Changed utterly, but there are positives if we see the opportunity

Posted By: March 11, 2017

Denzil McDaniel. Impartial Reporter. Enniskillen. Thursday, March 9, 2017

In the famous poem “Easter, 1916” by WB Yeats, there’s a line which says “All changed, changed utterly.” The phrase came to my mind at the weekend, as I considered the significance of the Assembly election results.

Perhaps, last week was nowhere near as dramatic or historic Northern Ireland has undergone massive change.

Observing some of the comments from various sources, you have to wonder. I read one lengthy diatribe which was little more than an attempt to blame the “cash for ash” scandal on the green environmental lobby in the EU.

We’re in an era of Trump “alternative facts” but this is denial at its best, and yet people that I would have assumed are reasonable were giving it credence. And, the stream of comments from major DUP figures about the role “the media” played in attacking them started to take on a Trump feel, too.

There is no doubt, there are figures in journalism who relished getting stuck in. Legitimately surely? But, whether it be the RHI debacle or their negative press image, Unionists must now realize that their current position needs much more fundamental introspection. In other words, change in Northern Ireland didn’t just happen in the last few months or even year.

Change in demographics alone has been coming for years; bluntly, the Protestant majority has been in decline for a long time and there’s likely to be a Catholic majority. The question is has Unionism, whether at leadership or community level, been preparing for it in the right way?

The fact is, and it’s not an alternative one, that when Sinn Fein and SDLP Assembly seats are added to together, they have one more than the DUP and Ulster Unionists. Party spin and number crunching may point up other figures; the DUP claim their vote increased, but most of the main parties did and Sinn Fein’s by far more. The big fat fact remains that, for the first time since Northern Ireland was formed nearly a century ago, Unionists are in a minority at Stormont.

Unionists have just 40 seats out of 90 at Stormont.

It’s been an over-worked word for the last few days; but seismic it is.

Often, to look at the present and future, it is useful to gauge things by looking at the past. Elections in Northern Ireland in the 1920s saw Unionists outnumber Nationalists two to one, and even allowing for abstentionism by disillusioned Nationalists, it was still a largely Protestant-dominated state in the sixties. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, most decisions in jobs, housing, and the rest were taken by leaders of the Unionist Party.

And I mean THE Unionist party, as that is what it was simply called then. The Ulster Unionist party was the dominant force, with its strong Orange Order influence. This is the same party which was described at the weekend as a “fringe party.” Whether it reached the low point because it didn’t change or perhaps tried to liberalize and such change was rejected by people is a moot point.

The fact is that as Northern Ireland approached its half-century at the end of the sixties, mistrust between the communities erupted into violence which cost thousands of lives.

Unpalatable as it may be for some, that violence did bring change, and for the first time the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 afforded the Nationalist community the opportunity to feel they were part of Northern Ireland. An opportunity of a shared society, in which both sides could live together.

It hasn’t worked. Yet.

Much has been made of the remark by Arlene Foster that “if DUP. Everyone now seems to accept she handled it badly, but if there really are up to 10 DUP MLAs wanting to her to step aside, were they asking her to do so in December?

Arlene Foster’s comment and her attitude to Republicans generally was no doubt a major factor in Nationalists coming out to vote in such strength.

This goes deeper than one leader’s crass remark and mishandling of an issue, however important the RHI mess was.

It’s the Unionist community as a whole that is struggling to accept the changes in society. It’s the sense that the once-dominant Unionist community is “giving” something to an undeserving minority; rather than the fact that everyone in 2017 should have an equal stake in the community. I despair when I read many of the comments by ordinary Unionists. Are they in a bunker mentality, hankering back to a glorious past which is well gone?

The frustration is that a sense of a shared way of life appeared to be working for the last 10 years; at least sort of working. As some progress was being made, there was a sense that Nationalists were happy enough to live in a new Northern Ireland.

Most of what I have written so far is a call for Unionism to change, and adapt a new spirit of reconciliation. And I make no apology for that. Speaking truth to power won’t make me popular, but I do know in some quarters there is a yearning for Unionist leaders to move things forward.

I would, however, also appeal to the Republican community and its leadership. Sinn Fein’s election success was remarkable, being barely over 1,000 first preference votes behind the DUP, and they are cock-a-hoop. But there is a danger that they can appear triumphalist. They should remember their own mantra of “respect”.

I heard it said by a number of Republicans that Unionists have nothing to fear from them. And to be fair, Sinn Fein are engaged in a process of hearing what the Protestant community feels. Yet Unionists do fear what the DUP described as their “radical Republican agenda”; it’s a major reason why the DUP, after all, still remained the largest party.

Sinn Fein will continue to advance in their long game, but what sort of future would our people have if we just replaced one top dog with another? We have to break that cycle. There are many things that are precious to each culture, and respect has to be mutual.

There was a consensus that Arlene Foster looked a beaten figure, and who would not have felt the personal pressure? But the fact remains that be it Arlene or someone else as the leader of Unionism, there were more than 350,000 people who voted for various Unionist parties, and they aren’t going away.

Yes, I feel Unionism needs to adapt to change, but we cannot dismiss their concerns either.

Much has been made about the polarization of the communities and the sectarian nature of elections here. It may surprise you that I really don’t have a problem with the results; it seems to me that both sides are entitled to vote in strength for the party they want to represent them. It’s unrealistic to think that people would start voting across the tribal lines, but having done so, what is needed is for the two power blocks to accept each other and start working with a true spirit of mutual respect and co-operation.

It’s not, in itself, sectarian to vote Unionist, and it’s not sectarian to vote Nationalist or Republican. It’s only sectarian if you look at the other community and somehow treat them as lesser human beings.

After all, as Steven McCaffery points out in The Detail, everyone is in a minority now.

We need to be optimistic and look for the positives.

There are signs of a serious debate within Unionism. A DUP founder member, Wallace Thompson, a member of the evangelical Caleb Foundation says it’s time his party compromised with Sinn Fein and stopped negatively linking them with the IRA. Different times call for a different response, he says.

Ian Paisley junior told Sky News it’s time for “humble pie” and “humility” and he points up the way his late father and Martin McGuinness, sworn enemies, worked together for the greater good.

The increase in turnout at the election, when almost 65 per cent voted (for whatever reason) was an encouraging sign in showing that people are still engaged with the political process.

It’s positive that there are more women in Stormont than ever, 27 out of 90, and that three out of the five main party leaders are women. Alliance did extremely well, and let’s not forget the minority voices, either. Clare Bailey, from the Greens, makes a real positive impact on politics.

There is also a sense that most people want devolution; as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness agreed, both sides can work together to run this place instead of allowing people at Westminster to make our decisions.

If there is a genuine desire to do that, surely a way can be worked out to get Stormont working together again. If both sides take the election, and the events of recent months, as a real wake-up call, and both communities decide deep down that they want to live together rather than die together, something good will come out of election 2017.

Will the politicians get it, though?