05 March 2006

Resurgent nationalism poses real threat to DUP

Sunday Business Post

By Tom McGurk
05 March 2006

This week the British and Irish governments will accept the inevitable: any prospect of a devolved administration in the North in the short term has disappeared. Last week, the various parties trooped in and out of 10 Downing Street - mostly to restate already well-known positions. The DUP’s suggestion of an assembly without executive powers looks like a non-runner already.

The nationalists would not have it and one would have to be unduly charitable not to see it as anything other than the DUP’s idea of a talking shop to fill the political vacuum.

Ever since the old Stormont parliament was prorogued some 34 years ago, London and Dublin have presumed that power-sharing - as opposed to majoritarianism - was the way forward. What reasonable political party, they argued, could be opposed to that?

They have now discovered that the DUP - which originally opposed power-sharing with the then major nationalist party, the SDLP - has now returned to its former position.

Now, according to the DUP, Sinn Fein is unfit for government. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a reiteration of the same old position dressed up in new language.

It goes without saying that unionism, which after 50 years of one-party government reduced the North to a political slum, might not be fit for government either, although this is rarely mentioned in exchanges.

But all of this argument tends to mask a political reality - that for unionism, politics in the North has always been, above all else, principally about maintaining the union with Britain.

The political and economic power that came with government was fine but, at the end of the day, all unionist politics and voting was about maintaining the union.

Accordingly, unionism now believes that devolved government threatens the union, in that it provides a political machine for Irish unification, which unionists believe is the principal objective of nationalism and Dublin.

The DUP is particularly suspicious and nervous of Sinn Fein’s political machinery and its determined grasp of local politics.

Quite simply, it believes that, with an executive up and running and three or four Sinn Fein ministers heading a growing electoral machine of local councillors and assembly members, nationalist political and economic power would eventually overwhelm it.

What adds to this sense of threat is the growing belief that a nationalist resurgence is taking place in the North. Post-ceasefire nationalism has a new spirit of self-confidence and self-esteem.

Nationalists’ educational performance has outstripped the unionists’.

The demographics point to a growing nationalist constituency and the emergence of a new nationalist professional and middle-class, which has radically altered the social balance.

The emergence of the Celtic Tiger in the Republic has furthered nationalist ambitions, in tandem with the emergence of an increasingly-successful nationalist entrepreneurial and business class.

Among traditional unionists there is a sense that political devolution, headed by a growing Sinn Fe¤ in political machine and with close Dublin government involvement, can only lead in one direction.

Insecure and stripped of their traditional economic and political power base, and given that their ultimate political goal is to maintain the union, unionists now fear devolution.

Remarkably, given that the 1998 Belfast Agreement was supposed to put the constitutional position on the political backburner for a generation or two, they have now taken fright. By flocking to Ian Paisley, they have displayed both their deep anxiety and their deeply rooted suspicion of politics.

Since day one of this process, London and Dublin have argued that devolution is the only way - there is no plan B. That position may no longer be possible and there is now a pressing requirement to generate the political and economic sense of the Belfast Agreement outside of the devolutionary structure.

The SDLP recently published an all-Ireland economic plan that would, for example, extend incentives such as the Republic’s low capital gains and corporate tax rates to the North.

It’s an idea whose time may well have come, given that the North’s economy is not much more than a public service basket case.

What prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown would make of such a plan remains to be seen, but isn’t it a remarkable historical development that the North’s union with Britain is now clearly to its economic disadvantage?

In the economic landscape where the EU and this island now sit, and in the context of any political devolutionary failure, partition looks even more like the dinosaur of another age. Equally, the unionist notion that the appropriate response to nationalist demands for the new post-Good Friday politics is no politics at all, cannot be responsibly accepted by London and Dublin.

After all, the 1998 agreement was democratically mandated by all the people of Ireland.

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