The shock suggestion from First Minister Peter Robinson that he would bail from the ship of state rather than see the prison service stripped of its one-community symbols will disappoint all those who believe in a shared future for our people.
First Minister Robinson’s threat came in response to an intervention from that arch-opponent of the peace process, Jim Allister, and served only to give the TUV man a credibility and audience he doesn’t deserve. While Mr Allister is a lone, anti-peace process voice in Stormont, it’s clear that his constant clamouring for a return to our failed past unsettles the DUP.
Until now, however, the DUP’s nerve at leadership level has held. Indeed, their refusal to pander to Mr Allister’s zero-sum brand of unionism was vindicated by this year’s Assembly and Council elections which saw the TUV (and the UUP) routed.
It’s difficult to see, therefore, why the DUP leader would threaten to walk if our long-discredited and dysfunctional prison service was to lose its unionist insignia as part of its long-overdue modernisation.
After all, the very basis of the Good Friday Agreement is parity of esteem for both traditions. And while there has been some unionist tinkering around the edges in that respect (the Union Flag still flies over Stormont for a set number of days per annum in contravention of the spirit of that Agreement) there has been no real push by the DUP to make symbols a deal-breaker.
What has precipitated this extreme reaction from Peter Robinson?
Only he can answer that question but it’s interesting that it comes in the wake of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’ bid for the Irish Presidency.
That electoral intervention awoke many ghosts of the past and precipitated a blizzard of republican condemnation from the mainstream media in the South.
In many ways, the debates in the southern media were reminiscent of the early, bitter days of the peace process in the North before that historic compromise on Good Friday 1998.
One wonders, therefore, if the First Minster’s extreme reaction to the modest proposal from Justice Minister David Ford that the issue of emblems and symbols in the Prison Service “be considered” has been influenced by the unpicking of the peace by Southern political and media leaders.
If so then the real losers in the Presidential election will not have been Michael D’s opponents but all those who painstakingly built the peace in the North.