Tom Kelly: Unionists stuck in the past need to realise the world is changing

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.

When Enda Kenny announced there would be a referendum about whether the Irish diaspora should be allowed to vote in future presidential elections it didn't take long for certain unionist quarters to react.

If the referendum is passed it would mean that in 2025 northerners could vote in the Irish presidential elections. It's a long overdue right, particularly for northern nationalists, but with an Irish diaspora that runs to tens of millions there will obviously have to be some safeguards.

Nonetheless, Tom Elliott, the former Ulster Unionist leader and MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, in his usual accomplished foot in mouth manner, said he would not want any polling stations in Northern Ireland for such elections as they would be an "imposition on the people of Northern Ireland."

But what people was Mr Elliott speaking about? Well, he made that a bit clearer when he elaborated: "If they need to vote, they need to find another way." Elliott, like many unreconstructed unionists, still views Northern Ireland through the prism of Stormont 1955.

A world when the Catholic population knew their place and unionist politicians lorded over them like feudal princes. Thankfully it is 2017 but Tom Elliott has not yet opened his Tardis door. Elliott, like some others, has the DNA of a border unionist and it’s an uncompromising face set against the winds of political change. Elliott's world is decaying around him and naturally it is uncomfortable but his way is not the future.

The 'they' he refers to are the nationalist people who, like unionists, pay their taxes and keep him in employment. The 'they' don't object because we live in a democracy and that's how it works. The 'they' don't ask for much back from the Elliotts of this world. They don't even ask him to like them. They do, however, expect him to respect them.

Some within unionism seem incapable of showing respect towards the nationalist community. They maintain a self-righteous haughtiness towards them. It's impossible to understand it except to say that whilst never feeling wholly secure since partition, as the population of both unionists and nationalists converge numerically that insecurity has grown to full blown paranoia. It’s the same type of high-handedness and disrespect which bought the executive down.

The Brexit economic arguments used by unionists campaigning to leave the EU were often weak because underpinning those arguments was a belief that an isolated and independent United Kingdom secure in its own borders would strengthen the unionist cause. What baloney. Because of Brexit, the political union of the United Kingdom has never been so fractured. Soon unionists may discover that British interests rule supreme and those secure borders may exclude Northern Ireland.

Some unionists openly said that it didn't matter what the cost was of leaving the EU.

That's not a view shared by local manufacturers, agri-food businesses or new hi tech and creative industries who need access to the single market and free movement of labour. The unionist claim that they are a friend of business now lacks credibility because they put their narrow political interests ahead of the economic interests of Northern Ireland.


Their scornful disdain of the Scottish first minister, their mocking of Labour and their kow-towing to the Tory right means that they are on the margins of wider British political opinion.

Not that foot in mouth politics is a one-way street as ably demonstrated by Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson last week.

Like a grown-up version of the foot stomping, self indulgent Violet Elizabeth Bott from Just William, Anderson fumed in the vernacular to a near empty chamber of MEPs, all of which would have reminded our cultured European cousins of the late Ian Paisley's pantomime performance during the visit of Pope John Paul II to the European Parliament.

Hard to believe that John Hume once strode like a colossus through the corridors of Strasbourg and Brussels commanding respect from every quarter. Whatever Anderson thought she was doing - and no doubt it played well to Sinn Féin audiences - it was crass and self defeating. That Sinn Féin appointed Anderson to oversee unionist outreach demonstrates that the party hierarchy has a sense of humour. Can we now expect 'curry my yogurt' Gregory Campbell to be the DUPs new spokesperson on Irish culture and language in retaliation?

Politics is about compromise, consensus and respect.

Clearly, some of our politicians are intent on using the Donald Trump handbook on diplomacy.


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