The DUP Tries Some Irish Outreach As Speculation Over Another Election Grows

With the multiparty and intergovernmental talks to restore the peace-brokered northern assembly “parked” until after Easter, speculation is growing that the only way forward will be another round of regional elections in the north-east. I would be surprised if the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin allowed the situation to deteriorate so badly. Though they did moderately ok and very well, respectively, out of the last Stormont vote they have no guarantees that the same results will happen again. Some in the DUP might be calculating that another campaign of ethno-sectarian fearmongering will bring in some extra support, possibly aided by an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists under their new and far more conservative leader, Robin Swann. The Antrim MLA shares many of the same reactionary views on key nationalist demands, from the Irish language to same-sex marriage, as the DUP chief, Arlene Foster (and that is before we even begin to touch upon the thorny subject of legacy issues from the era of the Irish-British Troubles). The contentious question of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union might be another factor uniting the two main pro-union parties as Swann’s off-camera views on Brexit remain the subject of much speculation.

However all this is by no means certain. The rising tide of liberal unionist opinion, in the shape of the Alliance Party, is giving others in the DUP some pause for thought. The AP achieved a good performance in the last northern election and may do the same or better again (with the help of some tactical voting by northern nationalists). Could Foster and company be alarmed by changing sentiment on the ground, however small, in some pro-union constituencies? How else to explain a sudden willingness to reach out to the newly empowered Irish-speaking community in the Six Counties, as reported by the Irish News?

“During the election campaign, Mrs Foster insisted she would not agree to Sinn Féin demands for an Irish language act and appeared to describe her former government partners as “crocodiles”.

She said yesterday: “We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of and, to that end, over the next short period of time, I do intend to listen and to engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background, those without party political baggage or indeed demands, people who genuinely love the Irish language and don’t want to use it as a political weapon.”

The former first minister added: “We do recognise that there are people who love the language, who want to speak the language and be facilitated in that respect, but we also say that in respect of Ulster Scots and Orange and British identity that there needs to be respect held for those cultures as well.”

The gesture of reconciliation may be all show, a PR stunt designed to appeal to the metropolitan and cosmopolitan set, but it does betray a certain level of unease in senior DUP ranks. If the party truly believed that it was on the unionist high ground, and likely to benefit from another “bitter” election, it would not be reaching out in this manner (however poorly handled or phrased). That is not how mainstream pro-union politics works, as the many false dawns throughout the last century and more have proved (remember Peter Robinson’s much heralded “Catholic” outreach?).

Sinn Féin’s position on fresh elections in the north is rather harder to read. The party is keeping its cards very close to its chest, denying the press unfettered access to some ostensibly public meetings. Does it believe that it will get the same startling results from another election for Stormont or possibly surpass them? There seems to be little appetite among republicans to take up their seats in a restored power-sharing executive under the same conditions as the old discredited one. Meanwhile SF’s rivals in the Social Democratic and Labour Party are vacillating back and forth between arguing for a return to the status quo or the establishment of some form of explicit joint-authority between Dublin and London, with local input from Belfast. A couple of Sinn Féin people I have spoken to are thinking along very similar lines.

That outcome would edge us into a situation where, if the myriad Brexit issues were resolved, the United Kingdom held de jure sovereignty over the disputed territory while sharing de facto administrative authority with Ireland and a local elected and consultative body. A not impossible, or internationally unprecedented, arrangement. However, would the political classes in Britain, with their vague nostalgic longing for an empire restored, go along with such a solution? The current Tory government and its unruly backbenchers in parliament have shown their true light with the controversy over the status of Gibraltar. How would they react to a further dilution of control over the last scrap of Greater England’s first and last colony?

At the moment we seem to be slowly shuffling towards a period of “direct rule” by the British, which may have unforeseen consequences for the unionist minority. Or not. Interesting times ahead.

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6 comments

  1. Well, as the Sun sets, very slowly, on the last fragments of the former British “Empah”, Clever Republican thought should be plotting to take advantage of this situation to the max. It is time now, for Realpolitik. BREXIT leaves no alternative. The UK Government is going to blunder along, doing the absolute minimum required to prevent outright violence, but otherwise regarding Ireland as a side show and a distraction. For that is what it is, to them, as they face the Tsunami that is BREXIT. Also, the British Establishment have a serious cultural and racial problem in understanding the Irish. (They don’t really understand the Scots, or the Welsh, either). The Unionists are now like the second class passengers on that Irish built ship that collided with the Iceberg, startled into an awareness that the First class people have commandeered all the lifeboats, and left them to it, in spite of all the nice promises they made.Since we have all seen the film, we all know how grim the last hours of a sinking ocean liner are. In such a situation, the only considerations now should be how to advance Irish reunification, how to keep the peace in the meantime, and how to use the crisis of BREXIT to maximum advantage to secure the maximum concessions out of the London Government in the meantime. As for the Unionists, they have behaved disgracefully, for the last 20 years. They have not shown any kind of real acceptance of the Power sharing agreement, except as an annoying inconvenience until normal service is restored as an outpost of the Empire. The Unionist leadership are also deeply racist, bigoted, and like something out of the 18th Century. (On second thoughts, that is exactly where they are from).
    SF is entirely right to hold out for some minimal decent behaviour by the Orange revanchists. The tactic here should be to offer a new power-sharing agreement, as they have done, but subject to strict understandings about behaviour
    and failure to stick to the rules, that should mean the Nationalist politicians making it clear that they will simply walk out, this time permanently,never to return, thus bringing down the entire assembly. FINIS. The Unionists will make a mess of that, I rather think. Either way, it puts pressure on the UK Government. In the meantime, the pressure should be kept up over BREXIT. and its consequences for the North, relentlessly. BREXIT, when it happens, is going to make partition unworkable. Squalid though it is, it will eventually bring about impossible pressures on the North. The Unionists know that now, they are into the endgame. They have absolutely no rational game plan, and face ultimate defeat. Realpolitik now demands that they are put under relentless pressure. It will take perhaps five or ten years, but Our Day Will Come.

    1. Yes, it’s time for nationalism to up its game. Of course, one despairs of the major national political parties making any gestures towards our northern citizens and communities. It didn’t take FG, FF, etc. long to run away from all the talk of a reunited Ireland. They tentatively raise the issue, get an unexpectedly positive response from the general public, and then tear off in the opposite direction.

      One does get a sort of end-times feel in relation to “the North”. Not the last helicopters out of Saigon but certainly some sort of shift in the political landscape.

      Lets hope the “Dissidents” aren’t stupid enough to mess up this window of opportunity by staging some counterproductive – or barbaric – attack. Surely they can see the potential here of non-action?

      1. This all sounds very well but be weary of the cornered rat. The Brit establishment need no lessons in dirty deeds. They have years of experience. With their obvious desire to rebuild their lost ’empire’ do not rule out a specular false flag event like Omagh to help them achieve their aims.

        1. LOL! Very good. Yeah, SF is definitely in a pre-election mode and is determined to hold onto that March vote. They are preparing the ground for another go though there seems to be less appetite this time around among the nationalist electorate. The anger and frustration has simmered down. SF needs another “crocodile” gaff, or four or five of them, if it is to get another boost at the polls. Foster has clearly realised that, hence the outreach.

          1. this is why she is pretending to listen to the irish speaking community. its to cool down voters anger so that Sinn Fein will lose some support next time around. Remember, edwin poot’s greatest achievement was to wreck an Irish Language act. The DUP would like to wipe out the irish language if they could. i sincerely hope there is never a united ireland, DUP ministers in government with Fine Gael and Labour. it would be a cultural disaster.

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