TO paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, change happens slowly and then all at once. Again and again in the past century we’ve seen long decades of geopolitical orthodoxies blown away with bewildering speed. From the Soviet Union to Germany to the Balkans, the gradual and inevitable move towards change and away from imposed and unsustainable polities, states and statelets became at the end a frantic and irresistible rush.
In these six counties the momentum towards a new dispensation has moved at a glacial pace for 90 per cent of our troubled history, but political, social and demographic change has seen the volume of voices clamouring to be heard rise dramatically in volume. Inevitable and organic change was given a massive shot of steroids by the catastrophic decision by English Tories to pursue a Brexit which, just seven years after the Leave vote, has turned their country into a global laughing stock and left one part of the United Kingdom in an EU single market limbo which the majority see as a grim necessity, but which unionists see as an existential threat to their ‘precious union’.
That this threat was facilitated by the same people who are now screaming loudest about it may be an irony lost on leading unionists, but it is a reality that played a massive part in persuading many up until recently satisfied with the status quo to start thinking that better is possible.
A recent blog by Alliance grandee Lord Alderdice is just one of many straws in the increasingly blustery wind that is filling the sails of the Good Ship New Ireland, but the former party leader and Assembly Speaker is perhaps as close as a representation as it’s possible to conceive of the kind of person that needs to be won over if a century of endless division is finally to be given the massive reboot that it cries out for.
Titled ‘It’s all over bar the shoutin’, the piece should and must be read by unionists of goodwill who are willing to face up to unavoidable realities rather than retreat into ever smaller spaces while shouting ‘No surrender!’ and ‘Unionist unity!’ Lord Alderdice writes that unionism failed to grab the opportunities offered to them by the Good Friday Agreement and that they failed to treat nationalism with the respect that they’re now demanding for themselves after their relegation to minority. That’s a familiar and inarguable point made often by SDLP and Sinn Féin figures, but that it’s now being made with considerable robustness by a quintessentially establishment figure should have unionists pulling at their collars.
But it’s his thoughts on joint authority that have grabbed the headlines. His analysis of the likely structure and direction of direct rule in the (increasingly unlikely) event that DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson refuses to return to Stormont is compelling. And he’s right – the spiralling fortunes of Sinn Féin North and South, allied with widespread apathy about the North in GB, mean the game is afoot.