Ben Lowry: The appeasing of Sinn Fein will not stop, so the Ulster Unionists should now go into opposition

It is hard to pinpoint the worst moment for unionism in the near century since Northern Ireland’s creation.

Saturday, 4th July 2020, 10:30 am
(left to right) Sinn Fein leaders Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Michelle O'Neill alongside others including Conor Murphy at the funeral of the IRA leader Bobby Storey in west Belfast. Ben Lowry writes: "It was clear that the January reward for collapsing Stormont for three years would only embolden the party. No wonder they behaved as they did at the funeral". Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

There are half a dozen contenders, including prorogation of Stormont in 1972 and the Anglo Irish Agreement disaster of 1985.

Unionists did not even know about one low point: Winston Churchill’s 1940 offer to Eamon De Valera of a path to a united Ireland if he would help against the Nazis.

Some years ago, when I was talking to a friend about the big threats to unionism, he replied cheerily: “That’s what they said in 1641!”

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His point was do not give up. There are reasons to believe that the Union is more secure than it might seem, and could endure for many decades. Even so, I think January’s deal to return Stormont is one of unionism’s lowest moments.

After collapsing devolution in 2017, various Sinn Fein red lines came and went but the Irish language act demand was unwavering.

For three years, I wrote on this page — and said in broadcasts — that in a system of mandatory coalition one party must not be allowed to hold power sharing to ransom with non negotiable demands.

An act, while supported by moderate people and language enthusiasts of goodwill, was for hardcore republicans a key move towards a gaelicised, independent Ireland.

The distinguished literature scholar, Professor John Wilson Foster, wrote on these pages that such an act was a long-term threat to the Union (see link below).

He based that on his knowledge of the language in Irish republicanism since the 1890s and the impact of language laws in Canada, where he lived. He rejected analogies with language laws in Great Britain.

But setting aside such arguments, or counter arguments for such an Irish language act (which a handful of unionists backed on pragmatic grounds), if legislation was achieved by blackmail it would set a destabilising precedent.

Yet almost no other commentators repeatedly spoke out against a language act, and the small number of us who did were labelled bigots.

On the contrary, we were opposing tribal grievance mongers and hysterical claims that nationalists’ rights were infringed by the lack of an act. In fact, the UK funds Gaelic lavishly, yet the number of accomplished speakers is still derisory.

Far from encountering bigotry, the cry for an act met little resistance. Most public figures who had doubts were too scared to say so. It met no organised opposition.

Blackmail prevailed. It is not called an Irish language act in the January deal but we will see in the coming years how the new law is used to change every aspect of this society, from signage to courts to broadcasts to imagery to education.

It will move NI all the more swiftly to the place where we were already heading fast, in which it feel unrecognisable as part of the UK, and the only accepted Britishness is Treasury blank cheques.

Covid has shown that such UK funding is not merely accepted but furiously demanded by nationalism. And who can be surprised that there is no gratitude to London when even unionists don’t show it, as the RHI scandal illustrated?

It was also plain that demanding huge sums of money to prop up the Tories in 2017 (remember the reports of Downing Street calls to the DUP going unanswered during negotiations after the general election?) risked antagonising unionism’s few friends in Westminster (ie a section of Tory MPs).

I wrote a column about it (see link below).

Sure enough, when the Irish Sea border emerged last year no Tory opposed it. The web version of this article will link to the Conservative Henry Hill’s piece on how the DUP found that “an army does not die on a hill for its mercenaries” (see link below).

Did you notice, by the way, that a key example of the 2017 deal, funding a York Street interchange in Belfast, was not in Nichola Mallon’s recent list of new roads? This is despite the fact that a free-flowing junction will draw traffic from a city centre that she wants to be more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

The January deal to restore Stormont included an expensive wish list of public spending pledges. Can unionists not see that such a mindset antagonises middle England, and is a gift to people whose political aim is destroying the UK?

I have written about other disasters from January, such as the three strands being torn up when Julian Smith let Simon Coveney have joint control of the talks. That was another win-win for republicans – policy reward for toppling Stormont, or reward via direct rule with Dublin input. Either way, vandalism was met with constitutional advance.

There is no room here to write about the legacy pledge, which Julian Smith put into the January deal. Despite a fig leaf about a need for cross party consensus, it gave Dublin a clause in the deal to which it will hold the UK. This is a Republic which at the Council of Europe is trying to humiliate Britain in legacy cases which the IRA holds dear. A Republic which faces no scrutiny for letting terrorists base themselves there over three decades.

On legacy alone the DUP should have rejected the deal.

It is no wonder Sinn Fein felt emboldened to behave as it did at Bobby Storey’s funeral.

The DUP did not help reform libel law in NI, so the media here is at risk of brazen terrorists suing us. But Storey’s death means it can now be reported that he orchestrated the Northern Bank heist, seven years after the Belfast Agreement.

His name can also be added to the list of IRA leaders (Brian Keenan, Kevin McKenna, Billy McKee, Martin McGuinness) who we know in our bones would never have faced trial for their decades of orchestrating terror (while old soldiers of low rank face murder trials for single shootings 50 years ago).

Sinn Fein claims police advised them on the funeral plan, and it is said that PSNI waited outside while Roselawn was closed for a paramilitary godfather. The PSNI denies giving advice, yet we almost expect soft handling of republicans.

January was a triumph for a party that is determined for Northern Ireland to fail. Yet it happened just after SF suffered losses to the SDLP.

When the DUP capitulated in the deal, Sammy Wilson is said to have been one of the few internal dissenters. I sometimes think of another DUP politician who told me he would never, ever accept an Irish language act. But he did.

The Ulster Unionists were sharply divided on joining the executive, but in the event did so.

Robin Swann, honourably, took the poisoned chalice of health.

He has acquitted himself in a crisis. Now the first (and, let us hope, only) wave of Covid is mostly over.

His party could say: we did our duty in a pandemic but will no longer accept the appeasement of one party. We are going into opposition.

There is so much to scrutinise at Stormont, and to oppose.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

• Ben Lowry in 2017: The DUP should beware of hubris

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