I’m just back from the Public Records Office building in the Titanic Quarter, where I was part of a discussion panel that included Malachi O’Doherty and Alex Kane. The panel discussion, which wound up a day of talks and lectures marking the fortieth anniversary of the Ulster Workers’ Strike, was a lively and enjoyable experience. The one thing that everyone seemed agreed on: the leadership of unionism is and for a long time has been pretty damn useless.
Which brings me to the amazing imploding NI21 party. Oh dear God. I watched and remembered former Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, who famously said that if the things in Nuala O’Loan’s report about the RUC were true, he’d commit suicide in public. Or words to that effect. NI21 has gone into a public space, produced a large cleaver and is busy lopping bits off itself, slicing open its middle and scooping the innards onto the pavement. And as George Harrison sang, isn’t it a pity? The first unionist party in living memory to come up with an attitude and agenda that looked civilised and promised progress, and what happens? The two leaders, hours from an election, rip each other’s head off and start playing football with them.
Why? Yes I know the stuff about changing designation to ‘other’ at Stormont, but that couldn’t have done it. I know the allegations about Basil’s, ahem, inappropriateness. But I still can’t believe that’s the whole story. Because in all these cases, one question demands answer: cui bono? Who benefits?
I’ll tell you. The traditional unionist parties. Putting Irish in your billboards? Having a fenian woman as your poster person? Talking to Shinners and others as though they were ordinary human beings? For God and Ulster’s sake – that stuff is heresy. What if it caught on? What if it started taking unionism in a different direction from the not-an-inchery, never-trust-a-taigism that we’ve always prided ourselves on? Cheesh. And phew. Good riddance.
Now I hurry to add I haven’t a shred of evidence to support my muddled hypothesis, but the fact is that the cause of reasonable, progressive unionism, with the gut-spillings of NI21, has been set back at least ten years. You think NI21 will walk and talk and frame policy and garner votes again? Two hopes – no hope and Bob Hope. Its grisly fate will act as a warning to any unionist politicians who might be harbouring notions of being positive, creative, or advancing the state of unionism and the state generally. So yes, NI21 may have done itself all this damage. But I can’t help remembering Basil’s vague reference to ‘dirty trick’s. And I think : Cui bono? Start with the TUV and work your way upwards through the various splintered elements of unionism. The DUP will now be able to point and say “See what happens when you go soft? Not an inch!” Sad, sad, sad.