Thursday, January 05, 2006

Unionists in danger of losing prized bauble

Brian Feeney:

Instead of our beautifully maintained proconsul trying to persuade unionists to begin negotiations with Sinn Féin this year, would it not be more worthwhile for him to try to get them to ask themselves a more fundamental question, namely, what is Norn Irn for?

We know what it used to be for. It was devised in 1920 as a place to preserve that diminishing and endangered ethnic species, the Ulster Prod, known for political purposes as unionists. It wasn't unique. There were other havens created about the same time, most notably Lebanon, a place or state of grace given to the Christians of Mount Lebanon where they could lord it over the surrounding vast numbers of Muslims. Over the next 60 years the Christians made themselves so objectionable that the place had to be taken from them. Despite help from among others, Israel and France, they were routed in a bloody civil war which by coincidence took place during the Troubles here, though it was over much more quickly.

Like the Christians of Mount Lebanon, Norn Irn had to be taken from the unionists. They didn't last as long as their Lebanese counterparts. They managed to score maximum points on the objectionable scale in 50 years.

The place which Sir James Craig's brother candidly told the House of Commons was "the largest area we can hold", no longer belongs to unionists. Legislation has put nationalists formally on a par in almost all walks of life.

Most importantly, unionists no longer own the security forces Churchill presented to them in 1921. With the unlamented disbandment of the RIR they will no longer have their own militia for the first time since the 18th century. The days are gone when any Orange lawyer with half a brain who became a unionist MP could look forward to becoming a judge automatically. Interesting sign of the times: no lawyer with half a brain even thinks it's worth trying to be a unionist MP. It's the road to nowhere.

When their allies in Westminster gave them what came to be called Norn Irn, unionists could at least argue they would lose financially and economically if consigned to the Free State. That argument remained valid until about 20 years ago. No longer.

One of the reasons for Norn Irn was that it provided cheap labour for the wealthy manufacturers who had built an industrial enclave here. By the 1970s all those industries were dead or dying. From a position 50 years ago where those industries gave the north 37% of total Irish output, the north's output is now 23% of the whole island's and falling.

The north's output is now 22% lower per head the Republic's. The standard of living here is only maintained by massive transfers from Britain, more than anywhere else in the UK.

Our proconsul warns it can't go on. As security spending falls along with the jobs for unionists that went with it, another prop is removed. Repeatedly British ministers take decisions at EU meetings which naturally don't suit people here but are tailored to Britain's economy, whereas of course the Republic's ministers take decisions which would benefit the whole island.

Now our proconsul is threatening to take away the bauble unionists always prized most, their wee toy parliament at Stormont. Do they not realise that the assembly was placed at the centre of the Good Friday institutions to placate them?

Do they not realise that without it they will control nothing, nor ever hope to? Well yes, but they also realise only too well the price, which is to reach out the hand to Sinn Féin and, wait for it, run the north jointly with fenians with an input from the Irish government.

Neither Irish nor British government has yet accepted that the unionist electorate in 2003 and 2005 voted decisively to prevent that outcome. The DUP best articulates that position. There's no danger of them admitting to their voters that the terms of trade with the rest of the island and Britain have irrevocably changed, that they need to consider if they can't own Norn Irn, but won't share it, what's the point of it? An open air museum?

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