There is an article in the Irish Times this morning by Tom Kelly. Not Tom Kelly OBE of the SDLP, but Tom Kelly who was in the NIO for a number of years and later a spokesman for the British prime minister. If I tell you that the title is ‘DUP and Sinn Féin choking off all progress in the North”, you’ll recognize the line Mr Kelly takes.
He looks first at the DUP and points out their three big mistakes – they supported Brexit without thinking what it’d do to their followers in the business community here, they focused on east-west trade and ignored the impact of Brexit on north-south trade, and they tried to use the principle of consent to veto any deal the British made with Brussels. He also has a dig at the ‘sleaze’ surrounding the DUP – the RHI affair and Ian Paisley’s several luxurious holidays in particular.
He then turns to Sinn Féin and says they should have been in Westminster, “the head of a pluralist majority of nationalists and non-nationalists”. They failed, he believes, and so in a coming election there is a chance for the centre ground parties (aka SDLP, Alliance and the UUP) to make common cause and progress through compromise.
This is a very old song Mr Kelly is singing. I heard it first when I was a young man, and the Alliance Party came into being. Time, that shiny new party told us, to put away our prejudices and sectarianism, time to work with decent good people for a better society. Today, there are many like Mr Kelly who say that Alliance is now about to flourish. In which case I would suggest it’s been a long time germinating. There are also voices that will tell you the SDLP is experiencing a phoenix-like moment, emerging from its own ashes to fly high and free again. By way of evidence, they point to the next Westminster election in Derry, where they have high hopes of taking the seat back from Sinn Féin.
Mr Kelly’s article makes it all sound pretty plausible and desirable, given that he’s rejected the ‘extremism’ of the DUP and Sinn Féin. But it’s asking the reader to believe that the UUP (which will eschew electoral pact-making with the DUP when I’ve taught our cat to ride a bicycle) – that the UUP will burgeon and grow, that the SDLP will come back from the edge of the cliff and reclaim the loyalties of decent people, and that they will find common ground with the UUP and the Alliance Party.
To which I say “Tosh”. And “Bollocks”. And several other even naughtier words. The truth is that the DUP are the party that has screwed up the past twenty-one years, with their insistence on looking inward rather than outward, of rejecting all efforts at reconciliation. The truth is also that the famous centre ground ignores a core fact of politics in our stateen: there is a vigorous and growing hunger among many here to be finally rid of rule from Westminster and to allow the Irish people to govern themselves. Soft talk about centre ground and the revival of dead parrots should not deflect us from that central and completely legitimate ambition.