Fionnuala O Connor: As Boris channels Trump and Sinn Féin triumph in south, unionism has hard thinking to do
Every so often a pale political organism, not usually any kind of activist, more likely one of those commentator-types, will have a grizzle about the lack of ‘joined-up politics’ here.
Miffed, they sound, personally offended. Their beef is most likely to focus on the backwardness of northern head-counting, the ‘sectarianism’ of it.
They rarely if ever mean how separate from the consciousness of the south and Britain the north is. Which it is thanks not only to journalistic aversion to keeping tabs on the bigger polities, but also the separatism of northern parties and people. History.
Here follows an exercise in joining-up. It had a dramatic kick-off, of dual origin. Kick One came on Saturday 8th of this very month, when Sinn Féin voters in the Republic, new and older, threw the whole system up in the air for questioning. Including the judgment of the party a quarter of them backed, which didn’t see it coming any more than the rest of us.
Kick Two was the floor show of the British prime minister with his reshuffled cabinet, whom he ‘catechised’ in front of cameras (verb of choice of Sky’s political veteran Adam Boulton) on the ‘people’s priorities’ they should now deliver. ‘How many hospitals are we going to build?’ chanted the PM. They had that one off pat. ‘Forty, they lied in unison’ said another reporter. ‘How many more nurses are we recruiting? Fifty thousand!’ Boulton heard them falter on ‘How many more buses?’ Maybe for a damaging second the poor sheeplike creatures imagined building buses, as the boss does, out of wine boxes.
It looked and sounded Trump-like. And this is the politics in which unionism wants to be embedded? If they still do, if their leading figures have the least notion of where to turn now. At least nationalists, and now republicans, have a livelier model to yearn towards. Mary Lou McDonald in her top-of-the-heap moment lectured the parties ousted from their traditional top slots to do ‘grown-up politics’. The south’s politics is straining at the seams at the prospect of dealing with Sinn Féin, or rejecting them, and SF is strained in turn. Not a fetching sight and yet in another league from the Boris play school.
For the moment the jury is out on whether Johnson and The Figure in the Hoodie who runs the cabinet might indeed pump money into rebuilding the NHS, public transport, the sectors hollowed-out by austerity.
That would take a determined facing-down of Conservative rage at the necessary tax increases. Has Johnson got it in him?
It could be that the muted unionist reaction to SF’s day in the southern sun, as they watch Boris through their fingers like the rest of us, is coloured by recognition of how separated they now are from Britain, how the Brexit process has weakened Northern Ireland as a UK region.
However SF winds up in the new Dáil power-structure, effects will seep into the north. The newly-boosted ‘only 32 county party’ will have to upgrade its northern wing. The SDLP MPs who went a-canvassing but not for the same parties have to think again. Micheál Martin tussled with ‘listening’ to the voters for a nano-second. Or did he? It was so brief, who could be sure. But almost certainly he didn’t call a northern friend name of Colum for advice.
Will the afterburn of old and not so old horror of IRA brutality, exposed again, ache back into SF’s northern vote to keep it down rather than up? Unregenerate unionism might keep the balance, if it fails to tip it.
Having been speaking ‘republican language’ all our lives without knowing it, the urge for many to say ‘the north’ in any old sentence is now irresistible, much easier than learning Irish.
The Curse of the Crocodiles, minus Arlene. Jim Allister just did his best for ‘Ireland’s Future’. Maith an fear. Good man Jim.