Strong medicine for Unionist leaders – By Dave Maley

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David McNarry wrote in this forum (May 6) that Unionists “are entitled to strong, united, trustworthy, coherent, astute and practical leadership”.

It is hard to deny that entitlement is still a core component of the psyche of some Unionists, but time will tell whether the next anticipated leader will meet the spec: we can but hope that the “maturity” advocated by Jackie McDonald (March 2 in this forum) creeps in and he doesn’t call for a toysoutofthepram, bringdowntheExecutive response to a Protocol to which the DUP’s own hubris contributed.

When I recently asked the Unionist politician I know and respect the most from where quality leadership would come, he commented “Unfortunately Unionism needs a younger, smarter and more talented leader than me. I’m afraid I’m not particularly hopeful that there is one around.”

Why is this? I humbly suggest that one factor is because the bar for election and reelection is so low. You don’t have to be a good politician – especially not a politician who is morally good, never mind one that is able – to be elected in this society (and not just to represent Unionism). You just have to be good at bad politics. You can be unashamedly complacent. You can revel in unbridled cronyism. You can be consummately hypocritical. You can be abjectly inept. You can be brazenly corrupt. And many churchgoers will still vote for you.

Unfortunately, underlying most of the behaviours listed are grossly-inflated egos, which are going to be an obstacle to Unionism uniting in its hour of need.

Perhaps the lack of obvious ability and/or integrity amongst the current crop of representatives is why so-called garden-centre Unionists choose not to vote at all: but they have now woken up to find that whilst they have been pruning their roses and mowing their lawns, someone else has been trimming their borders.

The only thing you have to do right is to represent the interests of your tribe. Anything else will be overlooked. Indeed it remains a likely scenario that even the DUP’s catastrophic clanger in voting down a soft Brexit – leading to the very Protocol that they now rail against – will be forgiven by their electorate. You can dump in the nest and still get reelected.

Perhaps it is rosetinted nostalgia to imagine that it used to be a pre-requisite of political office that you were trustworthy (or at least, that you were sufficiently cunning to keep your chicanery well hidden).

Are the days of expectation that politicians are of good moral character long since past? Have voters in western democracies become so self-centred that they are no longer interested in the character of those who represent them?

If political representatives have power, and can therefore abuse it, so what, so long as it doesn’t affect me? They are public figures, and therefore set an example, good or bad: so what, so long as it doesn’t affect me?
If so, then NI has been ahead of a trend for once: bad politics leaves little room for morality, and Unionism is facing a shortfall of its own making.

It’s just a hunch – that high calibre leadership goes handinhand with high calibre morals, and we rarely see the first because the second are equally scarce.

Complacency, cronyism, hypocrisy, ineptitude – they’re all easy options, which means that when things get tough, you’ve built no foundation on which to face the challenge. Plus you’ve soured numerous relations by abusing your power. You might have done your fellowskulduggers a few favours, but those who didn’t have their snout in the trough beside you will have taken note, and ultimately what goes around comes around.

Every moral choice, every political option, has an immediate impact, but is also an investment in future outcomes. Such decisions affect relationships and allegiances across multiple levels of society.

Those involved in the RHI scandal appeared happy to throw cash around the place because they saw it as “free money from the Treasury in London”. I didn’t detect even a glimmer of moral obligation to the mainland British taxpayer who was footing the bill.

The attitude towards Treasury funding exposed in the RHI enquiry ought to have been a major source of embarrassment for Unionists. Remind me why residents of mainland Britain would be sorry to see Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom with attitudes like that on display?

The Guardian reported the former Welsh First Minister Carywn Jones as describing the price of the confidence and supply arrangement extracted from Teresa May’s government as a “straight bung”.

Unionist balance of power leverage is unlikely to return (to Westminster, anyway), but the Treasury will not have forgotten, next time representatives from NI turn up with the Provincial Begging Bowl – almost certainly when funding is more desperately needed.

Do you recall who was the smiling, sanctimonious face of Parliamentary Unionism when that particular deed was done?

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About Author

Dave Maley is yet another blow-in from across the water. He spent his first year in Belfast working at a community centre in North Belfast, and has continued to be involved in community work in a voluntary capacity for the intervening 25 years; most recently, with Alan McBride, he was General Instigator and Dogsbody for Codswallop Young Men's Group. In his spare time he has done a PhD in Computer Science, been Irish coach at the World University Cross Country, and earned a crust working in Higher Education.

1 Comment

  1. michael coleman on

    The very idea that someone with David McNarry’s political stamp-yar-feet in anger background & political
    non-acumen can inject imagination, enthusiasm, and creativity into what is to all intends and purposes a political corpse that lived its 100yrs on the crude life-support of demographic arithmetic is a little tragic & a big laugh.

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