I like Basil McCrea. There’s something about his boyish chubby face and flop of fringe that reminds me of a bit player from Greyfriars School ( which Billy Bunter attended, and if you don’t know who Billy Bunter is, just trust me, OK?). He looks and sounds like a man who enjoys talking to people, and he has shown himself open to engagement with political opponents in a no-big-deal way. (Actually when it’s put like that, it seems odd that he should stand out as different. But then we live in an odd place.)
Anyway, Basil is on the Unionist Naughty Step at the moment, and it looks like he’ll spend more time there after his recent interview with a Lisburn local radio station. In it he says some very interesting things. Here’s one, on the flags protest:
You first of all have to get people off the streets. And then you have to go through a long process of telling people the truth. You do have to explain to people that compromise is necessary. It is not a dirty word. It is the way you go forward in any democracy, trying to work out what is the best for the most people.
I like some of the above paragraph a lot, especially the bit about ‘telling people the truth’. If unionist leaders were to tell their constituents the truth, they’d remind them that Belfast City Hall has standing-room-only, it’s so packed with unionist memorials, paintings and statues. And they’d remind them that the city is saturated in streets, buildings and bridges, all of which loudly shout out “We’re unionist!”
Except that Belfast is no longer unionist. The city has more non-unionists than unionists. If you reflect on that fact for a moment, you’ll quickly spot the bit of Basil’s paragraph that doesn’t work for me. He’s right to talk about the need for compromise, but psst, Basil. Flying the Union flag 17 times a year is not “what is best for the most people”.
Try it from a Martian’s point of view. He gets out of his space-ship and is told that two more-or-less equal groups each has its own flag, how will they resolve this impasse fairly? The Martian, assuming his brain hasn’t fried on entry to Earth, would almost certainly reply (in Martian) “Fly both flags or none”. That actually would be a balanced compromise. But even when all 17 flag-flying occasions will feature the Union flag and none the Irish tricolour, all unionist hell breaks loose. So yes, Basil, there certainly is room for some more truth-telling.
Unfortunately, Basil’s position within his party is shaky, which tells you something about his party and about unionism in general. On Monday, even though still strictly speaking an Ulster Unionist, he voted against his own party. Clearly the Ulster Unionist Party is in a mess - rapid shuffling of leaders, mutterings against the present leader, people quitting the party. The DUP, in contrast, is much more cohesive, but it faces an appalling vista: that its leader might be defeated not once but twice by an Alliance candidate. If that happens, the knives will be out and used. Then there’s the PUP, intent on reviving its fortunes on the back of the flag protestors. And after that there are all those unionists who are fuming with the laughing stock that’s been made of unionism by the fleg people. In short, unionism is fracturing in the face of change, with more change, like it or lump it, on the way. And the moral is? As Basil says, tell people the truth. And tell them it before it’s too late.