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DUP Leadership

The leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is being fought between Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Edwin Poots. The latter is a ‘young earth creationist’, believing that the earth was created in 4000 BC. Presumably, he doesn’t believe in evolution much less the validity of the fossil record.

Clearly this is a belief rooted in a deep religious faith and it would be unthinkable in this column to sneer at other faiths that have what look like unscientific bases. Other religions believe in miracles, the curative power of rivers and wells and in the phases of the moon as an indication of their sacred calendars.

Poots’ attitude to marriage equality and abortion rights have also been the subject of derision and mockery. However, those views would resonate with the 38% of Irish people who voted against marriage equality in 2015 and the 33% who voted against abortion in 2018.

Lots of articles have been written in the British and Irish press about Edwin Poots and few of them are complimentary. They suggest that the perception of his religious faith will have a negative impact on Northern Ireland and on Unionism in particular.

There is probably some truth in that. Social and cultural isolation as well as a sense of siege has created the unique culture of Unionism in Northern Ireland.

Much more important than Poots’ religious convictions are his attitudes to reconciliation in Northern Ireland and how he manages the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

As Minister for Agriculture he published a report last week which noted that the Protocol gives “NI exporters a comparative advantage over their GB competitors’ and that “this is a positive situation for the export-dependent NI seafood sector”.

I am not under any illusion that this is a signal of a more practical approach to the Protocol. I anticipate that little progress will be made this side of the Assembly elections next May. The executive will limp along and the DUP will try to ensure that it maintains its hold over unionism.

If Nationalists win a majority of seats in the NI Assembly, the UK Government will be confronted with the same arguments that Nicola Sturgeon is making following the success of the SNP in Scotland. The one difference is that a Northern Ireland poll is already provided for in an international agreement, the Good Friday Agreement.

The departure of the two leaders of Unionism, Steve Aiken and Arlene Foster, in a matter of days of each other, is a cause for concern.

I believe that London barely tries to understand Unionism.

For Dublin, it’s a different matter. We simply cannot afford to be complacent about the direction that Unionism takes in the months and years ahead.

In Dublin and Brussels, whatever happens with the Protocol, we need to do what London doesn’t do and think deeply about Unionism and the 900,000 people living in Northern Ireland who identify as British. The Taoiseach’s shared island vision is more about uniting people than uniting territory.

We are all fond of quoting Seamus Heaney when talking about the North. It might be worth our while looking at poetry from ‘the other side’, to quote Heaney again. Michael Longley, a friend of Heaney, grew up in the Unionist tradition in Belfast and his poem ‘Ceasefire’ deserves to be in wider circulation, the final two lines of which read;

I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Social, cultural and sporting links with all communities in Northern Ireland should be cultivated and maintained for all our sakes.

The leadership vote is this Friday and the decisions taken by the new leader will determine whether the DUP itself enters the fossil record in the near future. Evolution is survival in the physical world as well as in the political world.

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