One of the less remarked on aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is that the Assembly doesn’t have by-elections – rather, when a vacancy arises it is filled by nomination by the party leader. You can understand why, given the need to maintain the sectarian status quo in the STV constituencies, and there is at least one good precedent for why by-elections can be a fraught business in the north. But this is a little frustrating for political anoraks who like by-elections for the colour and unpredictability they bring. The upcoming council by-election in Craigavon should be entertaining, although under the RPA they are sadly to be phased out at local level as well. And party conventions to select replacement MLAs just don’t have the same marquee factor.
But last week’s PSF constituency convention in East Derry did present some features of interest. This was to select a replacement for Francie Brolly, who is retiring in the new year. Now, Francie – folk musician, footballer, Gaeilgeoir and uncrowned king of Dungiven – is a fascinating figure in his own right. Not least because he illustrates something about political plate tectonics since the peace process – he was long known to have republican leanings, as you’d expect for someone from Dungiven, but the idea of Francie Brolly appearing on a ballot paper with the words Sinn Féin printed next to his name would have been nearly unthinkable circa 1985. But then, in those days it would have been hard to imagine Jimmy Spratt being a candidate for the DUP.
No, the really big news was the man who’s going to take Francie’s place in Stormont, Coleraine councillor Billy Leonard, who’s become quite the rising star since he defected from the SDLP five years ago. What’s interesting about Billy is his background. Your stereotypical PSF politician, particularly of the older generation, would have a background in the Provos and would very likely have done time. Billy, I can confidently say, was never in the Provos. Before he was a politician he was an RUC reservist. And as a young man, he was in the Orange Order.
Billy isn’t of course the only Protestant Shinner there is – there’s long been a bit of a Prod subculture in the South Belfast cumann – but he’s the only one who’s been willing to stick his neck out as an elected representative, and I don’t think many (or possibly any) of the others have quite as thoroughly Prod a background as he does. Quite a journey he’s been on then. Here is the man in his own words:
Describing his personal journey from a Protestant church-goer to becoming a republican, Mr Leonard said the biggest issue he had faced was challenging the British/unionist identity and adopting his ‘Irish-ness’.
“I have a great love of history and politics but the biggest transition and challenge for me was the Irish identity. I had already left the Orange Order long before my transition,” he said.
As it happens, this is actually a bit of a counter-argument to what Billy’s party leader, our local analogue of Huck Finn, was saying a little while ago. Or maybe not, since Gerry is a terrible man for sloppy use of language and in particular Orwell’s great sin of obfuscatory jargon. Gerry’s point appears to be that unionists will have a bright future in a united Ireland. This is wrong. Protestants, which might be what Gerry meant to say, could have a bright future in a united Ireland. Orangeism might even have a future in a united Ireland – in a folkloric sense like at Rossnowlagh, instead of as a system of sectarian power. But a unionist politic in an independent united Ireland – that is to negate the whole nature of unionism, and such a state could only come into being by way of the political defeat of unionism. Ask Billy Leonard. He’s as Protestant as he ever was, but he long since ceased to be a unionist.
Politics matters, and nor does it give much comfort to the bright young things around UCUNF who are pushing this idea of “civic unionism”, as if it’s something that the likes of Paul Bew, Arthur Aughey and Bob McCartney haven’t been saying for ages. The theory behind this seems to be that if unionist politicians adopt cuddly and non-sectarian language, ally themselves with Dave Cameron and talk a lot about the multicultural UK, then a lightbulb will switch on above the heads of middle-class Catholics who will then agree to become “nationalists in a cultural sense”, while embracing civic unionism politically. Ignoring the fact that, if there are such people they’re all in the Alliance Party, it’s based on the fallacy that nationalists don’t actually have an identity linked to a political project, or if they do, it’s one that can easily be set aside. And that’s leaving out of it unionism’s actual record of non-sectarianism or cultural diversity, which is not much to write home about.
This also set me thinking to a rather enjoyable article by Manus O’Riordan in the current Irish Political Review. You’ll not be surprised to know that it revolves around that great BICO bugbear of the Irish Times. But Manus also has a good point to make about southern Protestants. This is that after independence southern unionism became a redundant project and eventually, in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, southern unionists found themselves a political vehicle in Cumann na nGaedheal (of course there were also the Trinity senators, and a tradition of independent Protestant candidates in Donegal lasting into the 1960s) and became transformed in time from unionists to part of the pro-Commonwealth tendency to becoming a barely distinct element in the southern body politic. There was the regular outburst of Union Jackery in the Irish Times, most notably during the Emergency, but not as an operative political project. And today, while there are plenty of Prods in the south, it sounds a little funny to talk of the Anglo-Irish, unless you mean a very small number of aristocratic families who don’t really amount to much sociologically.
Manus aims a particularly sharp dig at the Reform Movement, the current vehicle of southern neo-unionism, which has been pushing this rather strange idea that southern Protestants are not really an integral part of Irish society but are in fact the British national minority in the south. This seems to be linked to some nebulous idea that, once southern Protestants are so defined, under the GFA architecture Britain would be able to claim some constitutional right to represent their interests. It’s unclear whether the Reform Movement has actually canvassed any southern Protestants outside its own small number, or whether this is just another harebrained constitutional wheeze like their semi-regular “let’s rejoin the Commonwealth” campaign.
For what would southern Protestants, if you can even identify them as a discrete social group, make of this? Manus cites the example of Trevor Sargent, the Irish-speaking former Green Party leader. What nationality would you say Trevor was? Is he less Irish than anyone else? Or is him being a Protestant a bit like him being an Esperantist, one of those things that makes Trevor interesting but not something that removes him from the nation? Or what about Ivan Yates, is he part of the oppressed British minority? Is Ivan anything other than Irish? Or Jan O’Sullivan? I tell you what, if you told Alan Shatter he wasn’t fully Irish but was part of our Israeli national minority, then Alan, great advocate of Israel though he is, would react pretty sharply and probably call you an anti-Semite.
It’s one of those things, I suppose. During the Troubles, there were few things more irksome than 26-county nationalists (and I mean that in the literal sense of Saorstát nationalism) coming north and talking like unionists. Although I’m sure the unionists appreciated their moral support, and Eric Waugh is still willing to jump on any sliver of evidence showing that southern Prods might be kinda sorta oppressed, it never really made any impact on unionist thinking. Nor would the rational observer expect it to.
 I’m not sure, and maybe someone can explain, how this works for defectors. Let’s take Gerry McHugh of Fermanagh. If he steps down, does his former leader, Gerry Adams, get to nominate his successor? As an independent MLA, does he get to nominate his own successor? If he were to join, say, éirígí, would the nominating power accrue to them?
 I’m thinking particularly of how back in 1981 Larry Kennedy, independent republican councillor from Ardoyne, was killed by the UDA. Unionist councillors refused a co-option and a unionist won the by-election, thus allowing the UDA to change the makeup of Belfast City Council.
Rud eile: Congratulations to Alan for winning best blog at the Slugger Awards, which is not nothing when you consider the good blogs there are about this place. Daithí was a worthy nominee as well, but lord only knows what I was doing there. Some folks must have a taste for the old GUBU.
Search of the week: Someone has arrived on this blog by Googling the phrase “John Rees fucked”. Hello, Martin.