Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”
— Alfred North Whitehead
Well, it was a brave decision from Doug Beattie to pull out of the anti protocol protests. Brave in both senses of the word as it has come to be commonly used, ie courageous and maybe a little foolish.
“It is now clear that anti-protocol rallies are being used to raise the temperature in Northern Ireland and adding to tensions that now see a resurgence in UVF activity” says @BeattieDoug. Significant cracks appearing tonight in unionism and how it fights the protocol pic.twitter.com/g4ORPJ33me
— Gareth Gordon (@BBCGarethG) March 27, 2022
No one likes to get too far removed from where the pack is. That’s may be one explanation for Colum Eastwood’s rather predictable and lacklustre speech in Bellaghy at the weekend.
His guns were firmly pointed at the DUP (who sit on virtually no votes that the SDLP is ever likely to see transfer to them) rather than the frailty and poor record in government of their main nationalist rivals.
Clearly Beattie is prepared to crack home delft to make his point that confrontation is not working for him, his party or unionism in general. The Rubicon being the bomb scare on Friday in North Belfast.
The action was aimed at the Irish Foreign Minister. Ironically under the direction of a new FF Taoiseach Simon Coveney has been trying to get the flaws the protocol fixed (and is, by some accounts, succeeding).
The whole incident shows up the flaws in the sort of populism that is all too easy to slip into when the barrier to getting banner headlines in a local newspaper can be as low as a random tweet.
Under Varadkar, Coveney garnered to himself a reputation as something of a wrecker amongst many unionists. It’s a reputation that’s stuck to him despite Micheál Martin’s clear shift to a pluralist game play.
It’s not helpful for anyone that there is virtually no news in the public domain on where the negotiations are ahead of the Assembly elections. To a large degree it’s this vacuum that’s encouraging the unrest.
In the circumstances, it makes sense for the only unionist party capable of attracting the growing centrist vote back into the wider camp to move towards that Brexit sceptical centre ground.
However, width is a question that hangs over both major designations. Nearly ten years ago in late 2012, in the middle of the flag protest, I wrote:
What’s required is the emergence substantive political actors who are committed not to being in the middle, but who are capable of acting decisively through the middle.
In short we need inveterate deal makers who can do deals that stick and who are obsessed with more than covering up for the failures and misadventures of the past, but are instead committed to enlarging the shadow of the future.
Nothing has changed in this regard. The protocol needs fixing. Unionism certainly got that right. It doesn’t stand well to nationalism that only the Taoiseach not only appreciated that but is acting upon it.
It’s easy to say (with considerable justification) it was the unionist parties who now find themselves out on a limb who insisted on a Brexit whose outcome they could never control who landed us in this mess.
But it betokens a lack of central philosophy within northern nationalism that it has had to revert to the son of Cork busman to provide a deft technocratic fix to a problem they barely publicly acknowledge.
I’m not privy to Doug Beattie’s thinking, nor can I offer an informed view of whether he will prosper or suffer at the polls. Maybe the STV system will deliver him a greater number of transfers than in 2017?
The question is how to be flexible, chilled but principled enough to gain the trust of those you need, not just to come out a vote for you in a broad election, but to gain enough strength to change the game.
The one bright patch in Eastwood’s speech came just after he praised Robin Swann (to loud cheers from the floor) in which he pointed out the only way to a united island was through partnership at Stormont.
It was true, but it’s a truth that needs building upon by parties capable of acting decisively through the middle. Rather than being endlessly committed to beggaring thy neighbour by beggaring yourself.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty