Crocodile Talk And Nationalist Backlash

In his regular Ireland Eye column in Tribune magazine, political commentator and former Blanket columnist Dr John Coulter maps the way forward for the Stormont parties to get a deal which works.

Compassion, not taunting, must be the ethos of the Irish talks process leading to a new, stronger Ulster agreement and the return of the Stormont institutions.

The Assembly poll which no one wanted, costing the taxpayers some £5 million, resulted in the same two ruling parties – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein – returned again, with the rest of the supposed Opposition parties, namely the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance, as ‘also rans’.

If the biting austerity cuts of Direct Rule from Westminster are to be avoided along with the Stormont Parliament being moth-balled again, yet another deal – akin to either the 1998 Good Friday Agreement or the 2006 St Andrews Agreement – must be hammered out within the next fortnight.

For the DUP, it must stop taunting republicans by comparing Sinn Fein to crocodiles; for Sinn Fein, its so-called ‘draft dodgers’ – namely those elected representatives with no terrorist convictions – must stop taunting unionists by speaking at commemorations to dead IRA members.

The DUP’s crocodile talk only sparked a nationalist backlash at the polls, leaving unionism the minority designation in the Assembly and signalling the electoral demise of the UUP – the party which ran Northern Ireland as a majority rule government from the state’s creation until 1972 when the original Stormont was axed by Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath.

Sinn Fein’s IRA supporting commemorations have only served to bring about the very situation which effectively propelled the republican movement into power, namely unionist unity.

For almost the entire duration of the Troubles, republicans basked in the luxury of watching unionist infighting. The concept of unionist unity among the various pro-Union factions was a political myth.

But with electoral nationalism now in the ascendancy and a situation looming more akin to a Scottish parliamentary poll where the SNP is the government party, unionists must finally bury their petty party differences and work towards forming a single Unionist Party to represent all shades of pro-Union thinking – and that includes the significant number of Catholic unionists.

The overall Irish conflict has been raging for eight centuries, so the reality is why should anyone be surprised that tribalism was the big winner in this month’s Stormont showdown?

Tactically, both unionists and republicans need to return to 1905 – the year the Ulster Unionist Council and Sinn Fein were both launched.

Clearly, before a workable agreement is hammered out between the two communities, political unionism and nationalism need to reach agreement within themselves.

Structurally, the DUP and UUP have to merge. That’s what most of the unionist grassroots wants in the aftermath of the Stormont poll which left the DUP still the largest party over Sinn Fein at Stormont – by one seat in a 90-member Assembly!

The DUP now has 28 seats with the UUP trailing behind with 10, so a merger is the only solution. The nationalist camp is more complicated to introduce merger talks. Sinn Fein has 27 seats, with the moderate SDLP on 12.

Sinn Fein’s ace card over the SDLP is that the former is an all-island movement with seats in the Dublin Dail. The main opposition party, Fianna Fail, is already organised in Northern Ireland and plans to contest future elections. That will not only dent the Sinn Fein vote, but could also condemn the SDLP to the dustbin of history in much the same manner and the SDLP dished out to the now defunct Irish Nationalist Party in the 1970s.

For moderate nationalism to have any relevance north of the Irish border, the SDLP must with the main coalition government partner in the Republic – Fine Gael. With Brexit looming in a couple of years, the SDLP needs to make sure it is not wrong-footed by Sinn Fein again and republicans gain a united Ireland by the back door, namely through unionist disunity and Protestant voter apathy.

Sinn Fein can use its new Stormont mandate as an excuse to trigger a snap Dail election, which could see party president Gerry Adams – the former West Belfast MP – becoming deputy Prime Minister in the Republic as a minority partner in a coalition government.

Such political clout would give Sinn Fein almost the same bargaining power it had in 1920 when it negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which brought about the Republic’s forerunner – the Free State.

However, there is one very dangerous elephant, currently sleeping, which Sinn Fein does not want to waken in the Protestant community – violent loyalist extremism.

Albeit a minority rumbling in unionism, there are Protestants who see how Sinn Fein’s military wing resorted to armed struggle to bring the British to the negotiating table during the Troubles.

Unionist jokes that the time has come ‘to bring the muskets out of the thatch’ may be dark humour today. But in spite of the IRA’s three decades of terror during the Troubles, it should not be forgotten that it was loyalists who committed the worst atrocity of that conflict – the no-warning car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 which murdered over 30 innocent lives.

  • Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter  @JohnAHCoulter


  1. A subliminal threat of violence from yesterday's Democrats becoming tomorrow's terrorist...if you don't do as we say!

  2. Yawn, once again loyalist violence was a myth. The UVF only emerged AFTER the IRA started trouble first, (Gusty Spence never existed) and law abiding unionists in the north NEVER NEVER NEVER resorted to murder to date, but of course that could all change if they become a minority (oops) and democracy is 'imposed' upon the Ulster Protestant People.... am I 'missing something' in this historical trajectory/fantasy?

  3. Larry,

    What exactly was the IRA border campaign about starting in the 1950's, a decade before Spence and his incarnation of the UVF?

    Or the attacks in the 40's?

  4. Steve R

    The border campaign proved to the IRA that the RCs in the 6 counties had no interest in them or their intentions. That led to the leadership at that time venturing into left wing constitutional politics and trade unionism. The campaign was a joke. Unfortunately the unionists saw it as an opportunity to hammer the shit out of the civil rights crowd rather than embracing the peaceful acceptance of partition. British rights for British subjects were not forthcoming. Arlene unfortunately shows us that the same attitude prevalent in the 60s is very much alive and well within the DUP today. They are determined to learn nothing. Though Paisley Jnr has been a revelation recently. I can see my RAF loving in-laws transferring their votes next time out from the OU to the DUP. Spence was just a wee fascist scumbag who would have likely been a murderer in any case, just needed an excuse and a target.

  5. Larry,

    Perhaps you are right but my community saw the IRA in the 60's as a continuation on from the IRA of the 40's and 50's. The intricacies did not interest them and certainly they saw no plausible distinction given that Joe Cahill himself had been involved with the IRA's Belfast Brigade since the late 30's...and even the Vatican gave him a hand escaping the noose! So imagine trying to convince us that that IRA back then is different from the IRA that claimed lineage from them!

    If what you say is true and that IRA of the 50's gave up the war and moved toward left wing constitutionalism and trade unionism (big fan by the way) the PUL community saw the Civil Rights movement as nothing more than a cover story for another re-vamped IRA....which then DID materialise after the attacks in stroke city....thus confirming in their mind that they were right.

    Of course, we had Bass voiced Bigots and psychopaths to stir the pot but like the CNR community ours was riddled with fear and fear is a terrible thing. Hindsight is always 20/20 and it's the greatest pity both sides could not have knocked it on the head in the 60's.

  6. Steve R

    Agreed. Also it always comes back to peaceful co-habitation. Hopefully this time everyone has had enough blood letting and will get on with life. Although the Tories have really fucked up with Brexit not so much in that EU didn't require a severe shaking up, but to exit may ruin their little GB of England Scotland Wales and Norn Iron. Just when things were naturally settling into an easy and amicable relationship all round in the British Isles collectively (ooh hard to type that I had to force one finger on my left hand with my right hand to do it). No matter, I am in Donegal and will not require a passport to travel throughout the EU. If I need one to cross into the wee 6 TBH I can live without the bother lol

    I don't find it ironic nor heroic that Paisley and McGuinness ended up being lauded as peacemakers, I find it cynical and sick. Like the society there. Pricing flights to Spain just now.... they can shove the green beer at 5 euro a pint, I'll be in the sun sinking vino at 5 euro a GALLON soon enough!!