Nesbitt a lone voice amid old unionism

Posted By: February 20, 2017

Tom Kelly. Irish New. Belfast. Monday, February 20, 2017

There’s an apocryphal story told about Winston Churchill being awakened one cold winter’s night by a Downing Street aide to be told that a male Conservative MP was caught having a tryst with a naked guardsman in the middle of Hyde Park.

Churchill allegedly remarked: “In this weather! It makes you proud to be British.’’ Clearly the unfazed Mr Churchill hadn’t met the likes of the Democratic Unionist Party or for that matter some Ulster Unionists.

Last week we saw the uglier side of Northern Ireland’s brand of Unionism raise its head once again.

Solitary DUP warrior in South Down, Jim Wells, seemed somewhat outraged by the Alliance Party in that constituency and urged voters not to give them any preferences. His rationale was quite simple – they were both Irish language act and gay marriage supporting. He also claimed they supported the removal of “our flag.” By this, one assumes he means the Union flag, but just where in South Down is unclear.

Being liberal and unionist-lite does not make Mr Wells feel very proud to be British when it comes to the Alliance Party. The very affable Paddy Brown brushed off the criticism but even he must have thought it wasn’t his week as, in addition to the DUP rant,  a voter’s dog managed to pee on him.

Not to be outdone some Ulster Unionists were even keener than Mr Wells to display their hardcore distaste for all things non-unionist following Mike Nesbitt’s honest revelation that after he votes UUP in the forthcoming election he would then be voting SDLP. This sent a few Ulster Unionists into a frenzy.

One inconsequential country councilor asked: “Why shouldn’t I give my vote to a unionist, a Protestant or a Presbyterian?”Why not, indeed? After all, on this squat piece of shared space called Northern Ireland, isn’t unionism all about being Protestant? In the world view of these village eejits there are no Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, gay, black or God forbid Catholic unionists. Of course, there was the usual line about having to work with those ‘Catholic neighbors.’ It was a back to the future moment and that future was 1959.

To his credit, Mike Nesbitt has a vision for unionism which is broader than most of his party members. His forthright answer to a direct question has been pilloried for either not being nuanced enough or simply downright politically naïve. Yet it was both brave and bold.

Electorally speaking it’s unlikely to do him much good but it showed that he has cajones. The Northern Ireland electorate may not yet be ready for such a message but someone must start rolling the ball in the direction of normal politics.

Some Alliance members took rather ungracious pop shots at the Ulster Unionist leader asking why he didn’t ask people to transfer to their party. The reality is in many of the areas east of the Bann Alliance and the UUP are fishing in the same pond for first preference votes. Nesbitt is trying to reach out across communities to build a coalition that’s capable of replacing what’s there. His SDLP counterpart, Colum Eastwood, was slow to reciprocate but he got there in the end.

If centre-ground politics is to ever reassert itself in our sectarian carve-up, whether in opposition or government then Nesbitt, Eastwood and Long will need to demonstrate more collegiality and trust – than the DUP/Sinn Féin. That’s going to require maturity, respect and more importantly risk-taking.

The DUP is desperately trying to fight this election on anything but the issues of incompetency, cock-up and corruption. They want to keep things focused on the safer ground of themuns against us. But Sinn Féin is no bogeyman. Together they have colluded, conspired and had common cause for the past 10 years, each turning a blind eye to the other when it suits.

Sinn Féin want the election to be about ‘putting manners’ on Arlene Foster. But why now? For 10 years, they have been best buds with Paisley, Robinson and even Foster. Over the decade, what have they been doing to progress the issues of equality and identity? Why did they not back the initial public inquiry request?

It all seems too little too late. In the shenanigans that passes for politics, it’s hard to be proud to be anything these days, even trysts on a cold night.