Irony And More Of It

John Coulter looks at the North's political terrain in his Ireland Eye Column for Tribune Magazine. John Coulter is a journalist for the Daily Star.

Democratic Unionist leader and Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster used her party’s annual conference to signal what will be the end of the DUP by 2021 – the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland!

Before readers accuse me of drinking Irish poteen, let’s qualify that hard-hitting introduction by stressing I’m not talking about the total demise of the DUP, merely a transformation where it will become the only viable vehicle for the pro-Union community in Ireland.

Ironically, 2021 will also see the 50th anniversary of the founding of the DUP in 1971 by the late firebrand preacher Ian Paisley senior. In another twist of Irish irony, the DUP now occupies the traditional Right-wing unionist ground previously occupied by the rival Ulster Unionists.

The election-battered UUP now brands itself as a middle-of-the-road party and is now locked in a vicious electoral fight for the centre ground with the traditional centrist party, Alliance. At this year’s UUP conference, delegates were addressed by Colum Eastwood, the leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, the UUP’s partners in the official Opposition at Stormont.

But with the DUP and Sinn Fein both dominating unionist and republican politics, mergers are the only way forward for the UUP and SDLP. At one end, while the UUP crows about the number of people joining its youth wing, the Young Unionists, at the other the DUP conference was showing off the latest defections from the UUP. Indeed, several former UUP activists – including Foster herself – now hold key posts within the DUP, fuelling speculation this ex-UUP clique’s long-term goal is a merger (not an election pact!) between them to form The Unionist Party.

Another irony: that was the name of the original pro-Union movement when Northern Ireland was formed in 1921 and which dominated the Stormont Parliament until that one-party dominance at Stormont was axed in 1972.

The UUP was itself always dominated by the right, with groups such as the exclusively Protestant Orange Order, the Ulster Monday Club and the West Ulster Unionist Council holding sway. That influence is now history. Over the past five years, the UUP has become an increasingly liberal Unionist movement and now resembles a Presbyterian wing of Alliance.

Indeed, liberal Presbyterians – the largest Prot­estant denomination in Northern Ireland – now also dominate Alliance, fuelling speculation a more coherent merger would be for liberal UUP and Alliance members to unite, leaving right-wingers remaining in the UUP to move to the DUP and team up to form The Unionist Party. All other pro-Union movements in Northern Ireland would either be hangers-on or has-beens with little or no electoral influence.

In the nationalist camp, the SDLP desperately lacks Sinn Fein’s all-island identity. The SDLP will come under even more poll pressure with the news the Republic’s main opposition party, Fianna Fail, is planning to contest Northern elections before 2021. Rather than climbing into political bed with the UUP in a Stormont Opposition, the SDLP should be holding merger talks with its traditional Dail counterpart – the ruling coalition party, Fine Gael. An SDLP/FG merger is the only way the SDLP can avoid being further squeezed by both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail in any future Assembly election.

That may be the Right and centre sorted, but what of the Left on the island as a whole? With the SDLP moving to the centre battle ground to bolster up the UUP and compete with Alliance, the socialist stage is now vacant for a Labour initiative. While there are plenty of Hard Left movements available for voters to choose from, a centre Left Labour movement is the only one capable of ever forming a government in either the Stormont Executive or the Dail in Dublin’s Leinster House.

Corbyn holds the key. Firstly, he must allow the British Labour Party to formally contest elections in Northern Ireland. For years, Northern Irish socialists who tried to join British Labour had their cheques returned along with the patronising advice – join our sister party, the SDLP! Okay, the Tories have organised and contested elections in Northern Ireland, but just because they went into electoral meltdown in Ulster does not mean Labour should abandon it.

Secondly, Corbyn must adopt a ‘hands across the Irish border’ approach and unveil a merger between British Labour and the Irish Labour Party, especially with Brexit looming and economic panic beginning to set in along the corridors of Leinster House. Dublin has set up a forum to discuss the Brexit impact and invited Northern Ireland parties to participate. The Unionist parties have ignored this, which is a repeat of their huge error of judgement following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

Unionists need to establish their own political embassy in Dublin to encourage the Republic to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association post Brexit.

1 comment:

  1. Good and interesting article. We could do with more of this political analysis. I find the subtle hand of Unite and Mandate and their wallet pulling strings. Is it back to the old political ways of doing things, will it be a dictatorship of the proletariat or trade unions? Will we import British labour politics or develop our own. There is some rumours in The Pale that Unite/Mandat are organising a new Labour party. Anyone hear this?