Unionist politicians can point to Sinn Féin to get away with anything – and they know it.
At the time of the Home Rule crisis in Ireland, the Herrenvolk mentality was prevalent. This was the idea that the Irish were an inferior race, incapable of governing themselves. Many considered it better for the wealthy Anglican landlords to govern instead.
This was present amongst much of the British public and many Protestants in Ireland at the time. This underpinned the description of the Liberal-IPP deal as a “corrupt bargain". People considered it illegitimate - “one Protestant shouldn't be equated to one Catholic”. This was at the core of Unionist rhetoric at the time.
Today, that xenophobia has been rhetorically supplanted. It is unnecessary - it's fair to assume modern unionists aren't xenophobes. That includes people who identify as Irish, or Catholics. In fact, many would be put off by such xenophobia.
Rather, the rhetorical weapon of choice is one where Sinn Féin is portrayed as a bogeyman. The embodiment of all evil. For mainstream Unionism, it seems everything links back to Sinn Féin. They claim all non-Unionist parties are part of a pan-nationalist front. They claim they follow along with Sinn Féin’s “agenda”. Of course, there is no such evidence for this.
Each Unionist party claims voting for them will ward off Sinn Féin. They say if you don’t vote for them, you are not doing enough to combat Sinn Féin. They say unless you back them, Sinn Féin will have a majority in the Assembly, and will appoint the First Minister.
Now, this is not an illegitimate or bigoted claim in itself. At least, not in the way the xenophobia behind the Herrenvolk mentality was. To claim it’s driven by sectarianism would be in bad faith. Unionist parties make it clear their distaste for Sinn Féin is because of its historic links to the IRA. In particular, they detest Sinn Féin’s apologism for the IRA’s armed campaign during the Troubles.
I am not a Sinn Féin supporter. I condemn terrorism and terrorists, including the Provisional IRA and its actions. Indeed, I condemn that Sinn Féin continues to act as an apologist for what was, and is, terrorism. Many victims of the Provisional IRA, and their families, are still around today.
With that clarified, we need to realise an important implication at play. Unionist politicians know that no matter how poor their politics, all they need say is “vote for us to keep Sinn Féin out”. With that, they will still win votes.
Indeed, they know this excuse can even be a redeeming factor in the face of scandal. We saw this with the DUP’s election campaign in May 2016. This was the “vote Arlene to stop Martin becoming First Minister” election. It followed a term where the DUP privately declared “the party comes first” amidst the Red Sky scandal.
This is a fact of the political conditions mainstream Unionism finds itself in. But for elements within mainstream Unionism to take advantage of this is wrong. I don’t doubt they are conscious of this. The existence of these conditions mean they likely have been exploited. And also that they likely are being exploited in some manner. And they will likely continue to be exploited until these conditions are remedied.
Not only is it unjust, it’s impractical. When people speak of lowest common denominator politics, this is often what they mean. It’s a kind of politics devoid of any positivity or even hope, and when it is the centrepiece of a campaign (which it often is) it says nothing about what those elements of unionism engaged in it actually have to offer us in positive terms. It is a dim, uninspiring pitch in favour of unionist politics and the Union.
The question is, how do we put a stop to this? The RHI scandal showed that Unionism, particularly the DUP, aren't invincible. While the DUP retained more seats than I would've liked, they lost Assembly seats for the first time. Moreover, they lost the ability to use the Petition of Concern for party purposes. They bounced back at Westminster three months later, but crucially, they weren’t invincible.
Fundamentally, if voters know there are elements of mainstream Unionism who think they can get away with poor politics or engaging in scandal, simply because they claim “they’re keeping Sinn Féin out”, they will raise their expectations. People don’t like being taken for granted.
The two major campaign points are: keeping Sinn Féin out, and preventing a Border Poll from happening. Both of these rest on myths. Namely, that the only way to do either of these things is to vote for a specific Unionist party. In reality, voting for any party that isn’t Sinn Féin… keeps Sinn Féin out. And voting for any party which is not in favour of a Border Poll… prevents a Border Poll from happening.
More recently, mainstream Unionists have developed their myths further. They portray the Alliance Party as part of a pan-nationalist front. They claim the party votes not on the basis of evidence, but votes however Sinn Féin is voting. This is demonstrably false. In fact, there are plenty of situations where unionists vote with Sinn Féin.
We can fight these myths through better political communication. But perhaps they have another impact. They could be posing as a diversion from the real issues. Mainstream Unionist parties may face being called out on this. But that doesn’t mean their policies will be guaranteed the scrutiny needed in a campaign. Often, other parties will seek to promote their own policies. They may not risk engaging in negative campaigning. Perhaps mainstream Unionists use these myths to ‘set up’ their opposition. That, too, is something we must be aware of, if we are to combat these myths properly.
The myths are part of a continuing dominance of sectarian issues over progressive ones. We lag behind on issues such as marriage equality, legal abortion, integrated education, protecting our indigenous languages, tackling inequality in infrastructure, and separating church and state, among countless others. There is a great deal of frustration in Northern Ireland over how our politics is backward, dysfunctional and conservative.
There are also criticisms to be made of the rhetoric used by nationalists and republicans, but I found these did not fall within the scope of this article. I will be covering them in another piece for Challenges NI.
Our elected representatives are far too focused on abusing contentious issues to stir up tensions, consolidate their own support, and polarise our politics, for their own political self-interest. This has come at the expense of getting to grips with issues in our public services and wider society – in particular, in fulfilling equality and human rights for everyone in this society. This needs to change.
Scott Moore is a 19 year old activist from Strabane, currently studying International Politics and Conflict Studies at Queen's University. His interests include a secular society and education reform. He is President of QUB Humanists and a founding member of Progressive Politics NI, and is writing in a personal capacity.