There is much to admire about the United States of America. The dollar dictatorship of US politician Richard Neal, Chairman of the Friends of Ireland, is not one of them.
Apart from his persistent but poorly informed belief that the United States is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, his approach to the internal politics of Northern Ireland exemplifies denial of the historical stains of armalite politics; a circular exchange of ideas with those sharing similar sentiment and a synthesis of the mostly republican ‘England get out of Ireland’ credo.
Embracing the strains of ‘Ireland Unfree’ may garner support from within the traditional ‘Anglophobe’ constituency in Massachusetts but is not a solid foundation for meaningful or transformative discourse with those who aspire to a different future.
However, anyone who has spent time in the USA recently or has relatives residing there will know that whilst politicians like Richard Neal and Speaker of the House, Nancy Explosi, as some have taken to naming her, hold influential positions in Washington, the vast majority of Americans invest limited interest and time into the politics of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
There are too many other pressing issues which US society prioritises and the faux offended response of Unionism to the clumsy politicking of Richard Neal serves only to afford the Irish Caucus too great an importance.
When it comes to visits by politicians, they are in the long term a sideshow with lasting solutions to our problems resting in our own hands. This is no truer than in the case of political unionism currently under the leadership of the DUP.
Having got rid of political liabilities, like former MLA Jim Wells, the DUP personifies the truism that you cannot stop a ship sinking by tossing baggage overboard; you merely slow the speed at which you go under.
Political Unionism will in all likelihood reject the suggestion but a growing number of those who are pro-Union are beginning to question if Unionist parties are the most effective means and Unionism the best term through which to promote the Union.
The election results don’t lie and, in its response, Unionism is lending weight to the charge that it is not designed for democracy.
As if in a tag-team partnership with Sinn Féin, replicating opportunistic stand-off tactics designed to sustain diminishing influence is serving only to deepen the growing toxicity and antipathy which evidence shows, is growing within Unionism and the wider community
It presents as a race to the bottom, discredits Stormont and is destructive of citizenship and the values to which, at its best, Unionism should aspire.
Turning every political issue into a proxy constitutional battle is running out of road. Along with rutted confrontational politics which prevent decision-making and impede the transition out of post-pandemic and global social economic chaos, it leaves the promise of the Good Friday Agreement unfulfilled.
It sees Unionism bending to a binary orthodoxy to create a contradiction in terms.
As a result, no less than political parties which in the past stalled politics over the Irish Language, in prolonging its ‘leverage’ on the problems arising from the Ireland/ Northern Ireland Protocol, the DUP is cherry-picking the Agreement process to block rather than embed its core purpose and principles.
Urgent review and re-assessment of current strategy is an imperative if confidence in the current political structures is to be restored and devolved decision-making mobilised to meet the challenges that confront the community.
Substantive socio-economic, health and educational outcomes will do more in the long-term for ‘consent’ and acceptance of a constitutional status quo, than lightweight populism with a short shelf-life.
The alternative cannot be a smallness in vision for nostalgic Unionism that seems to come from within; that seeks to appeal only to a narrow constituency which time and distance from the worst years of 30 plus years of conflict is eroding.
The leverage which the DUP feels it has is building to a point of over-reach. The United Kingdom is unlikely to risk a trade war with the EU. The Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has stated that an amended Ireland/NI Protocol will remain.
The EU is sending signals of a willingness to table and discuss amendments that can, if sensible, deliver proportionality within a newly agreed Protocol.
Whilst some businesses find the Protocol cumbersome and having a negative impact on commerce, others are benefitting. The aim, for now, must be to achieve unfettered trade within the internal market as well as the Single Market, so that the economy of Northern Ireland grows faster than now and brings financial and political stability.
It is the nature of the processes that flow from Brexit and the Protocol that there will be further issues which emerge as ‘grace periods’ end, new rules emerge within the EU and trade deals are agreed by the United Kingdom.
VAT arrangements and the subsidies will be challenging but there are opportunities within the Good Friday Agreement as yet, for some reason, not yet fully explored which may offer solutions.
This situation is one which many in the pro-Union foresaw but the DUP and other political Unionists chose to ignore. In so doing, they risked the balance within the Good Friday Agreement and the stability of the Union.
The current impasse points to a lesson ‘unlearned.’
Observers in Great Britain look at the heavily funded political stagnation and, whilst professing some understanding of the difficulties which Unionism has with the EU-designed Protocol, are less likely to identify with the refusal of the DUP to facilitate the kick-start of devolved governance, now that all sides acknowledge the need for significant alterations to an ill-conceived agreement.
This grows a gap already apparent in attitudes to social justice issues which may in the long term prove more of a threat than an amended Irish Sea regulatory trading zone.
Within Northern Ireland there are those who do not identify as pro-Union or Unionists. They are content with the constitutional status quo for now but grow uneasy with the contribution which political Unionism too often makes to framing decision-making along tribal and sectarian lines instead of addressing everyday issues.
The Union is not solely about territory it is about hearts and minds, well-being, dynamic and inclusive governance.
In forgetting this, present tactics may ensure that in seeking to save the Union, political Unionism destroys it.
The passing visit by an American politician will be the least it has to worry about.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.