The republican movement may represent an insurgent force in southern politics and present itself as a party of protest even while holding power in Northern Ireland, yet unionism still holds ascendency.
The classic trope of Northern politics is that nationalism represents confidence, which unionism represents demoralisation.
It seems the status quo has inverted. For Fionnuala O'Connor, we are living in the age of "perked-up unionism" and "stale nationalism". Fionnuala O'Connor wrote in the Irish News, February 9 2016, ‘We could be all be into a new political era without noticing’:
"There's hiding in plain sight, and there’s not seeing the nose on your own face. We could be into a new era without really noticing it.
There are new leaders in two of the five main parties, Arlene Foster, Colum Eastwood, in each case more than twenty years younger than their predecessors - a bright and forceful unionist leader, a vague nationalist who hopefully is not as ineffectual as he at first sounds.
One further element makes this – possibly – a whole new age. The second biggest party is clearly missing a good second row, with the lacklustre Conor Murphy seemingly lined up to succeed when Sinn Féin’s one starry northern figure finally goes.
If Mike Nesbitt comes out of an unreadable downtime with something more constructive than a policy of out-hardlining Foster, we’ll have two unionist parties looking comparatively sharp.This is the key observation from Fionnuala:
"Perked-up unionism facing stale nationalism is the opposite of the state of play for several decades."She continued:
"Pre-Troubles, the opposing communal mindsets – it would be a stretch to call them philosophies – looked dramatically different, a situation reversed piece by piece during the Troubles.
Even thrown into disarray by the civil rights agitation unionism retained clout; powerless nationalism sulked.
Over the next years while nationalism separated out into physical force republicanism and constitutionalists, reformers, unionism splintered.
It became unchallengeable to observe that new nationalist confidence faced demoralised unionism, generally inarticulate.
But the contrast has been less stark for some time now. The long, unproductive anti-climax since 1998 and the eventual stalemate at Stormont has worn nationalism down.
‘New nationalism’ arguably coasted on John Hume’s legacy and the emergence of civilianised republicanism, a fitful business of stop and start.
Unionism today is hardly inspiring, but it faces parties running on empty, minus the dynamism and vision that once set the pace.
If unionist votes hold up, it will be clear that lack of vision has been rewarded rather than penalised.
It will mean their voters accept that unionists are dug into structures whose originating idea they dislike and whose spirit they flout, but where they enjoy jobs and patronage.
Whereas nationalists look increasingly uninterested, their young turned off, dismayed by the Stormont spectacle, perhaps on their way to being a community alienated all over again – if this time peaceably, more apolitical or anti-political than potentially disruptive.
Next May’s election may see the newish phenomenon of a flattened nationalist vote unmistakeably headed into a pattern of decline.
Well, as an overall picture this may be overstated. It’s easier to point up the weakness in northern Sinn Féin and the SDLP - and incidentally, the absence of drive in Alliance - than to find potential for development in the DUP or a smidgen of settled vision in the Ulster Unionist Party.
We’re not talking spirited, constructive unionism, just some internal potential.
Not much visible in nationalism, bereft of outside stimulus. As the Republic’s politics adjust post-Tiger, northern nationalism in terms of Irish government priorities was always going to be relegated.
First the SDLP slipped off Irish radar as the peace process took shape, the post-Hume party struggling to focus while republicans demanded and got the bulk of attention.
The southern political class logged Sinn Féin’s arrival in the Dáil with abiding distaste.
In turn republicanism has focused its energy in the Republic, where its younger faces have ability the northern branch conspicuously lacks.
The debacle turned u-turn on benefits could hardly have been handled worse.
The committee-think that plotted each step the Adams/McGuinness leadership took in the first years created the impression of a talent reservoir, which it turns out does not exist. An injection of ability via new arrivals never happened.
Maybe a cadre of ex-prisoners as advisers repelled as many potential recruits as it rewarded old hands.
McGuinness has had to front up and fill the gap with folksy quasi-charisma, maintaining some sense of momentum by modelling calm and patience while Peter Robinson flatly refused to show leadership.
But as time goes on the one-man band syndrome looks ever thinner, unsurprising in what was once a collective enterprise, and proud of it.
The Derry man retreating to Derry may re-invigorate the party there, or it might point up local strains and stresses. Stormont 2016 is hardly an arena of triumph.
Either way, as the Republic’s election campaign heats up northern politics look becalmed, the major shift of the last century in questionable shape.
Where the next wave of energy is to come from, and where it will leave unionism versus nationalism, is unguessable."Newton Emerson responded in the Irish News, February 11 2016, 'Unionism is undergoing a remarkable evolution’:
"My Irish News colleague Fionnuala O Connor has asked why unionism seems comparatively “perked-up” beside “stale nationalism”.
The answer may be something many unionists do not believe in - evolution.
As an unpopular people with an unfashionable cause, unionists live in an exceptionally harsh environment. One response to this would be a descent into victim-hood, like everyone else. But unionists are so unpopular that we cannot even get away with that, as revealed by numerous failed attempts.
So there is no choice but to adapt and some remarkable transformations have been witnessed. Consider the recent cases of flag protester Jamie Bryson and deselected DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, who have very publicly called for moderation and engagement, recanting the whole tenor of their political lives to date.
This has not been driven from within unionism. Quite the opposite, in fact - it is barely two years since Bryson was briefed by unionist leaders at the Haass talks. His transformation is due to an external environment of ridicule that made the failure of his tactics and the hopelessness of his position undeniable, despite all the flattery and celebrity that might have deceived him otherwise.
Republicans operate in kinder climes. Fringe figures far worse than Bryson are less likely to be mocked than to be honoured as the legion of the rearguard. At most, they will be told their cause is just but their methods are presently unsupported.
This expectation of respect extends well into the mainstream, as revealed by this week’s ‘Booby Sands’ misprint in a Sinn Fein election leaflet. The thin-skinned reaction of republicans to being laughed at, which in fairness was noted as much by nationalists as by unionists, reveals a worldview that cannot accept it has made even a tiny little mistake.
Of course, republicans have changed - but in the abandonment of violence, to take the most significant example, their rationale is only ever that they were right all along, becoming more right in retrospect as they go along. This is increasingly humoured by others, yet if mistakes are not acknowledged they cannot be learned from, making for shallow and dangerous victories.
One of the greatest victories external contempt has given unionism is the defeat of the Orange Order. As with all evolution, it would be a fallacy to see this as having any pre-ordained goal or forward direction - and not just because Orangemen have had to unlearn how to walk on dry land.
In accordance with the sort of Gaian philosophy that would enrage Sammy Wilson, the Orange Order helped to create a hostile environment for itself by first creating a hostile environment for nationalists. Nevertheless, the result of this has been to finally put manners on unionism’s most toxic institution, at least beyond the loyalist cauldron of Belfast, on which pressure to conform with the rest of Northern Ireland is now intense. The brethren would never have reached this conclusion on their own. It has dawned on them extremely slowly under an onslaught of disdain that would not be suffered by most organisations laying claim to cultural and religious antecedents. Imagine how much trouble unionism would be in if everyone had to tiptoe around Orangeism for fear of causing it ‘offence’.
This phenomenon applies right up the evolutionary scale, to the primates of literary Dublin. Last weekend I opened the Irish Times arts section - normally a safe space from ethnic hate crime - to read a glowing review of an Abbey Theatre play about loyalists that would get everyone involved arrested if made about any other group in society.
It gave me the same sense I have heard so many other people voice about the gay cake case - that the infantile contradiction of the modern left, ‘no hatred except for those we hate’, is on the verge of unravelling. But nationalist intellectuals seem oblivious to this, unlike loyalist dinosaurs, who have had their incoming meteor gleefully pointed out to them so often that they might actually step out of its way.
If criticism of unionism is forcing it to drop so much fundamental baggage, nationalists and republicans might wonder if further criticism would see the end of unionism itself. That would be a critical misunderstanding.
Unionism may have dreadful and stupid characteristics but it is a not a post-colonial delusion, for people to snap out of once they see the error of their ways. Unionism is British nationalism - no more inclined to evaporate than Irishness, or Kurdishness.
Laughing at unionists is not the revenge that Booby Sands had hoped."