MICHAEL SHILLIDAY: Signs row highlights ‘intellectual malaise’

ON some southern approaches to the border, motorists are now advised by road signs “Welcome to Northern Ireland”. It’s such a minor event anywhere else and it would be the least remarkable government action in any given week. In Northern Ireland it takes up a couple of days news cycle. The entire thing is vaguely pathetic.

It is a terrible shame that when republicans are presented with something they don’t like (specifically in this instance road signs), there is often criminal damage or theft not far behind. Signs to Londonderry city, or denoting the border between the county and Tyrone, are routinely vandalised in areas where republicans are dominant. Why then bother erecting these new signs in border areas? Are DRD expecting them to survive more than a fortnight? Of course criminals can’t be allowed to dictate public policy, but the realities of existence along the border surely should at least be taken into consideration.

What depresses me about the affair is how indicative it is of intellectual malaise and a broader lack of confidence amongst unionists in their own cause. It really is about time that political unionism grew up, accepted that their ideology has won, and start to act accordingly. That doesn’t mean triumphalism, which is what trying to make the border as physical and tangible as possible feels like.

There is simply no need to rub republican faces in republican failure. The border as a feature of the political landscape is here to stay for the foreseeable future and beyond. Sinn Fein surrendered their grubby war, they then surrendered their weapons (late, but they at least got there), surrendered their refusal to accept Northern Ireland’s existence, and recently surrendered their objection to the Monarch being in their presence. Every Sinn Fein minister happily administers a system where the Queen has a theoretical veto over legislation they present to the Assembly.

There is no need to remind nationalists that the border is there. They know, and they like it a lot better than the people they vote for would like to think. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that so many Catholics (and I use the supposition that this means nationalist voters unhappily) will vote for the Union in a border poll that there is no hope of Northern Ireland leaving the UK anytime in my lifetime. It is often forgotten that even in the parallel universe where there is a vote to leave the UK, Northern Ireland would still exist as a self governing region of the new Irish state, the Belfast Agreement continuing to have effect in full. Nationalists signed up to Northern Ireland’s permanent existence in 1998.

The department’s politically neutral explanation for the signs is that they are simply informative, showing drivers where the border is explicitly, so that they know that the speed limit is in miles per hours rather than kilometres, and is therefore slightly slower. That would make sense if the signs actually said any of that, rather than simply “Welcome to Northern Ireland”. There are separate signs showing the speed limit.

What then do these signs achieve? For political unionism there may be a few (and I suspect that “a few” is a high estimate) votes in it amongst border unionists, but strategically it gains nothing whatsoever. It simply breeds the mistrust and acrimony between the UUP and SDLP that keeps us from moving forward to a normalised political system. Whatever victory some think there is here, it is fairly pyrrhic.

Nationalist politicians hate the signs. Which is depressing. Unionist politicians probably quite like that nationalist politicians hate them, which is equally as depressing. If not more so given the ideological victory that Unionists who were thinking strategically won. I really don’t understand why this fight was picked, because there is an inevitability about its loss. Eventually replacing the damaged or stolen signs will cost so much money that even a Unionist minister will have to concede that it isn’t worth it. Resulting in a win for criminal damage and theft. After the next election there may well be an SDLP or Sinn Fein minister who will drop these signs as quickly as Danny Kennedy dropped Irish language road signs. Resulting in a win for those with their heads in the sand over the border.

So really, what was the point?

Michael Shilliday is a former Ulster Unionist researcher who now lives in London.

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