Lucius Winslow is an MA Politics student at Queen’s University Belfast, who takes an intensive interest in his subject. In his spare time he writes creatively. Follow Lucius on twitter: @Lucius_Winslow
Despite being teetotal I am a tremendous fan of pubs. Last week I had cause to exercise this affection, and had dinner with an old school friend, now residing in London – as everyone seems to these days.
At one point he mused that ‘Sinn Fein has a plan. The unionists don’t have a plan.’ I wasn’t sure I agreed with this point on the Sinners, but he’s certainly right about the unionists. To everyone it is fairly clear that they stumble from point to point, in a seemingly relentless pattern of giving ground, standing and fighting, and then giving ground. And all the time the demography of Northern Ireland seems to indicate a dangerous advance.
Compare this to Sinn Fein and the republicans. They seem to be a well-oiled machine, constantly moving forward, the end-goal of a united yet little-populated and impotent island on the edge of Europe soon at hand.
In fact this isn’t the case. Much unionist retreat has been tactical; with admittedly fewer cohorts to command, they have had to surrender a few valued defences. But, to extend the metaphor, courtesy of the constitutional amendments Northern Ireland has seen, Sinn Fein has in fact marched itself into a salient, where further advancement will be exceedingly difficult.
This martial language is of course appropriate given militant republicanisms ‘war’ on Great Britain. It cannot be said too often that Sinn Fein’s primary strategy was to bomb Britain out of Ulster, and in that they comprehensively failed.
To the extent that they have a comprehensive ‘plan’ it is vague: keep chipping away at unionist symbols and unionist values, until there is nothing left to demolish. This new strategy has born fruit, as Belfast City Hall and the Londonderry Guildhall will illustrate.
However these little chips come at a cost. Each one serves to antagonise unionism just that little bit more, and what is notable is the re-alienation of moderate unionism, which led to the supremacy of the DUP, and the temporary collapse of Stormont. Eventually one of these actions will generate such a unionist response as to cause a halt to the others, at least for a while.
At first I thought it was indeed the flag protests that would do it. I don’t think Sinn Fein, or anybody else for that matter, were prepared for the level of resistance that decision would bring about, and served – or rather, should have served – as a powerful warning that unionist patience was wearing very, very thin.
But the republicans wouldn’t, perhaps psychologically couldn’t, stop trying to push the boundaries. This summer played host to the frankly shameful republican parade through Castlederg. They claim to want to move on, but they openly celebrate the memories of murderers.
And that could well be the thing which has snapped the unionist elastic band. I was utterly delighted when Peter Robinson put an end to the Maze scheme. In addition to being deeply offensive, it would also have been a white elephant that nobody would ever actually have gone to see.
But the timing of the decision, and the not-particularly-subtle slap down of Sinn Fein was significant, as was the evident rage of the Deputy First Minister. It suggests that the unionist establishment is once again inline with the more conservative instincts of unionist voters.
And perhaps, just perhaps, the decision will teach nationalists what the Rolling Stones have long known: that you can’t always get what you want.
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