Northern Ireland is usually thought of as having two lines of political cleavage, religion and ethnicity.
But there is a third: language.
Despite the fact that the language of political discourse is English.
English, far from being shared by divided communities, is in reality another source of division. Although I have long recognised that English is a source of polarisation, I was reawakened to this reality through listening to Martin McGuinness announcing his resignation as deputy first minister. He used one particular word which alerted me to the fact that Sinn Fein was about to embark on a new campaign. Northern Ireland was about to be subjected to a prolonged period of intense political instability, with no easily identified solution in sight, apart, that is, from giving in to Sinn Fein demands.
Martin McGuinness referred to Arlene Foster as ‘arrogant’.
I recalled that, in an earlier Sinn Fein campaign, the strategy for which was developed in the Maze Prison, the Orange Order became the target. Nationalists referred to the Orange Order as ‘triumphalist’. The late Father Faul explained that the Orangemen would be subjected to a single message constantly repeated: ‘triumphalist’.
In the case of both Orange parades and Arlene Foster’s political presentation, there was some truth in what was being alleged. These were charges that were not easily rebutted.
Sinn Fein does not have to put the DUP on the back foot. The DUP has done that for itself. What Sinn Fein has done is use the RHI debacle to seize the initiative and exploit the fundamental weakness of the whole unionist position: its fragmentation.
The oul Orange maxim, ‘Unity is Strength’, was kicked out the door of Stormont long ago. Divided unionists can only negotiate from weakness because division undermines the historic strength of the unionist position. Modern unionism denies itself the ability to throw its whole weight behind any negotiating position.
This is where party self-interest militates against the common good. The phrase ‘common good’ is used in an inclusive sense, because unionist splits actually exacerbate the Sinn Fein strategy of destabilising Northern Ireland.
The fulcrum upon which the next political contest will turn will be the language of polarisation, not the language of peace. Language will be used to mobilise support and to denigrate and demean the opposition.
Northern Ireland may be an increasingly secular and unbelieving society; but a sentence or so from The Message carries the ring of truth: ‘A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it!’ (James Chapter 3 verses 3 to 5).