Rising star in Northern Irish politics has a chance to restore confidence in unionism
There is movement in Northern Irish politics. After years of disheartening stalemate, with two dominant parties that hate each other – the DUP and Sinn Fein – sharing power and favoritism while handing out minimum concessions to the other three parties in the executive, there is a chance real change in the legislative elections next May. In nationalism, for now Sinn Fein seems impregnable, but unionism is another story.
A new poll announces a potential earthquake in the Unionist camp, with support for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) dominating up to 13% (up from 29% in 2017), the small traditional Unionist voice (TUV) up to 14 percent and the Ulster Unionist Party moderated at 16 percent. While the Northern Ireland Protocol is the main cause of anger and despair in the Unionist ranks, a great force for positive change is UUP leader Doug Beattie, the new kid on the block (admittedly 55 years old) ).
Beattie, a politician since 2014, is a member of the Stormont Assembly, but after only three months as head of the UUP he has changed the conversation and perception of many people, not least because his life experience is so different. that of the average provincial. politician.
This week, Captain Beattie will have thought of Afghanistan, where his bravery in fighting in Helmand Province won him the Military Cross and is the inspiration for his second book, Task Force Helmand. Along the way, during his 28 years of service with the Royal Irish Rangers, his accolades included the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, of which he is most proud because it was a lifesaver. of enemy soldiers.
He came the hard way, after a troubled childhood. His mother – whose brother was murdered by the IRA – had died of cancer when he was 14, leaving her alcoholic military husband to raise five children. As a teenager, playing illegally with his father’s personal protection weapon, Beattie shot a friend in the head. Although the friend survived – as did their friendship – this traumatic experience helped propel Beattie into the military at 16 without any degree. He served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Northern Ireland, became a regimental sergeant major and was commissioned in 2005.
I was very impressed with his first book, the bestselling An Ordinary Soldier, which is dominated by his rare combination of compassion and austere honesty. He prays, but doesn’t like organized religion, and has none of the bigotry that plagues Ulster politics. And in terms of identity, he sees himself as a British Unionist with an Irish identity, which he says includes Shamrock, Guinness, Gaelic Games, St. Patrick’s Day, but also God Save the Queen, the Sash, Orange Order and Ulster Rugby. . Asked about his loyalty, he said: “I am extremely loyal to my family, my friends, my political party, the ideals which I believe are right and the people of Northern Ireland.”
Personally liberal, he has supported abortion and non-sexual marriage, but is quite respectful of those who think otherwise. And although members are required to subscribe to the values of the UUP, it is a very large church.
Like the other two Unionist parties, he sees the protocol as disastrous for the province, but as a pragmatist his priority is to make Northern Ireland work. The change of DUP leader from Arlene Foster to Jeffrey Donaldson did not prevent voters from accusing the party of allowing the imposition of a border in the Irish Sea. The TUV, led by the impressive lawyer Jim Allister, has won the support of loyalists by backing furious protests against the protocol, which they see as an attack on the very identity of Northern Ireland, but it is a one-man operation. By next May, with proportional representation, unionism should almost certainly have more votes than nationalism, but it is likely that Sinn Fein will be the largest party and occupy the highest position.
The biggest problems with unionism are its sense of betrayal by the British government (which faces serious problems if the problems with the protocol are not addressed), demoralization due to the perceived weakness of the justice system to stand up to the Republicans, and the general loss of confidence in their politicians. Beattie has an opportunity, but a hell of a challenge.