A crazy race to the bottom for unionism

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It’s amazing that anything about the peace process is still amazing. You’d have thought we’d have heard it all but no, we’re still being amazed.

It’s amazing that anything about the peace process is still amazing. You’d have thought we’d have heard it all but no, we’re still being amazed.

Last week on the BBC’s Spotlight we had TV exchanges as dreary as anything we’d heard in the last 50 years. Politicians from all five main parties were talking about talks about talks. For 12 long minutes they pressed all the buttons intended to impress their most committed supporters. The thing that was missing was any hint of goodwill or mutual respect. Sound familiar?

Joining the programme from London, Gregory Campbell seemed to find the contributions from those in Belfast highly amusing. Probably only a minority of viewers here in the North saw the joke. In fact, it was depressing. Meanwhile the number of people bothering to vote is steadily falling. More and more people are cynical about the whole political process. This is most pronounced amongst pro-union electors of the more moderate tendency. They used to be called the “garden centre Protestants”. The response by unionist politicians, instead of broadening their appeal to the middle ground of their increasingly stay-at-home voters is to shore up their core support.

So it is that the contest between Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionists and Peter Robinson’s DUP is a race to the bottom. On their way along the race track leading to the bottom, the parties are constantly trying to overtake each other on the right.

First, Mike Nesbitt nipped past at a corner. He stunned the DUP by taking a surprisingly tough line on the murder of Kevin McGuigan. The DUP at once set about getting back into pole position. First they appealed to the umpires. These appeals were rejected by the Assembly Business Committee who refused an adjournment and by Theresa Villiers who refused a suspension. So, no relief there then from the embarrassing perception that they were still behind. Pulling most of their ministers out of the executive allowed them to appear to draw just about level. Then Nesbitt got ahead again by taking a tough line on the talks agenda. Suddenly, it was time for another appeal to Umpire Villiers. This time Ms Villiers neither accepted nor rejected the appeal but issued a “holding statement”.

Of course, the problem for unionists is that the longer a race to the bottom goes on, it can only mean they will all lose. Only nationalists and republicans can benefit from an inter-unionist race which is so intense that leaders can’t see where the race is taking them. It’s also, in a sense, like the Gadarene swine in the bible, possessed by a legion of demons, racing each other to the edge of the cliff.

As an advocate for the re-unification of Ireland I can’t say I’m sorry about that. It’s just that it’s so startlingly stupid.

As I say, the peace process never ceases to amaze. When short term, tactics prevail over the strategic direction of travel, it’s breathtakingly dopey. “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” as Prometheus says in a Longfellow poem. (That’s Longfellow not the ‘long fellow,’ Eamon De Valera, of course.)

Nationalists, take heart.