By Jude Collins (for the Irish Herald)
Sometimes a politician says something and an issue that’s been swirling around in the public consciousness suddenly takes on a clear, sharp form. Senior Tory William Hague did that last week. Here’s what he said:
“Imagine the message that would be sent around the world if, in time, the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary, the Environment Secretary or even the Prime Minister in a UK Government sat for a constituency in Northern Ireland. There would be no better way of saying that the semi-detached status of Northern Ireland had come to an end.”
At the time, Hague was struggling to make people in the north of Ireland forget what his party leader had said a few days earlier. David Cameron had been asked ‘Where are you going to make all these savings you talk about?’ and he’d said ooh well, let’s start with Northern Ireland, far too many public sector jobs, room for massive savings there.
Cameron’s statement sent a tremor through the population here, where everyone knows that one in three workers is employed in the public sector and that this arrangement goes a long way to propping up the state. But if the population trembled, the Ulster Unionist Party just about fell to the floor and lay there twitching. When you’ve been campaigning as one unit - The Conservative and Unionist New Force - the last thing you need is for your partner to kick you in your soft electoral parts.
But while Cameron’s statement was deeply painful for the Ulster Unionists, Hague’s response was worse, because it brought into sharp focus what nationalists have always known and what unionists try not to think about. That is, that the natural position of the British towards everyone in the north of Ireland - unionists included - is to be deeply patronising. There’s something undignified about living on massive hand-outs from Britain (8 billion pounds a year at the last count), but there’s something unbearable about being patted on the head and told that if you’re very very good then one day - ONE DAY - you may even get invited to join our gang, be part of our INNER CIRCLE!
Even a unionist as forelock-tugging as Reg Empey must realise that if he’s going to preserve a shred of self-respect, he must break free from the Tories’ clammy embrace. What does it benefit a politician even were he to win South Antrim, if he loses his political soul?
Meanwhile, as the Westminster election enters its final few days, some politicians and a lot of media pundits are wringing their hands and moaning loudly about what they call the ‘sectarian headcount’. ‘How awful!’ the SDLP leader Maggie Ritchie cries. ‘I can’t possibly go into an electoral pact with Sinn Fein in Fermanagh/South Tyrone - that would be opting for a sectarian headcount’. Even when Sinn Fein withdrew their candidate in South Belfast to give the SDLP a decent chance of retaining that seat, Maggie said No, no, no, we must concentrate on bread-and-butter issues in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, otherwise it’s just a sectarian headcount.
Eh? Did I hear aright? Being concerned about the constitutional question means you’re sectarian? Oh, come ON, Maggie. Some of us can pee and whistle at the same time, and some of us can be concerned about bread-and-butter issues AND about the running of our country’s north-eastern corner by Britain.
Some people here - people who probably won’t vote on May 6 - think the whole election is a cod. ‘What does it matter who’s elected to Westminster?’ they ask. A fair point. We have our own devolved Assembly at Stormont, we have our own Policing and Justice Minister, all parties are agreed that we need more powers, especially taxation, transferred from London to Belfast. Sending MPs from here to Westminster often seems futile. One of the most depressing sights in British politics is the House of Commons chamber when a north of Ireland issue is under discussion. The camera scans empty seats; British MPs don’t really give a damn about the paddies.
But it’s still important who we elect to Westminster. If history has taught us anything, it’s that unionism won’t budge except it finds that sitting tight is more uncomfortable than shifting. Would civil rights legislation have been enacted if there hadn’t been a massive street campaign? Would the B Specials, the UDR, the RUC have been disbanded if there hadn’t been sustained pressure from a united front of nationalists? Would Ian Paisley have opted for power-sharing with Sinn Fein, had he not been faced with the even-less-palatable prospect of joint rule by Dublin and London? The moment republicanism/nationalism looks as though it’s lost its drive and energy, that’s the point at which, as sure as night follows day, unionism will seek to backtrack on the progress that’s been made here. At which point cue a massive surge in support for violent dissidents.
When David Cameron said ‘Let’s slash Northern Ireland spending’ and when William Hague said ‘Be good and some day we’ll let you sit with us’, they clarified how British Tories see the Irish. When Maggie Ritchie cried ‘Sectarian head-count!’, she clarified that on her party’s list of priorities, Irish nationalism is lucky to be included as last item.