Unionists are to blame for the decision to give council officers sweeping new bonfire powers

Letter to the editor
Letter to the editor

Unionist politicians have no one but themselves to blame for the decision by Belfast City Council to give their officers sweeping powers to remove material from bonfires.

Firstly, the reason motions like this are able to succeed is that unionists have no majority.

Unionist leaders try to explain this in terms of demographic shifts in the city, but it is the polarisation of politics, for which unionists bear much of the responsibility, which explains why these shifts have led to a lower vote share for unionists and why Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the council.

Similarly, the loss of the unionist majority in the Assembly in March was not the result of demographic shifts but of nationalist anger at the arrogant and insulting behaviour of the DUP.

Unionists have themselves acknowledged this by issuing statements about the need to make greater efforts to reach out to the nationalist community. But while this should be taken at face value and welcomed, unionists can no longer afford to wait for their leaders to go ‘on a journey’ to become less ignorant and more decent human beings.

The only way to defeat Sinn Fein is to weaken them electorally and to broaden support for those who believe in the Union. That requires fresh leadership from a party which is truly committed to an inclusive vision of unionism.

Secondly, this is what happens when you fail to deal with an issue yourself: others step in, less sympathetic to your cause, to deal with it for you. There is no question that the vote was ill-judged and will achieve nothing positive.

The issue of bonfires needs to be dealt with at Assembly level with proper evidence gathering from key stakeholders, not in a piecemeal, knee jerk and politically motivated way.

But it’s no good complaining about it having spent years refusing to take action to address the worst excesses of bonfire builders, instead attributing any and all criticism to some anti-unionist plot, and in the process implicitly sanctioning the kind of practices which have damaged the reputation of the wider unionist community.

It is not just strategic incompetence and a lack of courage which are to blame for this: there has also been a deliberate and cynical effort by unionist leaders to hijack unionist culture to serve political ends. By raising the spectre of a ‘cultural war’ being waged by republicans unionist leaders have sought to frighten people into backing them.

Take the plans for a ‘cultural convention’ this autumn. This transparently has nothing to do with culture and is instead about bolstering support for the DUP.

The fact that the statement calling for the convention was co-signed by the PUP is fascinating: having criticised the DUP as recently as February for engaging in a cultural war with Sinn Fein instead of addressing social economic issues, the PUP now use this very language and have endorsed the DUP line that it was Sinn Fein who brought down the institutions, ignoring the role the DUP played in the collapse of devolution. The UUP have also failed to condemn this convention for what it is: a stunt.

The statement calls for all those who identify with the Twelfth celebrations to speak with one voice, but in truth we should be outraged by this flagrant exploitation of our culture.

Sinn Fein is criticised for its politicisation of the Irish language, by many nationalists as well as unionists. But there is no difference between what they do and what unionist leaders have done with unionist culture.

Instead of focusing on Sinn Fein’s efforts to undermine expressions of our culture, which I have already said can only be stopped by weakening them politically, unionists should exert themselves to reclaim their culture from self-serving politicians.

Perhaps a cultural convention should indeed be organised, but one which is non-political and gives expression to the myriad of voices which make up our culture.

That truly would be a path to ‘cultural renewal’.

Adam Moore, South Belfast Conservatives, Belfast BT6