Writing in Saturday’s News Letter Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland wrote: ‘Such attacks are unacceptable and clear evidence yet again that republicans simply cannot tolerate Orange culture. Let there be no doubt, the Orange Institution is committed to playing its role in making Northern Ireland a better place for everyone. All we ask for in return is respect and tolerance for our culture and traditions.’
At the beginning of last week Gerry Kelly denied that Sinn Fein or republicans were waging a ‘cultural war’ against either unionism or Orangeism. Yet he went on to say that over 90 per cent of the symbols and emblems in Belfast City Hall – and further afield – were pro-Union. In the name of ‘equality’ and to reflect the changing demographics of Belfast he wants the number of those symbols and emblems reduced. So no, it’s not a ‘cultural war’ at all, just a well-meaning attempt to introduce parity, balance and equality. And if you believe that, you’ll probably believe almost anything else!
The problem for Sinn Fein – and it’s a problem that almost all of its propaganda campaigns are directed at – is the fact that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.
Part of the United Kingdom after 30 years of an IRA terror campaign. Part of the United Kingdom after the Belfast Agreement and the St Andrews add-ons. Part of the United Kingdom after the Union Flag was lowered at City Hall and reduced to designated days only.
Now then, what does Sinn Fein do when it has a problem? Simple: it talks it through and designs a strategy (complete with multi-layered and overlapping options and nuances) to tackle the problem. Because nothing that Sinn Fein says or does is without purpose. Everything is calculated and calibrated. Everything is directed towards a particular target and long-term (some of them very long term) goal.
So they keep on with the ‘unionist outreach’ and ‘reconciliation’ strategy. They keep on with the border poll campaign. They keep on chipping away at the signs, symbols, benchmarks and touchstones which identify Northern Ireland as a country within the United Kingdom. They keep on about the flying of the Union Jack and the renaming of streets and landmarks. They keep on about the pro-Union ‘political furniture’ around Belfast. They keep on re-writing history to suit their own narrative. They keep on about the us-and-them nature of our public roads. And, of course, they keep on about Orange parades: not about ‘banning’ or ‘stopping’ them as such – just making sure that they don’t go through ‘our areas’.
Let me be frank with you: if I were in Sinn Fein that’s precisely the policy and strategy I would be advocating. Never stop. Never give up. Never give the impression that you are doing anything other than moving forward and exceeding expectations.
Whether I like it or not –and I don’t – the fact is that Sinn Fein is brilliant at propaganda.
Unionism used to be brilliant at propaganda and organisation. If you don’t believe me then read Alan Parkinson’s ‘Friends in High Places,’ a superb account of how we resisted Irish Home Rule. There’ll you’ll see how all the strands of the pro-Union family agreed on a strategy and then promoted that strategy. You’ll be astonished by the sophistication and depth of the campaign, particularly at a time when there weren’t computers and mobile phones, let alone Facebook and Twitter.
Nowadays the pro-Union family remains as inter-connected as a bramble bush, yet seems incapable of agreeing on anything. I’m not, as most of you will know, in favour of unionist unity per se, but nor am I in favour of the unionist off-shoots prioritising attacks on each other rather than rebutting and deconstructing Sinn Fein’s assorted campaigns. I’m very much against unionist parties seeming to delight in each other’s discomforts rather than setting out a coherent political/electoral strategy for maximising pro-Union seats and votes.
And even though Saturday’s Orange protest at Woodvale was, thankfully, a peaceful, good-natured one, I really don’t see the point of a strategy which is built around a weekly application for a parade past Ardoyne. Either the whole thing will just fizzle out (like Drumcree) or it will just turn very nasty one Saturday. Both of those outcomes are bad for unionism/Orangeism and represent an ultimately pointless campaign.
Symbols, emblems, ceremonies and mantras are important to unionism and, given our history, we are right to remember and celebrate our past. But I sometimes think that we remain too focused on the past and on the victories of long ago. So much so, in fact, that we neglect the ideology, strategy and planning required for the future. In other words, we need to move beyond the position, for example, that the strongest reason for voting DUP is to keep Sinn Fein out of the First Minister’s office. We need to move beyond the argument that the Orange should walk particular routes just because they are ‘traditional’.
Unionism/Orangeism needs to become more sophisticated in its thinking and more subtle in its strategies. Almost everything we do is a reaction rather than a first step. We are obsessed with looking weak in the eyes of family members, so spend too much time in macho showdowns with each other. Even NI21 sets out its stall in terms of its contrasts with mainstream unionism rather than how it will counter Sinn Fein’s strategies.
About a decade ago I asked a senior Sinn Fein strategist how they persuaded their grassroots that being in government in Northern Ireland represented a victory for them. “Ah,” he replied, “we can always rely on unionist disarray or paranoia to help us out.” He may have been half-joking, but I half-agreed with him.