Newton Emerson: Laugh lightly at the Tom Elliotts of this world - The Irish News
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Newton Emerson: Laugh lightly at the Tom Elliotts of this world

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott does not want polling stations or election broadcasts extended north of the border if the Irish presidential franchise is extended to Northern Ireland. Picture by Mal McCann.

UUP former leader Tom Elliott has said that if the Irish presidential franchise is extended to Northern Ireland, there should be no polling stations or election broadcasts north of the border.

"If [people] need to vote, they need to find another way," he said.

Nationalists are outraged by Elliot's language and hostility, with many noting a polling station was set up in Armagh for last year's Bulgarian presidential election.

Many unionists will also be quietly embarrassed. I would never dream of getting worked up into such an outburst over the Irish presidency, an office I find vaguely adorable. Really, whatever next from our Celtic cousins? The Emperor of Cornwall?

Electing a symbolic yet inevitably politicised figurehead seems to me to be the worst of all possible worlds, leading to hilariously vacuous attempts to capture the spirit of Ireland.

President McAleese's 2010 appeal for a "modern day mind meitheal" can still reduce me to a private fit of the giggles.

So which is worse? Elliott's angry insecurity or my condescending superiority?

The official answer is that these are not our choices. Instead, we should all be according each other equal respect and parity of esteem.

But even if such an ideal state was achievable, it would be highly unstable. We would be balancing our divided society on a very precise knife edge, forever alert and vulnerable to signs of disrespect from either direction.

In this scenario, one remark like Elliott's can do an absurd amount of damage.

Resilient societies comprise confident communities - and human nature being what it is, confidence does not come from feeling equal. It comes from feeling superior. You cannot be looked down on by people who are beneath you.

By 'equal' I do not mean equality before the law, which has always existed in Northern Ireland, or freedom from discrimination, now enjoyed by everyone except Protestant teachers.

I also ask you to set aside whatever equality has been defined to mean this week for nationalist political purposes - such as pretending Irish and Bulgarian presidential elections are of equal unimportance in Armagh.

The equality I am referring to is of community self-esteem. This is written into the legal basis of the peace process and assumed without question to be a good thing. Diverging from this consensus can literally be a crime.

However, academic research shows that the identity, self-esteem and resilience of any community is driven by competition with outside groups.

In short, it is all relative and in fact must be so. Equal self-esteem would be oddly demoralising.

Fortunately, two or more groups are perfectly able to feel superior to each other while living side by side, making this the most realistic stable state for a divided society.

The effect is most studied among minorities - around the world, minority communities are most content where they feel a cut above everyone else, which they usually gauge by economic success.

Politics in Northern Ireland often seems to be a contest to sabotage each other's confidence, be that the DUP's gloating at nationalism until three months ago, or "the lack of confidence in the unionist community" once claimed as an achievement by Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin.

Perhaps this was understandable in an era of majority and minority, where the future was seen as those sides swapping positions.

Now that everyone has become a minority, this contest could get worse. Both sides already seem adept at donning cloaks of victimhood and superiority at the same time, and both are already watching out for nationalist 'triumphalism' - nationalists because they know it would be counter-productive, unionists because they would like to be triumphal about it.

In this scenario, instead of treating human nature as a hate-crime, we should be regarding it as a godsend. Let everyone feel superior in their own (as it seems to us) inferior way. Laugh lightly at the Tom Elliotts of this world, and if you feel yourself having a Tom Elliott moment, rise above it.

We can all be contented minorities now, at peace through mutual arrogance - and if that eases the way for unionists in a united Ireland, nationalism has the long-term advantage.

The playwright Brendan Behan famously said an Anglo-Irishman was "a Protestant on a horse".

He then went back to drinking himself to death, while the targets of his barb turned it into a quip at the golf club.

For the whole of Ireland, the lesson is clear. If everyone is happy on a high horse, leave them up there.

newton@irishews.com

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