The question on everyone’s lips in Northern Ireland is, allegedly: When will devolution return to Stormont? I have doubts as to whether the Unionist population is really as committed to a return to devolution as political pundits suggest.
In any case, this is the wrong question. What we should be considering is whether another attempt at self-government can be sustained for more than the short term. Have we proven to be congenitally incapable of governing ourselves?
There is no need to rehearse here the demands and prerequisites for return that Sinn Fein have placed at the top of the political agenda. It would be unfair on Sinn Fein to assert that all of their demands are simply political posturing, but it must be recognised that this is not a political party which is keen to establish a stable and peaceful Northern Ireland as a political goal. The Republican movement remains determined to achieve a United Ireland. During the immediate past, this determination has been counted in over 2,000 coffins.
The modern Republican movement has long ago lost sight of the aspirations and goals of their founders. No-one even claims anymore that this has been about uniting people. As Wolfe Tone put it: neither Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter, but united in the common name of Irishmen. Republicans’ actions in their recent phase of endeavour been more about victory and therefore, Unionist defeat, than it has been about uniting the people of Northern Ireland in advance of any possible constitutional changes.
So what is Sinn Fein’s current strategy? The IRA has already called a ceasefire and handed in the majority of its then armaments. Nevertheless, it retains the facility to recommence hostilities. To achieve this Republicans will need to ensure at least a small but significant degree of support from the Catholic community.
It is for this reason that events such as the recent Wolfe Tone concert are so important. To be able to attract some 10,000 young people to Falls Park to cheer on such lyrics as ‘F**k your Union Jack, we want our country back’ and to claim that they have fought the British for 800 years and are prepared to fight for another 800, might surprise most people.
But such events are crucial to the Republican agenda.
A crowd of 10,000 young people exposed to such lyrics helps to keep them true to the old flag; that is, a new generation, mostly born after the ceasefires and the advent of the Belfast Agreement, cannot be lost.
The water needs to be present for a future fish to swim.
It is for this reason that we shall see more such events to ensure that the pot continues to simmer.
When the IRA called off its 1956-62 campaign it stated that they had lost the support of the community.
That is a mistake they will never again make.
So where does all of this leave Unionism. Unionism exists to maintain the Union and to make Northern Ireland a viable functioning democracy. It is, therefore, an ideology dedicated to the status quo.
Sinn Fein recognised this a long time ago and that is why it is essential to their project to keep rocking the boat – normalcy strengthens the Union and abnormality weakens it.
That is what Sinn Fein’s focus upon flags, bonfires, and parades is all about. They read like items on a menu which can be chosen at will by Sinn Fein as issues that can be utilised to destabilise society.
Unionists are inclined to rally round these issues with haste, not recognising that they are really ‘manna from heaven’ for their opponents.
It is essential that Unionists start setting agendas in the local councils rather than reacting to them.
Unfortunately in many of councils Unionists are in the minority.
Belfast City Council is a case in point. There the Alliance Party holds the balance of power. The history of the last four years in Belfast has been one of Alliance supporting Sinn Fein in crucial votes on key issues.
The combined votes of the usual suspects (Sinn Fein, Alliance and SDLP) ensures that the important votes are always lost to the unionist representatives.
Whilst Sinn Fein are content with this situation it means that they have no need of creative thinking to ensure cross party support on contentious issues.
Watching Mary Lou McDonald in her various interviews it is clear that Republicans believe that they have things sewn up here.
She appears supremely confident when speaking on matters political. She clearly believes that they are cruising to victory as they carry on with their ridiculous demands in an effort to sap the will of the unionist people through their local elected representatives. It is only when off script on issues such as the outrageous treatment of Mairia Cahill that she flounders.
With the prospects for devolution at Stormont remote, the councils have become the key battle ground.
There appears to be no chance of any sort of third force emerging which might act as leavening.
Such thinking is but a chimera. Previous attempts such as UPNI, NI 21 and others have all failed.
The Alliance party have clearly deserted their founding principles as Lord Alderdice pointed out recently.
The republican strategy is one of victory over those who they see as their traditional enemies.
This is sad as it make the task of reconciliation more difficult.
Many of my forebears are believed to have been ‘Out in 1798’ as United Irishmen at Saintfield and Ballynahinch. Republicans’ current strategy would not have encouraged them to shoulder the pike in the cause of freedom.
I know it holds no attraction for me.