AN extraordinary upping of the ante this week by the increasingly erratic and ludicrous Loyalist Communities Council was doubtless aimed at putting pressure on the new leaders of the DUP and the UUP as they survey the political landscape and decide down what road they want to lead their beleaguered parties.
THE two new leaders of Unionism face very difficult and very different challenges as they face into the job of defending a union which in its centenary year has never appeared more fragile and threatened. For DUP leader Edwin Poots it is quite simply a job of addressing the catastrophe of the party’s EU stance, as the DUP’s decision to pursue a hard Brexit is the crumbling rock on which partition is now based. The outgoing Arlene Foster was undone by a convergence of circumstances, but the beginning of the end came back in January when she briefly decided to face up to the inevitable and recognise what she termed “the gateway of opportunity” that was the Protocol. She was right, of course. The best-of-both-worlds deal has the possibility to be the economy-lifting, morale-boosting gift that partition so badly needs in its 100th year. But spooked by increasing opposition to the Irish Sea border and a poll that suggested that the DUP is facing an existential crisis, she did a tyre-smoking handbrake-turn which did for what remained of her credibility. After that, the end was inevitable, and the speed and brutality of the coup staged by her colleagues was painful to behold. In her increasingly desperate attempts to bolster her position, Mrs Foster painted the DUP into the corner in which her successor now finds himself. For the leading Unionist party there is one priority: Get rid of the Protocol. Mrs Foster’s increasingly uncompromising rhetoric in her final weeks and months has left no ambiguity or nuance that Mr Poots and his new team at the top can exploit. It is all or nothing. If the customs posts at Belfast and Larne are still in place by next May’s Assembly election, wipe-out is a very distinct possibility. Mr Poots may have drawn some comfort from the tough talk this week of the UK’s former lead Brexit negotiator David Frost. But Mr Frost’s words have more than a faint air of the ridiculously desperate about them and even if the British succeed in winning significant customs checks mitigations, the chances of the border being moved entirely are vanishingly small. In the end, a man who’s not renowned for fancy talk may only be saved by some smart wordplay. Mr Poots has an entire year to recalibrate Unionist expectations while simultaneously lowering the volume on the doom-mongering. But will he do it? Meanwhile, new UUP leader Doug Beattie’s coronation was as unremarkable as the reign of the man he replaces, Steve Aiken. The Protocol is not an albatross around the UUP’s neck, although it could become a problem for the party if Mr Beattie makes policy with one eye on the DUP.
THE DUP leadership contest will take place on May 14 and in just over a week we’ll find out who’s going to be leading unionism through what’s likely to be one of the most tumultuous periods for the union since partition. The conversation about a new Ireland has not only begun – despite the Trojan efforts of the DUP and the UUP to strangle it – but it is hotting up with every day that passes. And while that observable fact in a sane place would lead unionism finally to consider how best to dial down the rhetoric and stop the haemorrhaging of voters which its continued grey conservatism is driving, it appears that the opposite has happened. While there has been deep discontent within the party over Arlene Foster’s leadership for some time, the Protocol debacle has deepened the discontent, and it was extremely telling that the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mrs Foster’s decision to abstain on an Assembly vote on banning gay conversion therapy. The fact that that was the trigger – even if it was some way down the list of the plotters’ leadership grievances – was a symbolic gesture, if you like, by the reactionary forces within the party who instigated the drawing up of the letter and the ultimate resignation of Mrs Foster. But while the heave against Mrs Foster was clearly led by elements in the party favouring the leadership of Edwin Poots – a decidedly dour and uncharismatic religious fundamentalist – the tortured politics of the party mean that a victory for Jeffrey Donaldson could not be in any way be described as a victory for moderates. Because while the Stormont and Westminster arithmetic is nowhere near being settled and the battle has only begun, Mr Donaldson has been endorsed by some of the most controversial, regressive and confrontational figures among his MP colleagues. Early speculation that the process of appointing a new leader was going to be a Poots coronation instead of a competition have dissolved as it became clear that the brash and confident thrust against Foster was most likely a bluff and/or a gamble. Because it’s clear that reports that Poots had a strong majority of MLAs behind him were in fact largely baseless. As the days after Mrs Foster’s dramatic step-down passed, it became clear that there was no rush to declare for Poots, especially when it emerged that Mr Donaldson was going to throw his hat in the ring. Beyond the leadership election, the new leader will face a difficult choice as head of a party for whom one issue now towers above all others: the Protocol. Should he call a snap Stormont election, or should he continue on until next May in the increasingly threadbare hope that the Protocol can be ditched? Both options present huge risks. A quick election could see the DUP capitalise on unionist Protocol anger – but equally it could see them badly punished for helping to put it in place. Whatever happens, Jim Allister is ready to go on the offensive. And the prospect of that battle is not something that fills those of us hoping for progress with optimism.
There is an old Belfast joke with the punchline, "Yes, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?"
THEY say the future belongs to those who can imagine it. If that’s the case, then the diverse future being imagined right here, right now, has the potential to be very bright for Belfast. That’s because across progessive Belfast neighbourhoods, diversity is being championed and the ‘New Irish’ welcomed.Nowhere is that truer than in the west of the city. Indeed, it’s no accident that so many Syrian refugees have made their home in West Belfast for they know that there their suffering is understood, their faith respected and their heritage held in high regard.
THE ruling by the Public Prosecution Service that no charges are to brought against any of the senior Sinn Féin members who attended the funeral of Bobby Storey last June has prompted an entirely predictable wave of fury and indignation from the party’s political opponents.
THE depressing sight of a Michael Stone flag outside Holy Cross Girls’ Primary School is a grim reminder of the landmark blockade of 20 years ago, which we hoped represented a low water mark for base sectarianism in the North. But the decision by Ardoyne loyalists to put up a picture of a serial killer of Catholics outside a Catholic school – later put right by wiser local heads – is the latest reminder of the turmoil that unionism finds itself in at present. And it is absolutely no coincidence that this shocking hate crime took place after a period in which the main unionist parties have been ramping up confusion and tension in their shambolic campaign to have the Irish Sea border removed. The decision of the DUP to meet the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), which includes the UDA and the UVF, both of whom are up to their necks in drug-dealing and violent crime, significantly raised the political temperature and it sent out a message to the unionist community; and that message – coming so soon after the LCC stated that physical violence to remove the Protocol was being considered – was that things have progressed beyond the political. It’s a horribly regressive and ultimately self-defeating strategy and another perfect example of unionism’s utter failure to connect, to learn, to listen, to consider. The gathering pace of the debate on a united Ireland can only be further hastened when it’s clear from incidents like this that the sectarian hatred and violence which marked the early years of partition have never gone away.
POLICING the pandemic is a thankless task. If the PSNI opt for a light-touch approach to breaches of regulations they’re accused of two-tier or political policing; if they adopt a robust strategy to public breaches, they’re accused of being heavy-handed.
THERE’S cause for guarded optimism as Covid infection rates continue on a downward trend. But there’s also cause for optimism in how the Executive is taking necessarily cautious steps forward in response to the changing environment. Unanimity on the decision to allow pupils in years P4 to P7 to return to class next Monday will be welcomed by a public exhausted not just by the pandemic and the lockdown, but by the frequent failures of the Stormont institutions to display the unity of purpose that these extraordinary times demand. It has also been agreed to allow all other schools to reopen a week after Easter in a move that will, of course, be continent on ongoing reviews of the pandemic status.We can only hope that this outbreak of common sense will be the norm from here on on and that those who last month were loudly demanding an immediate return to school will have learned that just because London decides something is a good idea does not mean that Belfast needs to follow.
THE MOMENTUM towards a border poll has in the past fortnight been building at a dizzying pace that must have surprised even the most optimistic united Irelanders and dismayed even the most pessimistic defenders of the union.
AS we speed towards the first anniversary of the Covid pandemic, we look back and we see that countless mistakes have been made, countless missteps taken and countless chances missed.
IT’S no surprise that our hospitals are struggling to cope after the Christmas relaxation of Covid restrictions which just about everybody knew would see us arrive at this point. There are signs that the seriousness of the current position is starting to hit home in places that matter, with an increasing number of supermarkets either putting in place stricter mask-compliance protocols, restricting the number of people allowed in-store, or both.Despite the fact that we are at the most critical period thus far in a pandemic which is heading rapidly towards its first anniversary, there are encouraging signs that the R infection rate – recently as high as 1.8 – is beginning to head in the right direction. And with the schools closed, a stricter lockdown in place and no potentially problematic bank holidays or feast days in prospect until St Valentine’s Day in a month’s time, there’s now a chance for a clear run at the pandemic that could represent the biggest chance for advance in the past ten months. And this is where police enforcement – or lack of it – is going to play a crucial role. The First Minister and deputy First Minister put on a welcome show of unity on Tuesday in Dungannon, after which they met PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to discuss the police’s role in the crucial fortnight to come. Quite simply, while the vast majority of us can be trusted to show the community spirit required to keep ourselves, our families, friends and neighbours as safe as possible, we’ve all seen with our own eyes that there is a worryingly significant minority out there who believe their right to exercise personal choice when it comes to masks, travel and distancing trumps their responsibility to those around them. And if these people continue to flaunt the regulations then they have to be dealt with in an increasingly robust way. The amount of discretion being handed to individual police officers is huge and we will inevitably see anomalies and discrepancies in how people are dealt with, how confrontations are handled. Which is why it is vital that the PSNI keeps a close eye on the situation on the ground and improves on instances of good practice while working hard to learn from examples of bad practice. Also in the diary of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill is a round-table meeting with representatives of the retail sector at which they say they will reinforce the need to “comply with the spirit and letter of the agreement”. While the large supermarkets, which have seen sales soar during the pandemic, can afford to put Covid ‘stewards’ on the shop floor, smaller retailers can’t. And it would be a travesty if retail workers – many of them on the minimum wage – were required to act as security staff on top of their existing duties. It seems that every week we are on the edge of the precipice, but that is the nature of a pandemic: disaster is just a step away, as is redemption. The decision on what step to take is entirely in our own hands. Let’s make the right choice.
THE deeply unsatisfactory compromise arrived at last Friday on Covid restrictions must qualify as one of the shortest distances a can has ever been kicked down any road. Even before the rancour has subsided, even as the blame is still being angrily apportioned, we are back at the point where another agreement must be reached, another deadline met. If anyone thought or hoped that the DUP would be chastened by an outraged public response to their decision to deploy a veto twice to block an agreement on restrictions by the other four parties, they were to be disappointed. Party leader Arlene Foster on Tuesday said she hoped that a decision on restrictions could be arrived at by Friday in a “collaborative, collegiate way” but refused to rule out the use of the veto mechanism for a third time. Last week four out of the five parties agreed to a restrictions template put forward by Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Health Minister Robin Swann; the DUP alone objected. It appears that unfortunately Mrs Foster is under the impression that a “collaborative and collegiate” process is the same as a unanimous one, which it is not.
IN the end, for the DUP it all comes down to religion. It always has and – sad to report – it seems now that it always will. It takes a man whose politics have been forged in the hot-gospel furnace of fundamental Protestantism to come out in the middle of a raging pandemic and reduce a lethally complex combination of virology, epidemiology, psychology, geography, politics and class to a question of Protestant and Catholic. And Minister of Agriculture Edwin Poots, who has spent some four decades embroiled in one controversy after another, is just that kind of man. His inflammatory intervention just days after a tightening of restrictions was announced by the Executive on which he sits was bad enough. Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Talkback hours before the new restrictions took effect, Mr Poots said he and his Executive colleagues had opposed many of the new rules but were outnumbered. The damage this will cause in terms of non-compliance – particularly among the unionist community Mr Poots was addressing – will be measured in coming weeks, and it will be measured in lives. As if that sectarian dumping of the concept of corporate responsiblity was not bad enough, Mr Poots poured aviation fuel on the blaze when he later told UTV that there’s a difference in terms of Covid between nationalist and unionist areas – and the difference is around six to one. In case that dog whistle wasn’t loud enough, Mr Poots went on to clarify that he was referring to Catholics when he attempted to play down the seriousness of his remarks by claiming senior Sinn Féin politicians don’t go to Mass. The gravity of what this extraordinary series of outbursts means in terms of how we cope with the Covid pandemic cannot be underestimated. Mr Poots was effectively telling the unionist community – at perhaps the most crucial time in the eight-month crisis – that they don’t face the same risks as nationalists. Mr Poots referenced the Bobby Storey funeral while trying to rationalise his bitter drivel, but there was no spike in the weeks following that funeral. Will he point the finger at himself in the event of a spike in two or three weeks time? Depressingly, Mr Poots’ intervention – rejected out of hand by Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride – would have been tainted in any case by his disastrous spell as Health Minister and by the fact the he is a Young Earther. To be clear, the man who has reduced the Covid pandemic to a question of what church you worship in believes that the planet is around 5,000 years old and that Moses parted the Red Sea. Meanwhile, First Minister Arlene Foster, who shot out of the traps to slap down Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín over Irish League football, has remained utterly silent over the shameful episode. Her now infamous ‘crocodiles’ outburst re the Irish language resonates to this day. Now a DUP dinosaur has handed her a chance to prove that she’s learned a lesson – and it’s crystal clear that she has not.
MIXED feelings among parents this week as schoolchildren returned to the classroom five months after schools closed in response to Covid-19.