The Story Unfolds


Last Saturday’s meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council was summoned (by the dissidents) to discuss a motion calling for the disciplinary action taken against Jeffrey Donaldson, the Reverend Martin Smyth and David Burnside to be dropped. Some months ago the three MPs resigned the Westminster party whip and were suspended by the leadership without an inquiry in a move that was subsequently ruled illegal.

However, behind what in reality is an internal power struggle is the substantive issue of unionist difficulty in coming to terms with the rise of an assertive nationalist community. The irony is that twenty years ago the IRA, though it would have sought to divide and conquer unionism, never had such power or scope. But, now, republicans need a strong and progressive unionist leadership to underpin the peace process, to underpin change and progress.

The charge that unionists “don’t want a Catholic about the place” might hit a resonant note within raw nationalism but republicans have to rise above the security of old mantras and recognise that unionism is changing - and is splintering in the process.

Trimble is not Donaldson and Donaldson is not Paisley – though in comparison to Burnside Paisley looks like a bottle of diluted orange.

Republicans, rightly, are wary, but cannot decide whether unionists genuinely believe that the IRA is remaining prepared to resume armed struggle (which to me would be madness) or are using the existence of the IRA as the pretext for resisting or thwarting simple and legitimate nationalist demands for equality and parity of esteem (as outlined in the Belfast Agreement).

The IRA, which is outside of the Agreement but which supports Sinn Fein’s involvement in the Assembly (including its having made fundamental compromises) has its own plain criteria for measuring the military and political responses of the British government to resolving the mess it created. Furthermore, the IRA implicitly has linked its activity and the pace of its peace strategy to certain minimal guarantees of treatment for the nationalist community, which are yet forthcoming.

And now, dear reader, when commentators, in relation to this bewildering situation, use the term ‘anomaly’, you know exactly what they mean.

Donaldson, Smyth and Burnside resigned the whip in protest against the British and Irish governments’ ‘Joint Declaration’ of last April, which was aimed at resolving the political stalemate and restoring devolution. The two governments included a proposal for the setting-up of an Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), which had three functions. These are: monitoring and adjudicating on whether the ceasefires are being breached; investigating whether ministers or parties in the Assembly are in breach of their ‘anti-violence’ pledge of office; and reporting (to the British government – what a joke!) on whether the British government is fulfilling its commitments to demilitarise in the event of (mainly) the IRA engaging in ‘acts of completion’ (decommissioning, demobilising, etc.).

Sinn Fein saw this as being a sop to unionists and as being outside of the terms of the Belfast Agreement. Disgracefully, Bertie Ahern rolled over for Tony Blair.

The Agreement, an internationally binding treaty between Britain and Ireland, which David Trimble negotiated with other parties and which people on both sides of the border voted for in referenda, already contains a provision for sanctions.

Paragraph 25 of Strand One, which deals with the institutions in the North states: “An individual may be removed from office following a decision of the Assembly taken on a cross-community basis, if (s)he loses the confidence of the Assembly, voting on a cross-community basis, for failure to meet his or her responsibilities including, inter alia, those set out in the Pledge of Office. Those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office under these provisions.”

Cross-community support in the Assembly for disciplinary action against an offending party was fought for and inserted as a protection against unionist abuse of majoritarianism, of which, let’s say, there are only fifty years of examples. Ever since the Assembly was established unionists have been trying to have the terms of that sanction amended so that through a simple majority they could easily move to exclude Sinn Fein from the executive were a pretence found.

The announced composition of the IMC a few days ago, and a subsequent British amendment to its powers of scrutiny, justifies the decision by Sinn Fein to refuse to cooperate with it. Its four members are British peer, Lord John Alderdice, and John Grieve, former head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad and the Metropolitan Police’s first director of intelligence, both appointed by the British; a US appointee, Richard Kerr, former deputy director of the CIA; and a Dublin appointee, Joseph Brosnan, a former secretary of the Department of Justice, about whose record in relation to the North I have heard nothing reassuring.

Donaldson, Smyth and Burnside objected to the fact that the Dublin appointee, in determining whether ministers or parties had broken the pledge of office to abide by exclusively peaceful and democratic means, represented Dublin having a role in Northern Affairs (Strand One). On the eve of the Ulster Unionist Council meeting, Paul Murphy, Secretary of State, announced that only the two British appointees to the Commission would deal with issues relating to Strand One. Although aimed at helping Trimble by removing the issue at the heart of the dissident MPs resigning the whip, it refused to mollify Donaldson.

Nevertheless, on Saturday, David Trimble yet again survived what was, in effect, a leadership challenge. From where he gets the energy to continue is inexplicable. To me, the most fascinating aspect was the role played by his deputy and allegedly loyal lieutenant Sir Reg Empey who had - and not for the first time - a lengthy meeting or meetings with Jeffrey Donaldson to discuss Ulster Unionist life after David.

Reg as leader, Jeffrey as deputy, David in slippers at home with Daphne listening to Wagner, sipping white wine, smiling, watching Reg and Jeffrey in coalition with Sinn Fein – stroke – IRA!

The story unfolds.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison