From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and DUP Leader Arlene Foster at government buildings last Summer; Derek Mooney
Though I did a bit of leaflet dropping for Fianna Fáil in the 1977 general election, the first election campaign in which I really canvassed was the 1979 European and Local elections.There I learned the skill of marking the register.
This involved writing a letter after the voter’s name as it appears on the electoral indicating, after you had canvassed them whether you thought they were for Fianna Fáil (F), against us (A), doubtful (D) or where you got no reply (NR) or CB for call back.
In 1979 there a lot of ‘A’s to mark on my sheet. These fell into two categories, the first were the people who voted FF two years earlier and were now very angry at how the country was going. The second were the group who had never and would never stoop to vote for “your shower”.
When encountering a person from this second group, usually after walking up a long gravel driveway and climbing a flight of granite steps to reach the ornate front door, one of fellow canvassers, a very nice woman, several years my senior, would call out “NOCD”.
This was a canvassing code with which I was not familiar, but I dutifully noted it down. When we finished later than evening to complete our canvassing returns, I set out totting up the F’s, the A’s, the D/k’s and the N/R’s.
“What about the NOCDs?” I enquired. It hadn’t occurred to her that I would be so naïve as to write it down.
“Count those as A’s” she said.
“But, what does NOCD” mean, I asked.
“They are the ‘not our class, dahling’ who still look down their nose at us”, she laughed.
They were the Fine Gaelers who still saw Fianna Fáil as a great unwashed, dinner in the middle of the day, hoard of cute-hoors who had the temerity to think they were up to the job of government. Though that generation of Fine Gaelers has now passed the NOCD attitude still soldiers on within the party.
It plays some small part in colouring its view of Sinn Féin, but it is not just limited to them. Ivan Yates gave a hyped-up version of the outlook on his Newstalk programme last week, having a go at all Northerners across the board.
Though his intent was probably more about winding up his listeners, Yates still struck a chord with some in his audience with his observation that “we don’t actually like the Nordies”.
It is not a new thing, we have seen it before, but this time around it seems to be a much stronger factor in how the DUP is perceived, not least by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.
Though I know the dangers in overstretching the comparison, there are some echoes of how Fine Gael viewed Fianna Fáil in the past with how they now view the DUP.
Fine Gael, especially its leadership, seems to have a stereotypical view of the DUP seeing them as intransigent hardliners, stuck in the past and mouthing old slogans. They see Sammy Wilson or Ian Paisley Jr on the TV and think, how could you ever deal with them? But the political reality is that you have to.
Like it or not the DUP is the biggest party in Northern Ireland. A poll conducted by Lucid Talks (commissioned by Sinn Féin’s EU Parliament grouping GUE/NGL) puts the DUP on 33.7% support, just under 1% ahead of Sinn Féin. Its nearest unionist party rival is just on 9%.
While we may not like it, the DUP speaks for the bulk of Unionism, though the Lucid Talks poll, and a survey from Profs Coakley and Garry in QUB, does show that Unionism is not nearly as hardline on Brexit as the DUP.
Cue the chorus that the DUP is simply out of touch with its voters and is playing political games with Brexit. There is definitely some evidence for this view, not least the boorish heckling and barracking of the sole moderate independent unionist MP lady Sylvia Hermon in last week’s House of Commons debates, but there is also a bigger picture.
There are two other factors at play – factors that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste appear not to have… ehh, factored in.
Though the polls and surveys show a sophisticated and nuanced public response to Brexit and its consequences for the border, Northern Ireland politics remains stubbornly binary – it is a zero-sum game. If them’uns is winning, I must be losing.
If Simon Coveney is gleeful on Monday, then I must be unhappy – and not only that, then I must act quickly to re-establish the equilibrium. The Irish government should know this by now, and should realise that the DUP is following the Dublin media far more closely than the Irish government appears to be following the Belfast ones.
Varadkar and Coveney also need to learn the crucial importance of having solid and reliable back channels of communications with parties in the North both as part of the government and as a political party. This includes the DUP.
Indeed it is vitally that important that it does so Fine Gael can get beyond the stereotype and grasp that the DUP is a far more sophisticated political operation than it likes to portray itself and has a much stronger and progressive backroom team than you might suspect.
The other factor is that Northern Irish politicians are invariably protected from the consequences of their own actions. When something goes awry the cry goes up for an international mediator to step in or for the two governments to intervene.
Politics in the North is broken. In the classic Northern Ireland binary/zero sum tradition, the beneficiaries of this breakage are the DUP and Sinn Féin. The only way to reduce the power of one is to reduce the power of both.
There is now a generation, or two, of political leaders in the North who have never had to pick up the pieces of the crockery they smashed. They have, instead, thrived on crisis and learned how to leverage more out of it.
We saw an example of that skill last week with the DUP. Though they are clearly not prepared to do anything that puts Jeremy Corbyn in No 10, the DUP still managed to come out of last week’s chaos ahead of where they went into it.
While keeping the DUP apart and having them as NOCDs may politically suit Varadkar and Coveney just now, it does not benefit the rest of us in the long term.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney