly about the need for ‘uncomfortable conversations’ involving the two communities. Imagine just how much more ‘uncomfortable’ those conversations are going to be between nationalists and unionists if at each bend in the road the republican sound track is the antithesis of reaching out.
Among the main culprits in Sinn Féin is MEP Martina Anderson with her irritating anachronistic rhetoric of ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ said, not once, not twice but three times in one sentence. Even republicans are implying to me her utterances are proving counterproductive. Add to this, the deification of dead IRA hunger strikers, dead IRA activists on an ongoing basis, endless talk publicly of a border poll and a United Ireland and what do you get – an angry discommoded unionist community?
“So what” some republicans may say “if that is how Unionists feel?”
Republicans cannot have it both ways – endlessly signalling a willingness to reach out to Unionism to persuade them of the worthiness of a new Ireland and then choosing to insult them in the next breath.
No one is suggesting republicans should not remember their dead or hold dearly to their United Ireland and border poll aspirations but as former SDLP leader John Hume argued over and over again “it is about uniting people not territory.”
Arguing against the application of IRA violence the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich once told me “if I go out at the week-end and come home drunk and break my neighbour’s windows, I will not be at the Christmas party.” The same principle applies in any approach to reconciliation. It does not mean forfeiting any aspiration but that aspiration has to be rationally and respectfully prosecuted with tolerance in conversation with political rivals.
Wise heads in Sinn Féin need to spend more time talking outside their own circles to truly establish how unionists and nationalists are thinking. There is little to be gained by talking to oneself or to someone whose ‘legs hang out of the same nest.’
My colleague Brian Rowan wisely observed “Sinn Féin is the wrong party to lead the debate on a new Ireland.” This is self-explanatory.
The dip in the Sinn Féin vote ought to persuade the thinkers in that party to ask serious questions about its ongoing political stagnation slightly masked by the election to Westminster of John Finucane.