Peter Robinson: Unionists are more alienated than I have seen at any time in my 50 years in politics

This year marks the 50th anniversary of an event that was to change me forever.

Friday, 26th March 2021, 6:04 am
Updated Friday, 26th March 2021, 6:08 am
Peter Robinson, former first minister of Northern Ireland and DUP leader, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter on alternate Fridays. This week he says: "Having stoically endured terrorism, huge institutional change and the stifling of their culture, unionists kept faith in the democratic process"

Until 1971 I envisaged a normal life; a nine to five job, home with a family, church fellowship, socialising with friends, enjoying sport and the occasional holiday.

Yet fifty years ago I was jolted from that smooth and comfortable path and propelled towards a hectic life in active politics.

In 1971 the IRA as part of its campaign to deliberately murder innocent civilians, bombed the headquarters of the electricity service and gave what the police were later to describe as “an inadequate warning”.

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There are forces using Brexit to advance constitutional change through stealth and propaganda

The bomb exploded as staff were exiting the building and one of my school friends Harry Beggs was murdered and ushered into eternity.

He was twenty-three years of age.

The memory of the thousands of innocent people whose lives were lost in that conflict, the tens of thousands who were physically injured and mentally scarred, the political and constitutional events of those fifty years, flooded my mind this week as I listened in utter amazement to the claims by Sinn Fein assembly members that it was nationalists who were being ignored and excluded in Northern Ireland.

Having endured a vile terrorist campaign, stoically undergone massive political and institutional change, faced attempts to stifle their culture and undermine their Britishness unionists still maintained faith in the democratic processes.

I quickly dismissed the Sinn Fein rhetoric as a poor effort at humour republican-style, or perhaps it was intended to bate unionists.

Either way I am not laughing and my capacity for being provoked is already jam-packed.

Alternatively, and more likely, the remarks may have been intended to deflect from the mounting evidence of significant unionist alienation.

There have been many occasions when unionists were under fire or faced overwhelming adversity and have been more angry than today, but I can think of no period over my 50 years in politics where unionists have felt more alienated than they are now.

I can only relate my own understanding, derived from those I speak to and communicate with, albeit at a time of pandemic restrictions on mingling, which perhaps in this context, has, for the government, obligingly limited reactions.

Unionists dwell under a cloud of injustice flowing from the reality that they have gone beyond the second mile to facilitate a stable, peaceful and shared society but are pilloried for not meeting each of the ongoing, incessant and unending demands from republicans to erase everything British and indulge everything Irish.

There is a feeling of deflation and disappointment because of the willingness of government to repeatedly cave-in to republicans lest the IRA resumes its violence or Sinn Fein’s fellow-travellers in Dublin or Washington might be displeased.

There is a very real sense of alienation that comes from the constitutional pivoting which forms part of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Unionists discern that Northern Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain has changed without their consent.

They speculate that the laws which will apply here will, in the greater part, be made – not in Stormont nor at Westminster – but in a Dublin-influenced EU without a single elected representative from Northern Ireland having a vote.

Unionists maintain that Northern Ireland’s economy will be impacted and their rights as citizens are being violated. They reflect on the commitments they were given, and which have been appallingly broken leaving the odour of betrayal in the air.

Since I retired as First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the DUP, I have been involved with several organisations in conflict resolution and peace studies.

Conflicts often occur when a significant group feels estranged and powerless and when the democratic processes do not appear to work for them.

Academically, I must point out that they do not need to be right — many may disagree with their assessment. They just need to believe they are right.

When others attack them for stating their case and question its justification, it only adds to the disconnect and increases the political isolation.

Those with wisdom who have their finger on the pulse should recognise the signals when a people become disenchanted with the system.

I travel with caution as I address these matters.

It is too easy to either be dismissed as a scaremonger or attacked for sabre-rattling.

These are the normal responses from that lazy and witless cadre of anti-unionist journalists searching for a news headline as well as those politicians who hope to profit from the fruits of that alienation.

Of more concern to me, is that what is said can be used to spark the very disintegration that I and any sensible person will be seeking to avoid. Nonetheless, silence will not serve anyone who cares about our future.

My intention is not to point the finger of blame but merely to report the state of mind of unionists as I gauge it to be.

It would be wrong to assume that in time unionists will calm down and eventually acquiesce. That is not my assessment.

We are perilously close to a line which, when crossed, will lock us all into a pattern all too familiar to my generation.

The genie will not easily be squeezed back into the bottle.

Without question unionists feel estranged from the prevailing political arrangements.

My fear is that if it is not adequately addressed, estrangement from the political arrangements will, for some, morph into rejection of the political process.

That may be expressed in voter apathy or protest voting but for others it will be vented more robustly, and, in an atmosphere of discontent, it may be met with greater tolerance than it deserves.

We all know where that leads.

There are forces using the exigencies of Brexit to advance a programme of constitutional change through stealth and propaganda.

My advice to those who are driving this agenda forward is as short as it is restrained.

Take care.

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