Liberalism has always been the Achilles’ heel of Unionism. In his latest Fearless Flying Column today, controversial political commentator Dr John Coulter analyses how the so-called ‘Latte Libs’ within the Protestant community have played right slap bang into the hands of Sinn Fein.
I told you so! That’s the message I’m sending to the 100 plus signatories of a letter from liberals from the Unionist community who have supposedly united in a call for an inclusive debate on rights which would cross the sectarian divide.
In July 2015, I penned a warning in the Irish Daily Star urging Unionism not to get sucked into the republican movement’s political ‘fluffy bunny’-style, pussy-footing to Unionism.
Then I warned that Sinn Fein can further undermine the Union by sucking up to the rapidly emerging legion of ‘Latte Libs’ in the Protestant community. ‘Latte’ what, I hear you ask? Unionists are presently in electoral fear of the so-called ‘Garden Centre Prods’.
These are stereotype Protestants who stay at home on polling day, creating the impression these Unionists would rather visit a garden centre than a voting booth.
But in recent years, and especially since the signing of the notorious Stormont House Agreement, a new weapon has emerged for republicans to ‘bash the Brits’ – the Latte Libs, short for Latte Liberals from the Protestant community.
The stereotype is that these Protestants drink copious amounts of latte coffee while planning how to undermine any Unionist to the Right of the Alliance Party.
While the Garden Centre Prod brigade remains at home, the Latte Libs are active in political life, especially in the Alliance and Green parties, as well as in liberal Unionism, and have many activists within the mainstream Protestant denominations, such as Irish Methodism, the Church of Ireland, and the Irish Presbyterian Church, the North’s largest Protestant denomination.
Such has been the quietly growing influence of the Latte Libs that even the once-hardline Unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, are locked in a bitter battle for the centre vote in the North. Without any question of a doubt, the liberal Unionist trend, which was once a powerful lobby in the pre-Great War Home Rule era, is flexing its political muscles once again.
In July 2015, I noted in the Irish Daily Star:
The Shinners should abandon their policy of baiting the Orange Order and the Unionist parties and leave the job to the Latte Libs. Northern Sinn Fein should focus on finishing off the Stoops and ensuring an electorally serious dissident republican political movement does not emerge.
In the 2016 and 2017 Assembly polls and especially the Westminster General Election, Sinn Fein all but booted the moderate nationalist SDLP into the political scrap heap.
One attribute the Latte Libs are noted for - they have as much dislike for the Protestant Loyal Orders as the nationalist residents’ groups which oppose contentious parades.
Many of these Latte Libs are lukewarm on speaking out vehemently on defending the Union. The Latte Libs would contend that the Good Friday Agreement has secured Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, so the constitutional debate is over.##Tactically, the main standard bearer of the Latte Libs is the Alliance Party, which has clearly recognised that republicans will not transfer to Alliance and that campaigning west of the River Bann is both a waste of time and money. In reality, Alliance presence in those constituencies now dominated by Sinn Fein is merely a token to dispel the political myth that Alliance is really only an East NI movement.
If Alliance wants to build on Assembly and Westminster polls, it will have to seek votes from the Protestant community as Alliance is also viewed by both republicans and nationalism as a Soft Unionist Party. This is firmly stressed by the strong Irish Presbyterian influence on Alliance. Liberal Presbyterianism has found a very effective vehicle in Alliance.
So the more Sinn Fein can create the impression in London and Dublin that Latte Libs represent the majority voice in the Protestant community, the more the Union can be undermined from within.
Republicans and nationalists will have to think tactically if the Latte Lib card is to work effectively for the cause of a united Ireland. The Pan Nationalist Front not only needs to get as many of its own representatives elected, but in vote transfer elections, republicans should give their preferences after Sinn Fein to Alliance, the Greens and liberal Unionists in whatever is left of the election-battered Ulster Unionists.
The more of these Latte Libs who get elected, the less Democratic Unionism’s majority over the republican movement becomes. In the past Assembly, it was only one seat.
Now that Sinn Fein has effectively wiped the floor with the SDLP, republicans should suck up to liberal Unionism and spin the propaganda that deals can only be done with this section of the Unionist family.
The DUP and UUP have generations of expertise in beating the Orange drum, but both parties are complete amateurs when it comes to courting the centre ground in Irish politics. Both think this means sucking up to Catholic Unionists. In reality, the centre ground is dominated by pluralist and liberal Protestants.
It’s a case of history repeating itself for Unionism, as just over a century ago Unionist leaders Carson and Craig were constantly haunted by the spectre of liberal Protestantism.
And Sinn Fein can deliver a double whammy on Unionism – republicans can also suck up to the Fundie Faction of Irish Christianity’s so-called ‘born again brigade’.
Many of these fundamentalists, once they become ‘born again’ Christians, or ‘saved’, abandon the Protestant-only Loyal Orders, loyalist band scene and even the Unionist parties.
They adopt the strict Biblical advice of ‘Come Ye Out From Amongst Them.’ This is the view that once a Christian becomes ‘born again’, they should leave the worldly organisations they were part of – including Orangeism and Unionism.
The Sinn Fein tactic should be to publicly challenge all Christian Churches to turn their backs on the Loyal Orders. Latte Libs are now to be found firmly entrenched in the liberal wings of many Protestant denominations. Protestant clerics who voice support for same-sex marriage is proof of the liberal trend in such denominations.
In the meantime, the republican movement’s double-edged sword must entail a charm offensive with Latte Libs and the Fundie Faction. Do this, and it’s a case of ‘United Ireland, here we come!’ If I was a Sinn Fein activist, I’d be rubbing my hands with glee at the thought that Latte Libs were now on the march - even if it is one this single letter.
Traditional Right-wing Unionism has a major problem - how to tame the political beast known as liberal Protestantism. Maybe the real ‘Beast from the East’ is not the Siberian snow, but liberal Unionism based in the eastern part of Northern Ireland?
John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist.
John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.
Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter