Walking Tightropes

John Coulter’s Ireland eye column for Tribune Magazine, September 2014.

Ireland, not Scotland, will be the trend setter with General Elections looming in the UK and the Irish Republic. This is not to marginalise the importance of the Scottish independence referendum in a few days’ time, which will either witness a disintegration of the UK or a redrafting of the Act of Union.

With the Lib Dems in meltdown, and Ukip on the rise, David Cameron potentially needs to line up a new coalition partner especially if Westminster spews out another hung parliament.

A Cameron/Nigel Farage pact is fantasy land. Cameron has one option – cosy up to the Democratic Unionists, who are expected to return with up to nine MPs.

In the corridors of Westminster and indeed across mainland Britain, mention the DUP, and the stereotype of the Hell-fire preaching, ultra-loyalist Ian Paisley senior (now Lord Bannside) springs to mind.

But the DUP of 2014 is not the DUP of 1974, the year of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike which crippled the then power-sharing Sunningdale Executive.

DUP 2014 is now a moderate Unionist, middle class movement working a power-sharing Stormont Executive – albeit very uneasily – with Sinn Fein, the political apologist for the Provisional IRA.

To become Ulster’s leading Unionist movement, the DUP had to abandon its traditional loyalist urban working class base, and move onto the middle class Protestant rural turf which was once the bastion of the election-battered Ulster Unionists.

Firstly, under Paisley senior, then under current First Minister Peter Robinson, since 2007, the DUP has been trying to demonstrate it is a worthy party of government. But who has it been trying to impress? Certainly not the grumbling loyalist working class, and definitely not Assembly partner Sinn Fein.

The emergence of several new Right-wing Unionist parties clearly emphasises the loyalist working class remain distinctly unimpressed with the DUP’s new-found ‘Fur Coat Brigade’ style of old fashioned Unionism.

The impending collapse of the Assembly over the thorny issue of welfare reform is further proof reaching out the hand of friendship to republicans via Sinn Fein is not top of the DUP agenda.

The DUP has an ace card – the party takes its Westminster seats, while Sinn Fein clings to its outdated abstentionist policy; a policy ignored by Scottish and Welsh nationalists as well as pro-Irish republican sympathisers within Labour.

The DUP is walking a very high tightrope – trying to regain its political credibility with the loyalist working class in Northern Ireland, while at the same time, firmly convincing Cameron it would make a moderate partner in a future coalition.

And speaking of coalitions, Sinn Fein is walking the same tightrope, only this time in the Irish Republic. Playing the anti-austerity card won Sinn Fein a substantial increase in councillors across Ireland as well as boosting its MEP tally from one to four.

Southern premier Enda Kenny of Fine Gael faces the same dilemma as Cameron. His Dail coalition partner, Irish Labour, has crashed and burned in the polls. To remain as Taoiseach, Kenny needs a new partner. But is Sinn Fein ready for the challenge?

Memories of the bloody Irish Civil War in the 1920s in which republican butchered republican are still raw in the Southern Irish political mind set.

In spite of Sinn Fein gains under party president Gerry Adams, a significant section of Southern opinion still views the party as the IRA’s political wing as well as being an avowedly Marxist movement; a fact which does not sit easily with the Irish Catholic Church.

If Sinn Fein is to win the coveted prize of a partnership government with Fine Gael, it must conclusively prove it has totally abandoned its links to the violent past. It must rebrand itself with Southern voters as a soft socialist movement rather than a hard left revolutionary organisation.

Sinn Fein will also have to make concessions within the UK. In Northern Ireland, it must help the DUP save Stormont and attempt resolution to the various Protestant parade controversies. Sinn Fein must also stop supporting the relocation of commemorations to dead IRA terrorists in religiously mixed communities.

At Westminster, Sinn Fein will have to finally abandon abstentionism and take its Commons seats. With the party poised to snatch up to eight MPs in the General Election, Sinn Fein may hold the keys to Ed Miliband entering Downing Street as part of a nationalist/Labour coalition rather than Cameron.

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