Political stability? Keep it a secret…

The media coverage – and some political reaction – to the DUP’s vote on the extension of a new EU law to Northern Ireland was very telling, if predictable.

Overall the vote and its implications were no big deal. The importance was but it was part of the agreement between HMG and Jeffrey Donaldson that got Stormont back in action. Therefore it was important that the DUP used the opportunity it presented to weaken the destructive and flat earth pronouncements by Jim Allister and his acolytes and to reassure the 75% of DUP supporters who reportedly back its current policy.

Sinn Fein clearly got that as there was no contrived or manufactured outrage from that party. That made pragmatic sense as throughout the Robinson/McGuinness years of relative stability each of the senior partners clearly understood the need that they each had to make certain noises at certain times to keep the base happy. This was the first example under the new regime and no doubt at some point the DUP will need to reciprocate. That’s how coalitions work.

Of the other parties the SDLP did what official oppositions do – they opposed on the floor of the house and on the radio. There was a certain amount of rhetoric but nothing that won’t settle down (it already has done).

The UUP is clearly very unnerved by the change in DUP stance in recent works and has had its USP undermined by the newly pragmatic outreach of its opponent. Its reaction was churlish rather than detailed with references to clothes stealing and pointing out they’ve been saying what the DUP is saying now for at least a year. To be fair to the UUP, its reaction and resentment is very understandable as the DUP leadership has clearly moved onto its territory and taken the bulk of the party with it. That seriously threatens the very existence of the party if it doesn’t box clever with it being squeezed between the DUP and Alliance for that mainstream/liberal pro union vote east of the Bann.

Perhaps the UUP reaction is the party boxing clever to demonstrate it won’t be a pushover in the now inevitable negotiations with the DUP over the forthcoming Westminster General Election. The relentless media coverage given to the TUV and its apparent determination to contest all seats means that neither party can ignore the need for a rapprochement with the other if mainstream unionism is to maintain its position and grow its influence. So the UUP will need to be seen to embrace its own form of pragmatism.

Alliance was the only party to overreact – and boy did it overreact – to this week’s events on the floor. Understandably I suppose as it is the only party seriously threatened by a realignment of a pragmatic and more broadly acceptable face of unionism. If the Donaldson face of the DUP and the UUP do have a realignment against old style dogmatic unionism its Alliance who stand to lose as previously apathetic and homeless unionists return to the polling stations. Plus Alliance has had it easy in the absence of an Executive as it hasn’t had to prove itself outside the Nolan Show or The View. Now it has real responsibility and it needs to prove itself up to the job. That will mean facing criticism without reverting to the default position of petulance and identity politics. That will be interesting to watch.

What of the mainstream media since the return of the Executive? Our media has never been good at dealing with stability and that doesn’t look like changing. The constant cynicism about or even ridiculing of the  good-natured performance and joint outreach of Michelle, Emma and various SF/DUP ministers tells a story. The media – as I wrote here last month – has already tried to foster division over issues like Casement Park rather than simply sit down and interview ministers about their jobs and what they are doing in those jobs. That applies to virtually all our mainstream “traditional” media and the recently published official sales figures of the press demonstrate why sensationalism is so important. But they don’t seem to be landing any blows on the ministers and long may that continue.

However I do have a major issue with the media, particularly when confronted with changes in unionism such as the new approach of the DUP. That issue is that there are no voices in our media who are platformed to articulate the position of constructive and positive mainstream unionism. So no one is being platformed to explain why the DUP performed such a radical change in approach and what is hoped to be achieved . No one is articulating what those of us who aren’t in the TUV think of this change. Let alone that we welcome it. To be fair I think Suzanne Breen has given a pretty good and balanced view of how Donaldson’s position is holding up. But she is alone.

Sinn Fein’s brand of republicanism is platformed through Chris Donnelly and Brian Feeney. So it should be as it has significant support. TUV politics are given a level of coverage way in excess of its support and almost to the point where it’s simply free electioneering. Though Jamie Bryson seems to have lost his regular BBC platform. Alliance also receive coverage in excess of its mandate but as the only mainstream party prepared to go on the Nolan Show regularly that’s probably inevitable.

But where are the mainstream voices articulating the unionist position? The equivalent of someone like Tom Kelly who while a nationalist is neither strident nor unreasonable in his Irish News column. They are not to be found and that needs to change.

As it stands those who are presented as “unionist commentators” do not comment on behalf of unionists or even articulate a unionist position or make a case for unionism or the union. They are employed as “Protestants” not as unionists. Almost exclusively they talk ABOUT unionists in the third person and articulate what they are doing wrong. That’s how “unionists” get published. Who is articulating the fact that the vast majority of us have no objection to Casement Park being redeveloped to a high standard in the face of baseless claims that there is a sectarian campaign against it. No one. That’s who. Is that because no one wants to do so or no one is capable of doing so? I doubt it. But its easier to just fall back on the lazy, comfortable cliches and tropes.

So if – as I’m sure most of us hope – we are entering a new period of hopefully prolonged political stability its time we had a much wider range of voices heard reflecting that reality. Who knows, they might even get read.


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