Shinners can Stoop to Conquer ... if They Ditch Jailbirds

John Coulter with his Irish Daily Star column that featured in Newshound on 28 October 2014.

Sinn Féin may need to rethink its Commons and Stormont candidates list if the Protestant Loyal Orders – the Orange and Black – decide to put up their own runners in safe Unionist constituencies.

Loyalist jungle drums are quietly tapping out a beat that the Protestant Marching Orders and many of the band members who accompany them are totally disillusioned with the two main Unionist parties – Robbo's DUP and Big Mikey's UUP.

While this year has marked the 20th anniversary of the mainstream loyalist and republican ceasefires, the loyalist community feels Sinn Féin has embarked on a campaign of eradicating Unionist culture by targeting Loyal Order and loyalist band parades.

The Brits may have won the conflict in that there is no united Ireland, but republicans are romping to victory in the peace process by securing concession after concession for the nationalist communities.

Since the formation of the Northern state in the 1920s, the Loyal Orders, and especially the Orange, dominated Unionist politics until the turn of the new millennium.

Even after the original Stormont was axed in 1972, the Orders still firmly held court in the Unionist family, and any Unionist who really wanted to make an impact had to don the Orange sash.

The slippery slope for the Orders came in the mid-Eighties with the Obins Street parade crisis in Portadown, followed a decade later by the Drumcree debacle.

That slide became a head-long tumble during Drumcree Four in 1998 when three young Catholic brothers died in a sectarian arson attack in Ballymoney in the loyalist heartland of North Antrim.

Many middle class Protestants simply walked away from the Orders as Orangeism and the Black Order as well as the marching blood and thunder bands were confined to the loyalist working class.

Even the DUP, led then by the late Rev Ian Paisley, recognised it would need the support of middle class Unionism not aligned to the Orders if it was to overtake Trimble's UUP.

Since 2003, the DUP has steadily abandoned not just the Protestant working class, but also the Loyal Orders.

The UUP has largely given up the fight to regain top spot in the Unionist family, and judging by its recent conference, the party is content to rebrand and re-launch itself as a right-wing Alliance movement.

It's clear the UUP sees Alliance now as its chief rival, so the battle for the hearts and minds of liberal Protestants has begun.

Hence, the Loyal Orders no longer feel they have a voice in mainstream Unionism and perhaps the time has come to make a stand with their own Orange and Black candidates.

Usually, the Shinners can run rings around the Orders. But Sinn Féin will have to box very clever on this tact.

The republican movement must not risk its poll push for the Dáil or lose moderate Catholic votes in the North by putting up ex-jailbirds as Sinn Féin candidates.

It is now time for the degree-educated republicans to make a firm stand in the movement, telling ex-IRA prisoners that their day has gone.

The Shinners have the best chance since they seriously entered the political arena in the teeth of the 1981 hunger strikes to wipe the election-battered Stoops off the Irish map.

But it could go belly-up if Sinn Féin selects too many ex-IRA candidates as a knee-jerk to the potential emergence of Orange and Black runners in the loyalist community.

With the Commons poll looming next May, by fielding candidates with a strong appeal to liberal nationalists and moderate Catholics, Sinn Féin could hold its five existing MPs, as well as scoop the three Stoop seats plus Nigel Dodds' North Belfast bolthole.

This would make Sinn Féin the biggest Northern party in Westminster. The cherry on the icing would be taking their seats and helping Miliband oust David Cameron. But have the Shinners the bottle to do it?

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