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ANALYSIS: Political unionism is content to bury its head in the sand

Peter Robinson's privileged position enables him to talk about the elephant in the room. Picture by Queen's University Belfast/PA Wire

A CHARACTERISTIC of large institutions is their reluctance to change. In some circumstances this can be a strength but when events can precipitate comparatively sudden transformations in public attitudes, the ability to respond and adjust appropriately is definitely an advantage.

Peter Robinson hasn't suggested unionism changes but he believes it should at least consider the possibility that things won't always remain as they are.

Initially, the former DUP leader illustrated this thinking by saying that while he didn't expect his house to burn down, he insured it nonetheless.

Latterly, he made parallels with businesses, who put contingency plans in place to ensure they are prepared for adverse circumstances.

The reaction over the past week to his comments, first aired in Co Donegal at the Magill Summer School and elaborated upon in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, speaks volumes about unionism and its siege mentality.

Developments over the past half century in Ireland, Britain and across the world suggest this mentality isn't so much based on fear, as it perhaps once was, but on pride and a deep-seated reluctance to concede that its ideology's relevance is waning – or at least many of its old tenets are not as relevant as they once were.

The economic arguments have steadily become less convincing and are expected to become increasingly so as post-Brexit Britain retreats into the isolationism that once saw the Republic characterised as 'backward'.

Arguments about the threats to unionism's cultural identity are equally weak, as arguably – and ironically – there'd be greater sympathy for the traditional expressions of Britishness in the south than there would be across the Irish Sea.

However, a perennial problem for unionism since Terence O'Neill was forced to resign at the outset of the Troubles is that the dominant party is always looking back over its shoulder, resisting progress and compromise with nationalism for fear of being branded a 'Lundy'.

This is again evident in unionism's inability to even publicly countenance the possibility of a border poll, let alone an outcome that would end partition.

Peter Robinson has made his frank assessment of the potential existential threat to the union from a privileged position. He can talk about the elephant in the room without fear that his electorate will turn in him for such heresy.

His elected counterparts have responded true to form, accusing him of playing into republicans' hands. In retirement, the former first minister is displaying strategic thinking rather than the tactical manoeuvring that marked his time as an elected representative.

The DUP's riposte has come primarily via Sammy Wilson, someone not renowned for his moderation. Arlene Foster is vulnerable at present, a leader without office facing a troublesome few months ahead.

An ill-judged response – too reasonable for unionists or too over the top for nationalists – would only undermine her position further.

While Stormont lies dormant, the tectonic plates of Irish politics are slowly shifting. Meanwhile, political unionism appears content to bury its head in the sand.

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