Nothing else matters now but the numbers game
Here's a tweet from my timeline last week: '˜Red Sky. NAMA. RHI. Sri Lanka. Dark Money. Strips of land here, there and everywhere. Metro covers. What have I left out?' Another tweet: '˜SIF. Northern Bank Robbery. Castlereagh break in. Maria Cahill. Research Services Ireland. The murders of Robert McCartney, Kevin McGuigan and Paul Quinn. Republican/Sinn Fein linked cover-ups and scandals.'
Those two tweets are, I think, a fairly accurate picture of the chasm between unionism and republicanism in terms of how we view each other. It’s Newtonian politics; when each assessment is countered with an equal and opposite counter assessment.
I can’t even remember the last time I saw a tweet in which someone from the DUP or Sinn Fein set out the joint positives of their sharing Executive office between 2007 and 2016. I do remember a joint article published in local newspapers in November 2016, when Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness boasted – and there really is no other word to use – of how hard they were working together in the interests of Northern Ireland. But that turned out to be a pile of self-serving, disingenuous tosh when, six weeks later, McGuinness’s resignation letter excoriated the DUP and crashed the institutions.
In response to last week’s column – in which I argued that I believed/hoped the Orange Order was in a process of change – quite a few people tweeted to tell me (in fairly graphic terms) that the OO was incapable of change. When Arlene Foster addressed an Orange event in Scotland she was condemned online by hundreds – it may well have been thousands, because I don’t have a Facebook account and don’t monitor figures there – of being a bigot. When Michelle O’Neill attends republican commemorations she is accused – in the same numbers – of glorifying terrorism. And this isn’t mere disagreement: this is often plain hatred of one for the other.
A few months ago I made the argument in favour of Barry McElduff’s resignation, even after Sinn Fein hadn’t insisted upon it. But I made the point that even if he was the candidate in a subsequent by-election I still expected him to hold the seat. The same with Ian Paisley. I think he should resign. But even if there is a by-election and he stands as either an independent or the DUP candidate (which I think would be the case) I’m pretty sure he would win.
And that’s because, as it was with the Mid Ulster by-election, the contest will be nothing to do with the event that triggered the by-election. Like everything here it will come down to a numbers game: and in a numbers game we always make sure that our own side – irrespective of any concerns we may have about personal behaviour or particular policies – wins.
The response to Brexit is also following a typical pattern. Sinn Fein accuses the DUP of favouring a hard border because, so the logic goes, a hard border somehow makes the Union stronger and secures Northern Ireland more firmly within the United Kingdom. As it happens I think that logic is nonsense. With 56% of voters in Northern Ireland having voted Remain it would be crazy for the DUP to believe their own electoral hand would be strengthened by a deal that made those 470,707 feel more uncomfortable. Bear in mind, too, that a chunk of the 349,442 Leavers don’t want a hard border, either.
At a number of panel events I have attended since the Brexit result Sinn Fein members and supporters are telling me that the uncertainties thrown up by Brexit are making it much easier for them to promote Irish unity as, ‘more likely now than it has ever been’. In other words, a hard border would probably make it much easier for them to pursue their Irish unity agenda than a soft, gloopy border deal. A hard border is, in strategic terms, more useful to Sinn Fein than a soft one. A hard border doesn’t, in my own view, do a single thing to copper-fasten Northern Ireland within the UK – although it clearly suits SF to peddle a contrary view.
A soft border won’t make the Irish unity question disappear, but it does make it more difficult to achieve in the short to medium term. And a soft border also addresses the long-term concerns and interests of London, Dublin, Belfast and Brussels; which is why I have always believed – assuming, of course, the UK actually does leave the EU – that a soft border will be the priority when/if we reach a final draft. Again, a soft border does SF no favours.
Anyway, back to my earlier point. The Newtonian nature of local politics – where each action is met with an equal and opposite reaction – is what prevented a decade of DUP/SF domination from delivering stability, resolution, genuine cooperation, a consensual overview of the collective problems or much hard evidence of cross-community integration and intra-party good relations. Their key figures will deny – in public at least – that they despise each other: but they do. As do their respective voter bases; although I would argue that their voters are actually more intolerant of the ‘other side’ than the negotiators and representatives may be. But both leaderships know the key lesson of politics: never get too far ahead of your voters.
In January 2017 I wrote that I was ‘even more pessimistic than usual’ about the prospect of a new deal. Well, that pessimism has deepened and broadened since then. I see no prospect whatsoever of a deal – by which I mean something which can guarantee stability and a resolution of the mountain of outstanding unresolved issues – anytime soon. Yes, the parties may be able to construct some form of ‘virtual reality’ agreement which places them around the same table again. But so what? It’s just numbers now. Nothing else matters.