AND new(ish) Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie had been making such good progress. A camóg in the party political broadcast, Irish dancing at the UUP annual conference, positive noises on the need for inclusion, respect and equality.
Then the Sinn-Féin-in-the-First-Minister-chair question came up and it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped.
New(ish) DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had been asked the same question and refused to answer whether he would serve under (actually alongside, since it’s a joint office) a Sinn Féin First Minister. That’s not surprising for the DUP, particularly since the man formerly considered to be a relative moderate in the party has decided that reviving the party’s fortunes lies in fighting vacuous culture and identity war battles and talking tough on the Protocol.
Doug had struck out on a different path, however, or so we were led to believe. But the first time he was asked to make good on his promise of a new kind of UUP politics, he failed miserably. Why he and his lieutenants refuse to say they’ll accept a Sinn Féin First Minister only they can truthfully say, although we all have our own thoughts on the matter. He can and does argue that it’s a hypothetical question and that he’s going all out for the First Minister post himself, but when the First Minister issue has brought his encouraging start as a self-declared progressive and a reformer to a screeching halt, when the uncertainty has cast a cloud over his plan to improve the party’s fortunes by providing a warm house for moderates and even non-unionists, then the refusal to come clean can only be seen as a very significant error.
Is Mr Beattie afraid of being ‘Lundied’ by the DUP and the TUV? Perhaps, although his positive words and actions up to recently had already opened him up to that familiar possibility. Or is there a mindset altogether more traditionally grim and depressing behind a unionist leader refusing to say that he’ll respect a Sinn Féin First Minister if that’s what the election brings? That’s the fear – and it’s a fear that Mr Beattie and his party have done nothing to assuage.
With clanging inevitability, the unionist refusal to respect the most basic laws of electoral democracy have led to calls for the legislation to be changed and the First and deputy First Minister to be made equals – in name as well as in practice. No big deal, the argument goes, it would get us over this bump in the road and nothing of substance will have changed.
Except that unionism will have been rewarded for its refusal to acknowledge the equality of the ballot box and rewarding political parties for such supremacist arrogance will do nothing but store up huge problems for the future.
The time may come when the office becomes equal in name and effect, but that time is not now. If Sinn Féin does gain the First Minister post (and that is not a given) they must be allowed to take it and unionists must take what the election gives them. Otherwise, what’s the point of Stormont?