When I worked with teachers, one of the great problems in developing their abilities was the pace of life in schools. When you were scrabbling to fill out yet another form, make contact with little Johnny’s mother and get lessons prepared for next week or even next Monday, it was difficult to find time to step back from what you were doing and ask big questions, like “Why am I doing this?” and “Do I need to rethink my whole approach to teaching?” Keeping your head above water was what counted, not thinking if you should switch from the breast stroke to the crawl.
The same goes for politics. For the most part, those concerned with politics are caught up in the moment, thinking about protecting the seat they have and serving the needs of their constituents right here right now.
But it’s important to move away and assess the big picture from time to time. If you don’t check out the big picture of the past and present, you’ll probably muddle blindly into an uncertain future.
So how are things overall in politics here?
In a recent article, unionist commentator Alex Kane made the case for the different strands of unionism to come together, look at the situation here – including a border poll – and plan for their future and that of unionists generally.
So what sort of state is unionism in now?
It depends on your angle of viewing. From one vantage point, unionism looks pretty healthy. On the brink of the centenary marking the state’s birth, unionists are still the most powerful political force in the north. The First Minister is and always has been a unionist, they have successfully weathered political storms such as Irisgate, Red Skies and RHI. At the time problems like these seemed insurmountable but they managed and managed them well. They had the ear of the British prime minister for a time, and while the Covid crisis may have forced them into closer contact with the south than they’d have liked, they’ve managed to maintain their own strategy and even their very own Covid app.
The downside for unionism is that, as Kane has pointed out, they have their eyes squeezed shut on a number of gathering storm clouds.
The first and most obvious is the increasing number ofCatholics/nationalists/republicans in Ireland south and north. In the south that has shown in the recent election, where Sinn Féin not only reversed losses in local elections a few months earlier, but emerged as the party with the highest number of first preference votes in the state. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with the aid of the Greens, may have managed to form a coalition and shut Sinn Féin out of power, but already the wheels on the coalition are wobbling. It seems only a question of time – within five years, probably – before Sinn Féin leads a government in the south.
In the north, the d-word is the word that makes unionism stick its fingers in its ears and squeeze its eyes really tight shut. The demographics keep showing a rising tide of Catholics/nationalists/republicans, with the timing of a border poll inside the next five years being almost certain. And remember, if the British secretary of state lowers the starting flag for a border poll, that means that s/he believes it will be won by Catholics/Nationalists/Republicans.
There is only one way to counter this coming majority and that is to make enough Catholics/nationalists/republicans feel sufficiently comfortable within the UK: love-bomb them so that they’ll reject all calls for a reunited Ireland.
The catch with that is, if life in the stateen is made truly comfortable for Catholics/nationalists/republicans, a lot of unionists will start scratching their heads and asking themselves “What’s the point in a Protestant state for a Protestant people, if Catholics/nationalists/republicans are going to be invited into the parlour and plied with cups of tea and even , God forbid, helpings of the Devil’s buttermilk?”
Thinking about such a state of affairs is calculated to send bands of pain encircling many a unionist forehead.
How to ease this pain? Perhaps unionism should pull back the camera and try to focus on the positive. For all their electoral success, the Shinners can only look on in envy, as yet another failed unionist politician is raised up to that place where teeth need no long gnash and where all tears are wiped away: the House of Lords.
Always look on the bright side of life.