Successful opportunists of all kinds, not just political, will spend this bank holiday weekend winnowing speculation from probability especially as the adage — opportunity knocks but once — is overwhelmed by events across these islands. It is received wisdom that opportunity calls but for the next few weeks, maybe even months, that knocking may reach a cacophony as seismic shift looms on at least four fronts. Great change approaches, how it unfolds, if it unfolds, will be significant.
Arlene Foster’s announcement on Wednesday, that she would stand down as DUP leader and, in June as Stormont’s first minister, presents the most immediate opportunity. The character and ambition of her successor will have an impact far beyond the shrinking, flintily conservative constituency that party represents. Should the fundamentalist wing, in the person of Stormont agriculture minister Edwin Poots, a creationist and the overwhelming choice of a majority of MLAs, prevail then it seems but a matter of time before the DUP reverts to being a marginalised but toxic influence.
This prospect is so real that the DUP leadership will work to ensure Jeffrey Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP backed by moderates and reformers takes the reins. Like it or not we have skin in this game as one of those candidates represents one kind of a future and the other a regression that can but renew if not fuel polarisation. That polarisation might well be exacerbated should those calling, prematurely, for a border poll see unionism’s difficulty as their opportunity.
Donaldson’s House of Commons experience may have shown him the real character of British prime minister Boris Johnson, whose gross dishonesty is as much to blame for Foster’s resignation as her grave misjudgement on the impact Brexit would have in Northern Ireland. Johnson’s dishonesty, that flagrant indifference to even the pretence of being guided by a moral compass has not, so far, stirred a Tory leadership challenge. Even though he heads a Commons majority of 80 not even he can shrug off too many more scandals, especially if British politics are to have any real meaning or authenticity. There is far more than Johnson’s unlikely career, or bills for Downing Street curtains, at stake.
That process is already under way in Fianna Fáil. Whether Micheál Martin outlasts Johnson as the leader of his party is an open question though the sunny-uplands grade optimism stirred by a relaxation of pandemic restrictions may do more to sustain Mr Martin than deflect the shame any Conservative who values honesty must feel and eventually act on.
If those party leaders are in defensive mode or defeated, then another leader can look forward with unprecedented optimism. Next Thursday Scotland holds an election and, if the runes have been read correctly, then SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will have a mandate to call a second independence vote. That raises many possibilities, including an application from an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU. The border down the Irish Sea, one Johnson promised would never exist may have to be extended eastward along the Tweed to mark the boundary between England and an independent Scotland.
It may be difficult, this weekend, to see politics as a relevant force in our lives. Though that view, that detachment is a self-fulfilling prophecy it is easily dismissed. It is not necessary, or any longer fashionable, to mark Mayday with a rendition of ‘The Internationale’ but rather just point to US president Biden’s presidential address in the US Capitol, surrounded by fencing erected after January’s assaults. He urged a $1.8tn investment in children, families and education that would fundamentally transform that divided society. America had to endure a lot to get to this point — are we are in the midst of a similar but different process?