Friday, 30 March 2012

No Sign of Change

It is no great surprise that the Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, has announced that there will be no bilingual road signs. Everyone knew that, under the safeguards added to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement by the DUP at St. Andrews, the party had the power to block policy proposals that, in its estimation, were "novel or contentious". What to some people might be more surprising is that in this case it is the UUP Minister that has done the blocking. However, as those who live in Northern Ireland know, for every UUP member who views his or her party as a more moderate alternative to the DUP, there may be another who looks back with nostalgia to the days of a single Unionist party and its attendant domination of the political scene.

Mr. Kennedy acknowledged the two-thirds majority in favour of bilingual signage (which could have been Ulster-Scots as well as Irish) but cited the low numbers of respondents and the lack of community consensus. But is bilingualism not the natural way of dealing with such diversity? It certainly is most other places.

The UUP's reluctance to differentiate itself from the DUP on this issue and others may to some extent presage what lies in store for the party a few years down the line. Given that there will almost certainly be a Catholic/Nationalist majority in Northern Ireland next decade, Unionists have two choices to maintain their majority at Stormont: attract the support of those Catholics who would vote in favour of the Union at a future referendum by ridding themselves of what that group might consider unreasonably sectarian policies and baggage; or opt for some sort of voting pact, and quite possibly merger, involving the DUP and UUP. On present trends, it will be the latter, and Catholic Unionists will vote Alliance or, more likely, for one of the Nationalist parties.

Notwithstanding the slow decline of the SDLP, there is simply not as much pressure for consolidation on the Nationalist side, for "a rising tide lifts all boats". And the split between constitutional and physical-force Nationalism may, even in a time of peace, prove harder to mend than that between the two wings of Unionism.

At some point, therefore, we may see a single Unionist party, the Alliance and two Nationalist parties. Although Unionists may lose their voting majority, they will fight to retain the St. Andrews system for electing the First Minister and wield their policy veto widely.

Indeed, that may have been just the scenario in Peter Robinson's mind when he negotiated those changes.

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