The North never set new order in motion

Posted By: August 11, 2015

Fionnuala O Connor . Irish News( Belfast). Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Away back in March 2007, when a new world order seemed to be born with a DUP leader smiling beside Sinn Féin’s leader, a wise monitor of this society wondered what a recreated Northern Ireland ‘establishment’ would look like. Surely a new order needed one?

This was before the Paisley/McGuinness glow split the trees. That didn’t happen until May. The picture that first caused wonderment and made mouths fall open had Paisley in it alright, but around the corner of a table from Gerry Adams, Adams delighted with the moment and himself, Paisley less full of joy, the sage of unionism if you were to go by reflective expression alone.

It is one of those line-ups that still resonates, all the more because some are now gone, some faded, others harder to place in the scheme of things.

Arlene Foster (unsmiling, composed) turns up in the back row but ‘doughnut-wise’ strategically positioned. Any version of the shot that took in more than the two main figures contained Arlene too, the DUP’s sole ranking female. But flanked in her turn by Jimmy Spratt and Willie Hay. Martin McGuinness was one along from Adams, Mary-Lou McDonald next to the leader. An almost smiling Peter Robinson had his place at the Doc’s right-hand, though just out of the picture that counted most.

Setting up that picture took some arranging, the perfect sharp corner between godly Puritanism and Satan’s representative on earth a simple business of two tables pushed together, not long before the curtain went up. Slowly enough to maximise the impact the cameras pulled back to show that these two were indeed within feet of each other, nobody between them. The world gasped, okay, including, surely, any establishment then in existence. They must have gawked at the Adams/Paisley combo, and asked each other how can we link up with that pair; who were, after all, or so people thought then, both Paisley and Adams, as anti-establishment as possible.

The older man, whose turnaround most occasioned surprise and shock is gone, after collecting a lordship, wrapping himself and his spouse very happily in ermine and his party in derision. Light years on, or so the eight years seem, the other one looks lost some days, on others glumly determined to stay in place – a difficult place – until he himself becomes part of a Dublin establishment.

The Paisley/Adams show was a one-day wonder, though it led to the Chuckle Brothers with Martin McGuinness. The new deal, now rusted from neglect, followed decades when a continuing establishment seemed as improbable as working politics. Power and power brokers doubtless still existed, but differently. Away back before 1968/69, the old Stormont circle consisted of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Orange Order, the machinery of the law, plus Protestant business, big and indeed small, snugly fitting together, with Westminster subsidising the uneconomic shipyard and the uneconomic six counties.

After Stormont closed a residual unionist establishment lingered but inside about 10 years withered away. Big businessmen forsook the UUP, and the Orange Order. Protestant money and Protestant politics had become almost completely disconnected by the time the DUP up-ended itself in 2007.

Harry West, then Jim Molyneaux, then most unmistakeably David Trimble seemed to have no appreciable influence with Protestant money, and vice versa. Whitehall mandarins flew in; unionist civil servants went undercover, still unionist but presenting themselves primarily as pro-direct rule – genuinely enough, since some were part of it.

The years passed. Trimble at no stage seemed part of the quasi-establishment; secretaries of state, senior people in the Northern Ireland Office and civil service, some businessmen. Perhaps the fundamental disconnect remained. In 2007 the question was whether the DUP would link up with remnants of the machine, create anew, attempt neither? And what would become of would-be establishment UUP/SDLP types, their stumbling parties no help to them? There followed DUP and Ulster Unionist nominations to the Lords, quangos the best Sinn Féin and the SDLP could do, cronyism all round.

The closest thing to a modern establishment is probably the DUP, in the sense of being most in charge of most things. Yet it’s not your standard establishment. They haven’t seriously tried to co-opt London to support them, Dublin, indeed Washington; any important section of nationalism, even unionist-leaning academia.

Theirs is not the usual establishment mentality, more a dog in the manger mentality. The DUP has taken unionism back into the trenches, and is in the business of building not a settled administration but a new type of fortress.