Posted By: April 30, 2015

Newton Emerson. Irish News ( Belfast). Thursday, April 30, 201
OF all the responses to the career implosion of DUP ex-health minister Jim Wells, it was deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who sounded most ‘Northern Ireland’. “The mask has slipped,” a clearly delighted Clegg told the BBC – the sort of remark you see middle-aged loyalists and republicans jeering at each other on drunken Friday night twitter exchanges (“you’ll never change your tune!” etc, etc.)

Clegg was referring to the DUP itself. Wells has never donned much of a mask on gay rights, as the lists of his recent utterances published by this and other newspapers revealed.

Yet the South Down MLA is still unrecognisable from the hothead member of the 1980s Stormont assembly. Papers released this January under the 30-year rule show NIO officials tut-tutting at how Wells had barracked direct rule ministers, threatened BBC staff covering an Apprentice Boys parade, sung ‘provocative tunes’ in Dundalk in support of Peter Robinson’s invasion of Clontibret and tried to force a banned loyalist march through Castlewellan alongside George Seawright, who had been expelled from the DUP two years before for saying Catholics should be incinerated.

There is an almost Shakespearean karma to this all ending on the doorstep of a lesbian couple in Rathfriland.

I think I can say without fear of creating a straw man argument that most of Wells’s critics support inclusive politics, whatever their quibbles with the Good Friday Agreement model.

So how, in practice, do they think inclusive politics works? Do they believe Wells walked through the doors of the modern Stormont in 1999, spotted his first republican assembly colleague and the scales of a lifetime’s convictions fell suddenly from his eyes? Of course that did not happen. To enter Stormont and later the executive, Wells and those like him put on a mask. Behind it they may have changed slightly but the real change came as people not like them took this new-look DUP at face value and joined up.

As this is essentially the whole point of our political settlement it is a great pity that we lack a positive conception of it. David Trimble did enormous damage in 2000 when he coined the term “housetraining”, transforming the agreed goals of inclusion

into a patronising insult. Not long afterwards it became apparent that the ‘trainees’ would soon be top dogs, so no party had an incentive to come up with a better expression – and we still lack one today.

The physicist Max Planck said “science advances one funeral at a time”, meaning that for all science’s grand claims of rationality, old thinking only really dies out with old thinkers.

We have slipped into a similar cynicism in Northern Ireland, where progress at Stormont is glacial but at least nobody is dying. In other words, politics advances one non-funeral at a time. That was sufficient consolation for a very long time but it is no surprise that a new generation with no memory of the Troubles has lost patience with it.

This is a tragedy because Stormont inclusion continues to deliver, at least in terms of pushing the DUP and Sinn Fein towards the political centre. Welfare reform shows compulsory coalition is still forcing compromise on Sinn Fein on the economic front, just as the fate of Jim Wells shows how the DUP is being dragged away from social conservatism. But without a positive view of this process from those involved, the description of it has been left to its critics.

Unexpected inclusion in Westminster politics accelerated DUP change to the point where Wells fell off the back of the Wrightbus. However, everyone else has clung on rather well, with Peter Robinson offering a free vote on abortion and Nigel Dodds being the soul of reasonableness on Newsnight. Is it all put on? Most of it, perhaps, but once again – how else is inclusive politics expected to work?

There is no doubt that the DUP gets less credit than Sinn Féin for change, although that is almost entirely its own fault. Sinn Féin boasts of delivering change, after all, while the DUP often denies it.

Moving from the economic left to the centre touches far fewer nerves than moving from the social right to the centre. Nobody is going to call the police if a Sinn Féin candidate attacks public spending at a hustings, for example. Probably. But a little more understanding could be shown towards the softening of hardline unionism.

The DUP is liberalising. When liberals sneer at that, their mask is slipping. newton@irishnews.com