NEWS FOCUS – Has unionism lost its moral compass?

The suspension of Ian Paisley from the mother of parliaments raises an important question for unionism and the DUP in particular. In which direction is its moral compass pointing?

Ed Curran writes – A party that lays such store on Christian values and principles has an embarrassing record over the past decade to which Mr Paisley has added his own £50,000 or £100,000 worth with his ill-advised and undeclared trips to Sri Lanka.

His is only the latest in a long line of revelations which have beset the DUP since Iris Robinson hit the headlines eight years ago.

Three years from now unionism will celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland.

No doubt the memory of Edward Carson and the other founding fathers of unionism will be invoked, but their legacy today is sadly tarnished and it is surely time the 21st century inheritors of unionism lived up to its ideals.

Certainly the legacy of Carson was never meant to be highly questionable dealings on property and planning matters, let alone extravagantly expensive holidays to a distant island.

Nor could that legacy be the National Crime Agency called in to investigate dealings over Nama. Or misuse of public funds over Red Sky contracts. Or support for a charity with a self-confessed loyalist godfather on its board. Or simply the public perception that unionist power is being misused and that some have even used their privileged positions as public representatives to make hay for themselves?

And there is more. As yet unresolved, the RHI scandal looms over all this litany of real or apparent abuse of power. The evidence to date does nothing to inspire confidence in how the DUP goes about its business. A shadow still hangs over the current unionist leader Arlene Foster, and it will remain there until the judgment of the RHI inquiry team many months from now.

If the moral compass of some politicians can be questioned over the decade, what of the people who vote for them?

Judging by the reaction on the streets of Ballymena in vox pops about Mr Paisley, it seems many of the good people of his constituency are prepared to turn a a blind eye to his misdeamours at Westminster.

Come what may, the unionists of North Antrim are widely tipped to restore Mr Paisley to the House of Commons, whether the DUP lifts its suspension on him or not.

This is the Northern Ireland of 2018. This is how some unionists think even though the uprighteousness of their cause has been sorely tested.

The DUP has decided to suspend its errant North Antrim MP, but what will it do in the longer term about him – endorse his likely candidature in a likely by-election or set him free as a loose Paisley cannon? The answer may help to shape the direction of unionism’s moral compass in 2018.

Away from the embarrassment of having a unionist MP given a suspension from Westminster, Prime Minister Theresa May made a good fist of defining 21st century unionism when she spoke in the Waterfront Hall.
Although the central thrust of her speech was about Brexit, she defined unionism in a way that local leaders rarely do these days.

She invoked Winston Churchill’s wartime message: “Without Northern Ireland the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched.”

She dwelt on the strengths of the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and why anybody would want to give up lightly on an attachment to the fifth largest economy on Earth.

“We are absolutely committed to parity of esteem and just and equal treatment irrespective of aspiration or identity. We want to build a stronger, more inclusive and more prosperous NI that truly works for everyone,” she said.

“I will always govern in the interests of the whole community in Northern Ireland, not just one part of it.

“Northern Ireland makes a major contribution to our Union and it also derives great benefit from being an intergral part of the UK.”

The hierarchy of the DUP was prominent in the audience, nodding approvingly, but they have much to do to live up to Mrs May’s aspirations. In her 31 months as DUP leader Mrs Foster has not managed to express herself as the Prime Minister did last week.

Granted, her leadership has been tainted by the RHI scandal, and what even some unionists are uneasy about – her reluctance to step aside, if not resign, from the First Minister’s office while an inquiry is conducted into how she managed her department.

Whatever the reason, Mrs Foster has disappointed many in the middle ground of unionism.

Divisions over abortion and gay rights and even the Irish language have not strengthened the Union, but driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and British standards. The battles of Brexit have yet to be resolved and still have the capacity, despite Mrs May’s ‘one for all, all for one’ message in Belfast, to weaken the Union. The RHI Inquiry will determine the future of Mrs Foster.

These are deeply unsettling times in which the old order of world politics is not what it was thanks mainly to the global impact of the unpredictable Donald Trump. But locally those who lead unionism have a responsibility to do more to reassure the general public that politics is not a dirty game. Unionism needs no more scandals. Instead, it needs a coat of restorative paint.

The Paisley debacle should be a warning and turning point.

Standards of behaviour for unionist and all public representatives should be beyond reproach.

That has not been the case for far too long.

Ed Curran is a former editor of the Belfast Telegraph.
Article above first published in the Belfast Telegraph, July 30.21018