A Unionist's Ireland


One positive thing about stalemates is that they force at least some people to think creatively. There are many politicians in the North quite content to surf from one crisis to another, and there are others who have made a life-long career from cultivating intransigence.

Take Ian Paisley, for example. No individual in any European parliamentary election, since elections were first held in 1979, has ever polled as successfully as he has. But his success is completely superficial. He is a failure. Not once has he ever come up with a proposal for realistically resolving the northern crisis. He is a total failure even by his own standards. Where once there was one Tricolour in Divis Street, Belfast, that he pledged to see banished, a thousand now fly in every county in the North. Where once there was an impregnable unionist monolith it is now badly fractured, mostly through his actions.

He was the fool on the hill in the middle of the night waving firearms certificates at the moon. He was like a swaggering Idi Amin in his red beret as he marched Ulster Resistance - yet another of his 'Third Forces' - round in circles. He was the boyo who was going to smash Sinn Fein.

Despite his populism, despite the vein of discontent, insecurity and paranoia in the unionist pysche into which he successfully tapped, he gave nothing in return. In fact, he has never been able to rise above the role of spoiler. Let's hope he is better at saving souls than he is at saving the union. Even former paramilitary allies publicly regret ever having been associated with him. He is the great loser and soon he will be the retired great loser.

Mainstream unionism as represented by the Ulster Unionist Party is, however, also deeply divided, a division which severely damages its ability to act in the overall interests of the unionist people. At the heart of that division is uncertainty about the right approach to the way forward. The faction led by Jeffrey Donaldson fears that the Good Friday Agreement makes too many concessions to nationalists and republicans and creates an inevitable trend towards a united Ireland. David Trimble, on the other hand, and the Progressive Unionist Party, signed up to the Agreement on the understanding that it settled the constitutional status of the North for a long time to come (and dismiss the theory of relatively imminent demographic change in favour of nationalists). They demonstrated pragmatism and they are the people with whom republicans have to deal honestly - with no recourse to threat or deceit, but solely through the peace and political processes.

However, Trimble and his colleagues also have had major problems coming to terms with the implications of the Agreement which they signed. The release of IRA prisoners (in essence, a political amnesty), the establishment of a police service to eventually replace the RUC, have not only dismayed but fairly traumatised the unionist people because of what those developments say about the nature of the conflict and unionism's role in it. That is why the demand for IRA decommissioning is not just tactical (aimed at excluding Sinn Fein) but is so passionate. They need proof that the IRA is surrendering, that republicans were wrong and unionists right - and one George Cross does not a comfort blanket make.

The demand for decommissioning/surrender is one that republicans cannot and never will accede to. Although Sinn Fein initially took much of the flak when the disingenuous Peter Mandelson suspended the institutions back in February, it has been exonerated at grassroots' level (if two recent northern by-elections are anything to go by). Unionists, on the other hand, remain divided, indecisive and likely to find themselves with less to negotiate about if the British government (as I believe is likely) resumes implementing the substance of the Agreement, not least from the simple motive of removing many of the causes of the conflict.

The political stalemate has, as I said, provoked some unorthodox thinking within unionism. One North Down businessman I met recently referred to himself as 'an interim unionist', meaning that he felt that a federation between the North and the South was inevitable, that he was prepared for it and excited by the challenges we would all be facing.

On BBC radio last Wednesday there was an interesting discussion provoked by proposals from James McFarland, a lawyer and businessman in Lisburn, who is also a unionist. He said that "Britain does not want Northern Ireland as part of the UK", and that unionists needed "to re-examine the concept of a united Ireland. Is it any longer such an anathema to the Protestant ethic?" He said that many senior unionists sympathised with his views and he proposed that rather than have change imposed on them unionists should negotiate with the British and Irish governments and the SDLP for the reunification of Ireland in fifteen years' time. (He also advocated a robust security crackdown, including the use of internment, against any republican or loyalist who stood in the way, but it is his political remarks that are the more important.)

It would indeed be wishful to think that such views represent but a small number of unionists. But that they are being discussed at all, that James McFarland should feel confident enough to express them publicly, is a sign that not all unionists are intransigent or blinkered. Nor are they British.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison