Sinn Fein Could Benefit From Unionist Split

If the Shinners are to have any hope of ever achieving a united Ireland, they need to refocus their efforts on Stormont again rather than hoping the next Dail General Election will deliver them seats in a Leinster House coalition government. That’s the controversial view of Radical Unionist and conservative evangelical commentator, Dr John Coulter, in his latest Fearless Flying Column today.

If I was a top Shinner, I would spark a snap Stormont poll at Christmas or the New Year before the Unionist family gets its so-called unity act together.

But first, I’d make sure devolution was restored to Belfast’s Parliament Buildings - even if that means putting a temporary hold on demands for a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

Plan A for Unity will only work if a fully-functioning power-sharing Executive is back in business.

A united Ireland will be the long-term outcome of the fallout from the bitter battles which are taking place in both the election-battered Ulster Unionist Party and the crisis-hit DUP over Paisley junior’s Commons suspension.

The UUP is privately split at the moment over the presence of leading UUP elected representatives at the recent Pride parade in Belfast - a move which has infuriated traditional ‘born again’ Christians both inside the party and among its voter base.

Church-going traditionalists within the party are holding chats and talks if it is time to either face down the liberals within their ranks, or adopt the Biblical advice of ‘come ye out from amongst them’ and go to the DUP, or even form a new Christian Party.

Party leadership sources are at pains to point out that media statements by liberal MLAs, such as Beattie, Nesbitt and Stewart, are personal opinions - not a significant shift on UUP policy regarding same-sex marriage.

There is a growing perception both within and outside the party that the UUP has moved away from its traditional voter bases - namely, the Loyal Orders, evangelical Christians and the marching band fraternity.

The UUP will split – that’s the inevitable consequence of the vicious war of words between the party’s rival liberal and traditional Right wings in spite of rhetoric each side will work with the other.

It’s only a matter of time before several hundred party members will gather for a special meeting of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council for the showdown.

The fight is a straight two-horse race between liberal champion Doug Beattie of Upper Bann and John Stewart from East Antrim on one hand, and traditional Right standard bearers.

At the beginning of the summer, the Right-wing had a clear lead. But as Assembly members return from their ‘summer recess’ (even though there has been no devolution since January 2017!), it is now neck and neck.

It is now so close, both camps have been preparing a Plan B if their candidates loses, making a further split inevitable. A series of informal meetings has already taken place, but neither side will implement Plan B until after any potential leadership battle has been decided.

Given increasing Unionist voter apathy, especially among church-going Protestants, another political split will greatly assist Sinn Fein’s bid to become the largest Stormont party after the next poll and thereby lay claim to the coveted First Minister’s post.

In the DUP camp, the battle will be decided if the North Antrim petition reaches the required 10 per cent to force Paisley junior to step aside and spark a Westminster by-election. Letters to voters in North Antrim explaining the rules of the petition have already been sent out.

The outcome of any potential by-election (if there is one!) will decide who actually runs the DUP - will the fundamentalist faction make a comeback, or will the more liberal modernisers hold sway?

Would a suspended Paisley junior still be the official DUP candidate, or would he have to run as an Independent Unionist candidate?

Would Paisley junior be de-selected and the party hierarchy parachute Arlene Foster into North Antrim in a bid to get her into the Commons to assist under fire Theresa May as soon as possible? Or would the DUP rather save Mrs Foster as its candidate for Upper Bann and de-select David Simpson following revelations about his private life?

But with the Unionist family at its most fragmented since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, republicans need to act now before Unionists re-negotiate the St Andrews Agreement before any future Stormont poll.

Both the Right-wing and liberal UUP camps have ruled out a merger with current ‘outgoing’ First Minister Arlene Foster’s DUP, a move Unionist liberals stressed will only spark republican unity.

However, a further split Unionist vote will increase the chances of Irish unity, not republican unity, particularly with plans in the pipeline to cut the number of MPs seats at Westminster.

In last year’s General Election, Unionists stayed marginally ahead of nationalists seven seats to 11.

Future Commons reform could even see the number of Northern seats reduced by three to 15, and with the redrawing of boundaries, nationalists will be in the majority.

A future Westminster poll on these boundaries could see nationalists win eight seats to the Unionists’ six, with Alliance retaking Belfast.

This could put the North well on the way to Irish unity, especially if nationalists decide to again vote tactically for Sinn Fein at the expense of the SDLP or a Northern-based Fianna Fail.

In the meantime, if liberals win the battle for the heart and soul of the UUP, that result could initially see the creation of an independent Unionist Assembly group, especially if Beattie wins a future UUP leadership tussle.

The liberal UUP ‘dream team’ would be Beattie as leader, Stewart as deputy leader, with ex-boss Nesbitt as their policy advisor.

Plans have been discussed informally for the remaining Right-wing MLAs to defect from the UUP and form an Independent Unionist Assembly Group – a move which could financially cripple a Beattie-led UUP.

The independent group would also want any ‘Independent Unionist’ MLAs, such as Claire Sugden of East Londonderry (a former Justice Minister in a past Assembly mandate) and TUV boss Jim Allister from North Antrim, to join their ranks.

And North Down Independent Unionist MP Sylvia Hermon, who quit the party over the UUP’s links with the Tories, could even be asked to lead the new grouping.

However, a Right-wing win could spark a rebellion within the UUP by liberal supporters – already suspected of allegedly being behind moves to de-select existing pro-Right-wing candidates. The battle within the UUP mirrors the current split within the mainstream Presbyterian Church over same-sex marriage.

Sinn Fein could benefit from this Unionist split, not just in terms of seats, but also if it rebrands itself as a moderate left-wing party and agrees an oath of allegiance which enables the party to take its Westminster seats.

That would allow Sinn Fein to propose more Irish unity laws from the Commons chamber.

A rebranded ‘soft left’ image would allow Sinn Fein to shake off the image among Southern voters that it is really a hardline left-wing Marxist movement – an image which resulted in a disastrous showing in a past Dail election.

Sinn Fein’s tactics on any UUP and DUP splits should be to strike hard, but strike fast.

Speaking of boxing clever, the decision by Pope Francis to visit Ireland is also aimed at undoing the damage caused by Pope Benedict when he insulted Irish Catholicism by refusing to visit the Emerald Isle as part of his Britain tour.

While tens of thousands of Catholics packed into his big city prayer vigil, Benedict has made a huge, long-term tactical error in snubbing Ireland.

The Irish Catholic hierarchy is tottering on the brink of a spiritual meltdown because of the clerical sex abuse and Provo priest Chesney cover-up over the Claudy massacre.

When it comes to Catholic strings manipulating the government puppet, Southern Ireland was always viewed as the bastion of such influence throughout Europe, second only to the Vatican’s grip on Italian politics.

Pro-Vatican spin doctors belted out a Te Deum-style chant about the success of Benedict’s papal tour to Britain, highlighting his grovelling public apology for the sexual abuse dished out by perverted clerics over the generations.

But that apology needed to be made in Ireland where the legacy of sex abuse will linger for generations. Pope Francis can right this wrong with a sincere public apology.

With rumours that more alleged clerical abusers are about to be unmasked, Irish Catholicism faces its biggest crisis since King Billy sparked the Protestant Ascendancy in the 1690s.

Many Irish Catholics privately saw Pope Benedict’s decision to remain in the safety of Britain as an admission the Pontiff is really too scared to set foot in Ireland. Francis seems determined not to make the same mistake.

There will not be a mass exodus from Catholic pews, nor will there be an overnight growth in secularism and atheism and all the other ‘isms’ which threaten the Christian faith generally.

What will steadily emerge is a new Christian movement known as Pentecostal Catholicism.

It is already entrenched in the South, with little fellowships dotted across the island, especially in the Republic’s border counties.

It was even rumoured one of its most high-profile converts was a former republican terrorist, who at one time led a republican terror gang allegedly responsible for the deaths of over 30 people.

Dubbed the ‘Penties’, these Pentecostal Catholics take their influence from the rapidly growing Northern Pentecostal movement, especially in the Protestant Elim denominations.

But Catholic Penties are not Protestants under another name. The big attraction is the power of the people in the pews – not the orders of any bishops.

Happy-clappy, foot-stomping forms of worship are the order of the day at such services, not the repetitive litany of priests.

Catholic Penties believe in married clergy and stress they are purely Christian. Divine healing, speaking in Biblical tongues and highly emotional prayer meetings are all aspects of this new brand of Catholicism seeping steadily through Ireland.

Its major pulling power is its attraction to young people. Gone is ritualistic religion which was the pillar of the Catholic bishops’ influence; in comes personal and public expressions of faith.

Ironically, the Protestant version of the Penties began in Monaghan in 1915 at the height of the Great War.

Pentecostal Catholicism will not see mass defections from the mainstream faith along the same lines as the famous 1859 Spiritual Revival which swept across the North East of Ireland.

Those years saw tens of thousands convert to fundamentalist Christianity. The Penties will not see a gushing of converts to their cause; it will be a steady drip feed.

It may take more than a decade to see the full impact of this new movement. The Catholic bishops will try to dismiss it as a mere blip in their reign of influence.

But by 2020 when Irish bishops are announcing the closure of once packed chapels, they will look back at the Pontiff’s 2018 and mutter – if only His Holiness had had the guts to publicly apologise to Ireland.

Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter. @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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