Saturday 14 December 2019

Michael Kelly: 'DUP's swagger is gone but if North is to be run in best interests of all, the party must return to Stormont'

Left behind: DUP leader Arlene Foster’s party is expected to lose seats in the UK general election
Left behind: DUP leader Arlene Foster’s party is expected to lose seats in the UK general election
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Belfast's Lord Mayor John Finucane was left red-faced this week when he had to admit he was spoken to by the police after being caught short in the city during the summer.

Mr Finucane - who witnessed his father Pat's murder by loyalist paramilitaries when he was eight years old - is running for election to Westminster on December 12.

His critics are arguing that the revelation of his public urination, curiously emanating from a police source in the course of an election, means he is unfit for high office.

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In truth, while the behaviour is distasteful it's hardly the end of the world. The fact it is a story at all reflects the reality that it is a welcome distraction in a cripplingly dull election campaign in the North.

While Northern Ireland will be more affected by Brexit than any other region in these islands, the bigger contest between Boris and Jeremy is capturing all the attention in both Dublin and London.

That's a pity. And as a northerner living in Dublin, I do understand the fatigue that many people feel about the region, but the stability and prosperity of the North should be a cause of concern for everyone.

When I was growing up in Tyrone in the 1990s, there was a certain inevitability that the violence was just part of life.

Our lives were marked by the wastefulness of the conflict: every radio bulletin brought fresh news of carnage and destruction.

Then, almost out of the blue, the peace process happened. People like John Hume were always prophetic, but looking back now it's hard to remember just how lonely a voice he was in the midst of intractable intransigence.

It's a measure of the success of the peace process that we now take it for granted.

If anything, talk of Northern Ireland in the Republic is met with a combination of eyerolls and gentle shakes of the head. But come January it will be three years since the region has had a functioning government.

The UK election in the North is proving to be one of the most divisive in decades. The DUP - which found itself in the invidious position of supporting Brexit in the belief it would never happen - is on the backfoot.

Gone is the swagger that marked the confidence and supply deal to back the Tories in Westminster. The cold reality that it was sold as quickly as it was bought is setting in and the party will inevitably lose seats.

An unlikely anti-Brexit coalition of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Green Party has seen a wave of moves to stand a single candidate against the DUP.

For its part, Arlene Foster's party is protesting that it delivered for Northern Ireland with its deal with the Tories. But eaten bread is soon forgotten. And while there is huge opposition to Brexit, people know that it will go ahead and they want it to so do with the least amount of disruption possible.

They also know that for all the DUP boasts about the money it delivered to the North, without a functioning Government there can be no progress.

This election - while dominated by Brexit - is still very much an orange and green race.

And that suits the main players the DUP and Sinn Féin, because it deflects attention from their inability to cut a deal to open Stormont.

A poll released yesterday shows that, with two weeks out, the Conservative Party is on course to win a 68-seat majority in the House of Commons. Labour will lose seats and gains for the Liberal Democrats will be negligible.

If the polls are correct, Boris Johnson will bid the DUP an au revoir and London's newfound interest in unionism will vanish as quickly as it emerged.

When the dust settles, the Irish Government will have to act quickly and put pressure on London to bring the parties in the North to the talks table.

A newly humbled DUP, no longer drunk on the mirage of influence in London, should also see that it is in its interest to show that Northern Ireland can work. Brexit has deeply unsettled nationalists - it has made even Fine Gael start to talk seriously about the prospect of a united Ireland.

In the absence of Stormont, the DUP has found itself snookered trying to argue that the best future for the North is within the United Kingdom while people look with incredulity at the absence of a government amidst crises in health and education.

The truth is that the peace process created an environment where most people - nationalist and unionist - contented themselves with the status quo and the relative level of prosperity the absence of chaos created. Many people now see a reunified Ireland as inevitable. Billy Hutchison, a former UVF killer, warned fellow unionists this week that a Border poll is coming.

In embracing Brexit, the DUP has imperilled the union it claims to serve. The only thing that will calm passion for a united Ireland is an immediate return to and a functioning government.

It will not mean that nationalists will suddenly become British, but it will reassure them the region can be run in the best interests of everyone.

It will also show a prosperous and thriving Northern Ireland can be a stepping stone that they can use to convince unionists that joining in the creation of a new Ireland can sow the seeds of a brighter future for everyone.

Irish Independent

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