By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
‘MAD, swivel-eyed loons’, was how one of David Cameron’s inner circle described Tory party activists in May 2013.
The remark was prompted by the furious reaction of Conservative party members to Cameron legislating for same-sex marriage. Cameron had to go on the defensive with apologetic emails assuring party members he was not out of touch with the party’s grassroots.
It’s been Ed Milliband’s turn over the last week desperately trying to convince people he ‘respects’ the views, or what he thinks are the views, of that peculiarly English species, white-van-man.
No-one could accuse the DUP of being at odds with the party’s grassroots.
There was a variety of the loon species in evidence at the party conference in La Mon, both the swivel-eyed and the common loon and the species was by no means confined to ordinary grassroots members. Interestingly they shared the same outrage about same-sex marriage and gay people in general as their fellow loons in the Conservative party. Sammy Wilson, the conference clown, couldn’t resist a reference to ‘fairy cakes’ in the course of his tired, entirely predictable and unfunny annual diatribe. His dig only elicited a few sniggers from the assembled loons.
However, while there are many similarities between the DUP and the cranks and buffoons David Cameron has to put up with, there are big differences too. While the Conservative leaders in their forties hold their local activists in contempt for being old, (average age over 60) and out of touch with the modern world, the DUP leadership is at one with its members in being old - and disconnected from the modern world.
Neither the leadership nor the party is representative of unionists as a whole. The predominance in the party of members of the sect that Ian Paisley founded, now a mere 10,000 of the north’s Protestants, means antediluvian dogma about creationism and homosexuality drive the party’s policy rather than any recognisable rational political philosophy. It’s no wonder unionist turnout in elections has been falling in direct proportion to the rise of the DUP until even more swivel-eyed loons were enticed out by the DUP’s rhetoric to vote for the TUV.
What the DUP also has in common with the Conservative party is its small membership. Nowadays people don’t join political parties. Less than 1 per cent of the population join. An even smaller minority take an active part as in filling envelopes, knocking doors, attending conferences. So what you heard at the weekend was the lesser spotted swivel-eyed loons in full cry: a repulsive noise.
What the noise did confirm sadly is that Sinn Fein does not have a partner in the north’s administration. Peter Robinson, even if he wanted to, can’t deliver anything and certainly not before the election next May. Speaking out of both sides of his mouth was confirmation of that truth. His inability to rein in the bigotry evident at the conference has kiboshed the current shambolic talks. What the conference proved to Sinn Fein is what they already know, namely that you can’t make a deal with the DUP because their word is worthless.
Since they clearly hold Sinn Fein and its voters, that is the overwhelming majority of northern nationalists, in contempt, they will walk away from any promise they made. They don’t regard them as equals. They reneged on the St Andrews agreement and most recently with the deal over the Maze when they broke the so-called Programme of Government they agreed.
Given the evidence of the last seven years does anyone believe the DUP is engaged sincerely in the current talks and that even if Cameron and Enda Kenny manage to twist their arms in December that they will adhere to anything they have promised? Does anyone believe that Robinson, fatally weakened after Paisley knifed him in his famous interview, could deliver anything he promised?
At bottom is the truth that Gerry Adams blurted out on Monday night. Unionism emerged in the 19th century as an attempt to avoid living on equal terms with the rest of the people on this island. So it remains. Equating Adams’s remarks about republican strategy with the denial of equal status to nationalists enunciated by the DUP is a category error. To answer Adams’s question, unionists are afraid of equality.