The column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday April 4th. Though the DUP’s support is faltering and has been on a steady decline over the past few years, it is still too early to write the party’s political obituary. It may run Sinn Féin close in the race to emerge as the single biggest party. The DUP decline in the polls, past the Robinson era, is due to internal faction fights that are based partly on personality, but primarily due to the inability of a sizeable cohort in the party to grasp the fact that Northern Ireland has changed over the past decade or more, despite the DUP’s political preeminence, and is continuing to change.
With the Northern Ireland Assembly election exactly one month away, a great deal of the commentary has focused – naturally enough – on the damage that unionism continues to inflict on itself.
I cannot recall a time when unionism seemed in greater disarray. All due to the ill-judged decisions and actions of hard line, irridentist unionists.
This is not to deny that there is a strong and growing seam of moderate, indeed progressive, unionism. A modern unionism that is more focused on facing the challenges of the future than re-waging the tribal battles of the past. A unionism that sees the grave dangers in the rallies against the Northern Protocol being foisted on many small towns across the six counties.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet on April 12th. It followed almost a week of disturbances and incidents across the North, though I mainly focus here on the attacks by loyalist youths along the peace wall in West Belfast, specially at the Lanark Way interface. The cause of these riots are complex – they also have immediate and proximate causes. While there are sinister loyalist paramilitary elements who saw this as an opportunity to make trouble for a PSNI that has enjoyed recent successes in thwarting loyalist drug dealing – especially with unionist leaders attacking the PSNI over and calling for the resignation of the Chief Constable – many of the teenagers and youths on the streets will misguidedly see themselves as fighting for their community, their people and their allegiance. Though that allegiance goes increasingly unreciprocated by the State to which they declare their loyalty.
As the riots raged along the peace walls in Belfast last week, I spotted a tweet bemoaning the absence of loyalist leaders of the calibre of the late David Ervine.
David was the avuncular, savvy leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP). He was aptly described by Northern Ireland secretary John Reid as “possibly one of the most eloquent politicians in Northern Ireland”.
Ervine died tragically young, aged just 53, of a brain hemorrhage, in Jan 2007. Speaking at the time, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern called him a “courageous politician who sought to channel the energies of loyalism in a positive political direction.”
I don’t claim to have known David well, though I did meet him several times and even debated against him in UCD before an audience of US politics students. He was characteristically witty and demonstrated a willingness to engage and debate the future of the North, that showed his confidence in his in his identity and position. This is not something you can say about many in today’s unionism.
This week’s Broadsheet.ie column follows on from last week’s one, starting from it ended and hoping that the Taoiseach can take the opportunity presented by his Brendan O’Connor Show gaffe and start to abandon his seeming agnostic stance on unity, and become more of an advocate for unity and a champion of starting the detailed debate and discussion on what a united Ireland could look like, now.
The prospect of starting the second century of Irish independence with the challenge of building a new and better Ireland is so exciting, why would any Taoiseach delay the start of that process for even one day?
To say that was not a good week for North/South relations is to understate how utterly damaging and chaotic the past seven days have been.
They started with the Taoiseach’s inopportune comments on Brendan O’Connor’s radio show (I dealt with these last week) and finished with the astonishing suggestion from Brussels that it could invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol .
While the week may have finished yesterday, the Article 16 debacle has not. It is far from over. Though the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs worked hard over the weekend to limit the damage, be in no doubt damage has been done to relations on this island. A price will be paid here and a big price must also be paid in Brussels.
Dublin must insist that those responsible for this mess are held accountable. Hailing the Commission decision not to do the wrong thing as a “positive”, may be very diplomatic, but it is neither sufficient nor proportionate.
Returning to my observations last week on the Shared Island Unit, I do not flatter myself to imagine the political crew currently occupying government buildings read any of my scribblings. I mean, why would they read them now when they paid scant attention to what I said on the odd occasion I was ever asked for my thoughts. Nonetheless, I was genuinely gratified yesterday to hear some tiny incremental movement from the Taoiseach along the lines I suggested last week.
This column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 25th 2021 and considers the damage An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has done to his Shared Island Unit. His unfounded claims and ill considered comments during a lengthy RTÉ Radio One interview with Brendan O’Connor hurt the prospects for the Shared Island Unit by undermining his relationship with the NI Executive,particularly with its unionist members.
An Taoiseach may have inadvertently given himself an opportunity to get his Shared Island Unit back on the rails, by accepting today’s new reality and allowing it to engage meaningfully on constitutional issues, including advocating for the positives of a united Ireland. Maybe some good can come from Martin’s little too much.
It’s never the little too little that hurts, it’s the little too much. This was Sean Lemass’s famous advice to aspiring politicians. Keep your own counsel and never say more than you need too, especially when what you are saying is not fully thought through.
Though the advice comes from an age before social media and rolling news, it applies as much today as it did in the 50s and 60s.
It is such a profound piece of political advice that I assumed I had mentioned it here before. But a word search of the Broadsheet pieces I have written over the past 5 years tells me that I’ve only quoted it here once before. That was last November in a piece I wrote about the Shared Island Unit. In it, I suggested that the Taoiseach still “has an awful lot to learn from Lemass’s practical application of vision to action.”
Listening to the Taoiseach’s lengthy Saturday morning interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One, it appears that it is a lesson he still needs to learn, and urgently.
This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on October 14th in the aftermath of the Johnson/Varadkar meeting at the Wirral to discuss Brexit. The two men were said to have spoken in private for 90 minutes without officials or advisers present. Did those talks focus on the specific details of the Irish border arrangements or were they more political?
Visitors to the Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) presidential library in Austin, Texas get to have their photos taken against a life size photo of the 6’ 4” LBJ leaning over them, appearing – figuratively – to bend them to his will. It is called “The Johnson Treatment”.
The original photo featured LBJ’s soon to be US Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas. It is just one of many photos of LBJ applying the eponymous “treatment”, once described by the pre-eminent Washington political columnist, Mary McGrory, as “an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favours and future advantages.”
This article first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 30th, 2019. Any optimism that existed in my previous article from a week before was, by now, gone
This day last week Boris Johnson became the new leader of the Tory party. Profiling him here I described Johnson as the incoming Prime Minister of the slowly disunifying United Kingdom.
A few days later the SNP leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford MP, described Johnson in even starker and bleaker terms hailing him as the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Comments over the last few days suggest that Blackford may well be close to the truth.
Last week I hoped that Johnson might use his admiration for Churchillian rhetoric to define – for the first time ever – what Brexit means.
Johnson had a very small window in which to set out a deliverable form of Brexit and give Britain a transition period during which it could have the best of both worlds. It would be fully out of the political and administrative institutions of the European Union. Out of the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, but would still have the economic benefits of membership while it negotiated the terms of its future arrangement.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on July 2nd 2019. It followed my attendance at the funeral service in Derry for the great Northern Ireland champion of civil rights, the late Ivan Cooper
Last week two lesser known but nonetheless extremely significant figures from the last half century of Northern Ireland’s history died.
While the pain, grief and sorrow and felt by the friends and family of both men was equal, the tributes given, at their respective funerals, to the lives they led and the key roles they played in forming today’s Northern Ireland could not have contrasted more.
While those tributes reflected the diverged paths they took, one in bringing communities together, the other in dividing them, champions of both would claim that each man was motivated equally by the pursuit of equality and civil rights.
The tributes, coming within days of each other, did more than point to the differing lives led, they also highlight the still glaring differences in interpretation of the origins of the troubles in Northern Ireland, but also to the conflicting views on where Northern Ireland goes next, and how. Continue reading “A Tale of Two Tributes”→
British Prime Minister, Theresa May is in Belfast today to make a speech at… sorry… to give a speech to local business leaders. The speech will re-state her “absolute commitment” to avoiding a hard border, post Brexit.
Her statement of commitment is welcome, just as welcome as it was when first made over two years ago, but with only seven weeks to go to the March 29th exit and after 18 exhaustive months of negotiations, surely it is not asking too much to expect her to say how she will turn this commitment into reality?
This is a crisis of her own making. She says she is committed to no hard border, but then she also says that she is equally committed to having a Brexit that takes the United Kingdom of Great Britain and parts of Northern Ireland out of the EU’s Customs Union and the Single Market, as well as out of the EU institutions.
The hard truth is that she cannot commit to ensuring no customs union, no single market and no hard border at the same time. You can do two out of three, but you cannot do all three.
Many, many years ago I went to see the great Billy Connolly perform live at the Gaiety theatre. He talked about his brief time working as a riveter in the Clyde side shipyards.
At one point he asked the audience if we recalled those old British Pathé newsreels of jaunty, merry Glasgow shipbuilders waving their hats and cheering loudly as the ship, on they had been working, was launched and slid into the Clyde.
As Connolly reminded us, though the newsreels portrayed these workers as delighting in the completion of another fine ship, the simple reality what they were actually waving goodbye to their jobs as most of them would be laid off the next day.
Today’s DUP is very much like those shipbuilders. In happily cheering-on the prospect of a hard Brexit they are celebrating the end of any economic future for Northern Ireland.