Opinion

Chris Donnelly: The north has changed - but the media’s obsession with unionism remains

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris during a joint press conference at Hillsborough Castle
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris shake hands during a joint press conference to present the 'Safeguarding the Union' document at Hillsborough Castle (Niall Carson/PA)

‘What else do you expect?’

The north of Ireland has witnessed tremendous change taking place over the recent past, transforming attitudes, perceptions and realities.

We are living in the time of a republican first minister, an Alliance MP for North Down and a Belfast city hall soon to be home to statues honouring two iconic republican women, Winifred Carney and Mary Ann McCracken.

Sinn Féin has supported the PSNI since 2007, but its decision to attend a police graduation ceremony underlined a desire to firmly demonstrate that, whatever about genuine concerns regarding the PSNI’s appalling conduct over many legacy cases, republicans want and need the police to be fully representative of society to best serve the needs of all.

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly  , Justice Minister Naomi Long  and Gerry Kelly at the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s attestation ceremony for six newly qualified officers at Garnerville Police College  on Friday.
Sinn Féin attended a PSNI graduation ceremony for the first time.
Picture: COLM LENAGHAN
Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, Justice Minister Naomi Long and Sinn Féin Policing Board member Gerry Kelly at the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s attestation ceremony for six newly qualified officers at Garnerville Police College. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

There is no longer a pro-union majority in this society and successive election results show parties favouring Irish unity more than matching the performance of their pro-union counterparts.

Yet in one key area, change continues to drop very slowly: for our local broadcast media, there will always be an Ulster of six and not nine, and every major development continues to be viewed primarily through the eyes of those who most fondly answer its call.

The DUP’s return to Stormont was preceded by the publication of a document, Safeguarding the Union, jointly authored by the DUP and British government.

Secretary of Chris Heaton-Harris holds the Safeguarding the Union document at Hillsborough Castle
Secretary of Chris Heaton-Harris holds the Safeguarding the Union document at Hillsborough Castle (Niall Carson/Niall Carson/PA Wire)

The very title, graphic and manner in which the document was launched – collaboratively between the British Secretary of State and DUP leader – was a deliberate poke in the eye to nationalists.

Imagine, for a second, the response if tomorrow the Irish government produced a Securing Unity document alongside the Sinn Féin leadership a day after the latter met with dissident republicans.

Imagine if they outlined a shared package of proposals to secure and accelerate the process of securing unification whilst also explicitly stating in words their shared desire to legislatively target and essentially reduce east-west trade and economic development, knowing the importance of that relationship for unionists.



On so many levels, this document was an affront to both nationalists and the constitutionally non-aligned bloc within our society, deliberately seeking to undermine the principles of parity of esteem and rigorous impartiality firmly embedded in the Good Friday Agreement.

Yet when it came to the media’s reporting of this deal, The Irish News stood alone in articulating the widely held and justifiable concerns across this society outside of the unionist bubble.

When it came to the media’s reporting of this deal, The Irish News stood alone in articulating the widely held and justifiable concerns across this society outside of the unionist bubble

Stephen Nolan conducted an hour-long interview with Jeffrey Donaldson in the days following the DUP’s decision to return to Stormont. At no point during the interview were the obvious and natural concerns nationalists would have about an extraordinarily reckless document reflected in the questioning. It was as if everyone in this society occupies the political space between Jim Allister and Jeffrey Donaldson.

A few days later, another seasoned BBC journalist asked Michelle O’Neill how she could claim to want to be a First Minister for all whilst supporting Irish unity.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson defended his party's decision making on a deal to restore Stormont during an interview with Stephen Nolan on Friday.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson defended his party's decision making on a deal to restore Stormont during an interview with Stephen Nolan

Our local media’s obsessive focus on internal unionist spats continues to feed the notion that the wants, needs and concerns of unionists are of pre-eminent importance in this place.

In the past, the response of many within nationalism would have been summed up by the five-word question posed at the beginning of this column.

Yet that won’t cut it any more, and nor should it.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill has raised the prospect of a border poll in the next 10 years
There is an obligation upon Sinn Féin, as the largest party in the north, and the SDLP, the only major opposition party, to demand change and to do so loudly and repeatedly until the calls are heeded (Liam McBurney/PA)

There is an obligation upon Sinn Féin, as the largest party in the north, and the SDLP, the only major opposition party, to demand change and to do so loudly and repeatedly until the calls are heeded.

Sinn Féin can be forgiven for wanting nothing to detract from Michelle O’Neill’s big moment, a truly significant event. But it is this very mandate which obligates them to use their position of influence to move beyond the shrugged shoulders response and pro-actively demand that, as we enter a new phase in our politics defined by the resumption of power-sharing and preparation for a border poll, the broadcast media treat everyone equally.