“Majority Unionism died in the early hours of the morning, 100 years after Northern Ireland came into existence. That’s the story of the election.”
Those were the words of Eamonn Mallie as the final election results became clear on March 3rd. As I watched the BBC ticker update to confirm that Pat Catney had claimed the surprisingly ground-shaking victory in Lagan Valley, tearing the single-party ability to wield the petition of concern from the DUP’s hands. Ten seats were lost by the DUP. Sinn Fein were a single seat behind them in size. As I read Eamonn’s words I was hit by that sense of history that he was trying to encapsulate.
Less than one year ago, Arlene Foster entered Stormont as First Minister with a dominant DUP holding 38 seats in our assembly. A year later after wood pellets, Brexit, posturing over legacy prosecutions and adamant refusal of Irish language provisions hit our headlines, I was looking at an image of a shaken Arlene Foster looking through the windowed door of a private room in a count centre as her party haemorrhaged seats. As leader of her party she steered a DUP in prime position against a crippled nationalism to the loss of the Unionist majority for the first time in Northern Irish history in an election with one of the highest voter turnouts since the Good Friday Agreement.
Under Arlene’s leadership the DUP took allegations of incompetence and corruption and responded with arrogance, intransigence and the very loud banging of the tribal drum. It was a simple tactic. They have a loyal voter base of unionists and loyalists who have consistently returned them to power.
AE16 saw them return with 38 seats off the back of a campaign that Martin McGuinness might be First Minister. They were confident this would work again and backed up the bravado with strong statements on legacy issues and posturing on the Irish language, the usual “green and orange” issues sure to stoke tensions. Their folly was that in attacking Nationalism to bolster Unionist support they were attacking the Irish identity as a side-effect.
The crocodile thing will be boring one day. However I think in Arlene’s sneering little moment as she uttered it to the press she was too involved in presenting just how strong a Unionist figure she was to think about the effect it would have on people who do not fit into her bubble of what unionism should be. I think she lacked the empathy and foresight to consider the effect it would have elsewhere and the political intelligence to know she was handing Sinn Féin a political slogan.
As a “small-u” Irish unionist I watched as the (former) First Minister of the country in which I live refer to people pushing for recognition of my cultural heritage as predatory reptiles. I’m not a great one for talking about personal emotions and feelings but I will happily tell you I felt hurt and angry as a result of it. It turns out I may not have been the only one.
A phrase I expect to be parroted quite a lot in light of this historic moment in NI politics is from that famous quote from Terence O’Neill:
“Ulster stands at the crossroads.”
If you’ve followed NI politics for the past decade or so you’ve probably heard it dug up a few times as yet another crisis has led our representatives into yet another set of talks. This is because every single time the same dilemma that political Unionism has failed to address has brought us back to the same deadlock. And so, with the UUP in disarray and the DUP’s election material proudly proclaiming “Only one Unionist party can win” I think it’s safe to say that Ulster, or rather political Unionism, stands at the crossroads. Yet again.
They can continue on the road they’re on, where arrogance and supremacist mindsets push the zero-sum attitude of “all for us and none for them”. The route paved with treating those outside of their bubble with paranoia and sneering contempt. Beyond the orange and green dynamic we have seen this towards women and the LGBT community. Anyone outside of the DUP bubble is “other” and is to be stepped upon. It is the very attitude that they accuse lefty liberals of having as they low-key try to push the Trump angle themselves.
The DUP’s shortsightedness is not recognising how this route will contribute, in part, towards the situation in which they now stand. Equality is the Trojan horse for nationalism not because Sinn Fein are using it to sneak Rainbow Republicans into the walls of Londonderry to let the Jacobites in. It is the Trojan horse because when the DUP alienate and marginalise and spit upon anyone outside of their bubble it will make people feel like their only allies are within nationalism or the parties designated “other”. Just before the election they pushed a graphic that stated there can only be one winning Unionist party to hint to unionist voters to choose them over the UUP. If this is to be the case they must recognise that Unionists aren’t all WASPs who hit the streets on the Twelfth and frown upon someone using any kind of brightly coloured hair-dye.
As Sara Houston succinctly explained during our #28daysNI project, identity is a fluid thing affected by many uncontrollable variables and to define your entire constitutional stance around a very specific kind of identity is archaic and dangerous.
If Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom under the DUP’s government is to be a place where people will be punished for loving someone of the same gender, for having contraception fail, simply for growing up in a family that says “go raibh maith agat”; people victimised by this will go to anyone who offers them the refuge and support they require. Which is why you will see Sinn Fein hit the streets of Dublin in REPEAL jumpers as the DUP hold Northern Ireland in a Caleb Foundation style fundamentalist grip. They know how that disparity and that angle will work for them. The one threshold they still need to cross is how to reach out to the “PUL” identity to show they will embrace and protect it. Furthering the dynamic of the DUP representing the politics of awful bastards and everyone else being progressive and chilled out about identity.
And so Ulster stands at that crossroads again.
Will the DUP take the path of mature politics which includes all identities in their unionism and their vision of Northern Ireland in the UK? Or will they continue on the usual path? The same path that unites all other parties against them. The path that drives our citizens onto planes and off of bridges. The path that collapses our institutions with more sectarian deadlock and perpetuates the senseless divide within our society.
Will they offer leadership and representation for ALL of Northern Ireland and practice the platitudes they preach? Or will it just be parrotry instead of parity?
Photo credit: Brendan Harkin