What a moment in the politics of Northern Ireland!

Published: 1 June 2021

Just now, the DUP, Alliance and Sinn Fein should be very nervous.

Now I know that at the moment some of the most bitter enemies of Edwin Poots are members – or about to be ex-members – of the DUP. But in the great scheme of things, despite the sound and fury of the moment, they are still in agreement with him about the great constitutional issue.

Poots and his unionist enemies above all else want to stay in the United Kingdom. And Sinn Fein, who above all else, want a united Ireland, are the DUP’s real enemies. (We can leave the SDLP out of this. They are democrats, and unlike those republican veterans who dictate strategy from Connolly House in West Belfast, they would like Irish unity to come about through persuasion, not coercion, and have no ambition to wreck Northern Ireland on the way.)

Having failed with the bomb and the bullet, the republican leadership use whatever other weapons come to hand — like law and culture — to demoralise unionists.

So how do they feel about the ascent of about Poots? They won’t admit it, but of course they’re thrilled.

Though journalists like Amanda Ferguson, whom I heard airily telling Times Radio that Arlene Foster could “by no means” be described “as a moderate,” presumably don’t know her, republicans were unsettled because she was increasingly well regarded in London and Dublin and by non-unionists, including lesbians and gays.

And even their armies of hate-filled keyboard warriors were struggling to represent this victim of IRA terrorism as a bigoted oppressor.

Poots is a much easier target than Jeffrey Donaldson would have been.

Foster’s frank statement about why his election as leader meant she would be leaving the DUP makes it clear why his party is unlikely to be a warm house for the open-minded.

“I don’t agree with the direction of travel under Edwin’s leadership. I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow. It’s quite nasty, frankly.”

But if Poots is good news, Doug Beattie is a hammer blow.

Sinn Fein will be privately furious that Steve Aiken, a man whose many fine qualities include humility, having realised he was not going to make a breakthrough with the electorate resigned, and Robbie Butler graciously acknowledged Beattie as the better choice. Beattie is already shaking up the electoral scene as positively as Poots is negatively.

Having as an MLA since 2016 observed three good men fail as leaders, he’s had plenty of time to think seriously about what unionists need.

He’s been attractively honest from the start.

He is straightforward about his social liberalism, though unlike some Alliance leaders, he is in no way a progressive bigot and does not sneer at conservatives or Christians. The leakage of liberal unionists to Alliance could now well be reversed.

The DUP is very vulnerable now. It is not impossible to imagine it imploding.

Hardliners who already think Poots an appeaser could defect to the TUV and robust realists who recognise that the 21st-century is very different from the world of Big Ian, might consider supporting a war hero whose courage is not in question but who recognises that unionism has to be forward-looking.

As Arlene Foster said the other day: “If the Union is to succeed, we need to be a bigger tent …  The plea I would make to the party is that, if they want to secure the union, then they have to have a wide vision for the union.”

Ben Lowry of this newspaper wrote an excellent list here on Saturday of what he saw as core pro Union principles (‘Amid unionist confusion, some suggested key pro Union principles,’ May 29, see link below).

“We should emphasise our integral place in one of the great Parliamentary democracies,” he wrote, “in a country that is a world leader in science and art, and our shared history and institutions such as the (flawed) BBC.”

The list included opposing any dilution of sovereignty, celebrating the Northern Ireland centenary, getting tough on security but also seeking friends across Ireland, developing diplomatic skills and showing proper respect for Gaelic culture while opposing its weaponising.

Lowry’s position on the NI Protocol is more hardline than Beattie’s, but there may be room for intelligent compromise and like Foster, welcoming the massive economic opportunities it could offer.

Beattie is nothing if not open.

As he told Pat Kenny on Newstalk two years ago, “I’m Irish. I’m an Irishman, and I’ve said this all along … I’m also an Ulsterman. You know, I’m British, I’m a European. I’m all of these things and I’m multilayered…

“God Save the Queen represents me, as does The Sash My Father Wore, Ulster rugby. But so does the shamrock, so does Gaelic games. So does Guinness. So does St Patrick’s Day. All of these things are part of my identity.”

Beattie had a troubled youth which he overcame triumphantly. It is no wonder that Joel Keys, the highly articulate 19-year old new voice of loyalism, is considering joining the UUP.

Beattie has made his position clear: the UUP door is open, but acceptance into the party requires an understanding of its values.

The tectonic plates really have shifted.

Alliance, the DUP and Sinn Fein should be feeling very nervous.

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