Opportunist: strictly speaking the word should be a compliment of sorts, meaning someone who seizes opportunities when they present themselves. But we know that the word has become encrusted with critical overtones: the opportunist is someone who uses an opportunity in her/his self-interest, often leaving others to pay the cost.
Opportunism in our NEN has elbowed itself to the front of the headlines over the last few days, as unionist politicians have lined up to condemn Sinn Féin for not having at least hung, if not hung, drawn and quartered, Barry McElduff. Ian Paisley Jr has shown his respect for opposition colleagues by branding Sinn Féin chairman Declan Kearney “the class clown|”. “To lecture anyone else about respect after what’s happened within his own ranks, takes a brass neck.”
Personally, I’ve always seen respect as a matter of actions rather than words. An example: Martin McGuinness, during his joint role with Ian Paisley as FM/DFM, made it clear that he respected Paisley, not by telling people he did, but by his body language and his willingness to work with him to make the north of Ireland a better place. Someone who’s no longer a politician – Mitchel McLaughlin – always struck me as being of the same disposition. There was something about the way he spoke and conducted himself that showed courtesy and respect at every turn.
And unionism? Well, we can start by scratching out the word “respect” when we consider the first fifty years of this state. Unionism made it clear it had no respect for the Catholic/nationalist population: discrimination and gerrymander ruled. When we got out of that half-century strait-jacket and then the hell of the Troubles, we entered the political sphere. Did unionism welcome what it had always called for – politics by peaceful means? Uh-uh. Jim Molyneux talked about the need to house-train republicans. Republican use of Irish was mocked as pointless and stupid. Martin McGuinness’s efforts at reconciliation were ignored rather than reciprocated. And of course Arlene Foster thought it’d be good if she and McGuinness attended a World Cup game featuring Northern Ireland, but wouldn’t dream of attending a game featuring the Republic of Ireland.
There may be all sorts of possible reasons for unionist truculence and rudeness. My guess is that it probably springs from insecurity. But for Ian Paisley to criticize others for their lack of respect is like Attila the Hun criticizing a henchman for not trimming his fingernails.
And to think there was a point, one brief glorious moment, when it looked as if Ian Paisley Jr might be the De Klerk figure that unionism so sorely needs. Oh dear. The irony is that, the longer unionism adopts this holding-the-nose, holier-than-thou attitude, the less time there will be for them to strike a lasting deal before they are engulfed by the coming tidal wave of a republican majority ..