byBobbie Heatley and David Granville
“UNIONISTS WILL accept nothing less than Sinn Féin’s expulsion from the (Stormont) power-sharing executive... if the (British) government doesn’t take action then we will take action to remove Sinn Féin from the government of Northern Ireland by one means or another.”
This crude threat was recently issued by Jeffrey Donaldson, Trimble’s colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party, Jeffrey Donaldson and a prominent mouthpiece for its reputedly growing anti-agreement wing.
Donaldson is ably assisted by another rejectionist, David Burnside, who is also angling to replace Trimble as leader.
Sinn Féin is a democratically-elected political party and, marginally, the largest one representing republicanism/nationalism in the north. It has four members of parliament at Westminster in London and five TDs in Dáil Éireann. It is breathing down the SDLP’s neck in the Stormont assembly in terms of assembly members. For the first time ever, one of its leading lights, Alex Maskey, has been elected mayor of the north’s largest city, Belfast.
Its democratic mandate is large, clear, and apparently growing. That is precisely why the likes of Donaldson and Burnside -- and Trimble whom they have dangling on a string -- are behaving as they are.
Besides, they have never allowed such an inconsequential thing as a democratic mandate to stand in the way of monopolising the tit-bits of power devolved to them from London. Their progenitors overrode democracy in 1918 -- the last all-Ireland general election was held -- and are doing so now with regard to the Mitchell agreement which was overwhelmingly endorsed in referenda four years ago.
But, if the latest leaks from the census office in the north are anything to go by, they will have yet another cause for worry. According to the Sunday Business Post “The figures are likely to demonstrate that the north no longer has a Protestant majority. Catholics and Protestants will probably come in at about 47 per cent each, with six per cent neither, or refusing to say what they are”.
The age profile of the six county electorate is also an advantage for Catholics who have greater numbers in the lower-age bands. Since the weird contours of the border were drawn by Britain to contrive for unionists -- who exercised a hegemony over the Protestants -- a majority in perpetuity, that base of power would seem to be crumbling away.
However, for those who see a sectarian-head-count ‘solution’ -- whereby Catholics eventually overtaking Protestants numerically, automatically creating a majority for Irish unity -- as a ‘pain free’ option to bringing an end to British rule in the north of Ireland, the path to unity is strewn with more obstacles than they perhaps imagine.
Over recent years the British state has been working insidiously to integrate sections of the Catholic community (including ‘street-level’ activists) into the status quo and it has registered some successes -- despite a lack of help from the political parties of unionism.
Some pro-unionist journalists, such as Malachi O’Doherty, who writes for the Belfast Telegraph, have been grasping at this straw for some time now in an effort to maintain that a re-united Ireland, dependent on a Catholic majority vote, is still a long way off.
Trimble’s recent outburst of truculence and rudeness, during which he came up with a new set of redlines and deadlines and ordered the British prime minister to take action against Sinn Féin, or else, has not played well in most quarters.
Writing in the Sunday Tribune on 7 July, journalist Susan McKay rebutted Trimble’s flimsy excuses for wanting Sinn Féin sanctioned by reminding the paper’s readers of the known facts about two supposedly key republican misdemeanours: “We don’t know what happened in Columbia. We don’t know what happened at Castlereagh.”
Referring to the ‘interface’ street riots in north and east Belfast, the same journalist pointed out that “...the far more serious onslaught is coming from loyalists, who are, nightly, attacking vulnerable Catholic schools, homes and churches all over the north”.
However, this is not simply a statement of conjecture or opinion -- any reader who doubts this should visit the website of the Pat Finucane Centre (www.serve.com/pfc) which logs all sectarian attacks in the north using criteria established by the Commission for Racial Equality.
In the past year loyalist terror gangs have also been responsible for a number of sectarian killings, leaving proconsul John Reid with little alternative but to declare the UDA’s ceasefire over.
Speaking at the end of July, Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin understandably expressed his party’s anger at the Blair statement on the peace process, paramilitary activity and sectarian violence. Made at the behest of Trimble, it was clear that, despite the reality of the situation on the ground, the comments was aimed primarily at republicans.
The real positition regarding violence in north and east Belfast and Sinn Féin’s position on sectarian attacks was unequivocal, McLaughlin insisted.
“No one should be under any illusion about where we stand on sectarianism. We absolutely abhor it. We are totally opposed to it. All sectarian attacks should end immediately,” said McLaughlin.
“There have, of course, been sectarian attacks on Protestant homes and where this has happened republicans have been active on the ground in bringing these attacks to an end.
“But we have to be clear about where the majority of these attacks emanate. They result from an orchestrated campaign from loyalist paramilitaries and the figures bear this out. “In the last three months there have been 363 attacks against Catholics. On average four sectarian attacks a day for the last three months.
There have been 144 bomb attacks, 25 shooting incidents, 151 homes damaged and 42 people assaulted, and Gerard Lawlor was shot dead by loyalists as he walked home along the Antrim Road.”
The figures quoted by McLaughlin, and those incidents more comprehensively recorded by organisations such as the Pat Finucane Centre, were evidence of “an orchestrated murder campaign by loyalists against Catholics and not tit-for-tat as is so often stated by the media”, he said.
“Collectively we must set our face against sectarianism. There can be no justification for any sectarian attack.”
These stepped-up loyalist pogroms have been running in tandem with the DUP and UUP rejectionist campaign against the democratic reforms of the Mitchell agreement, while unionists ‘justify’ their singling-out of Sinn Féin by saying that loyalist paramilitaries ‘have no representatives in government’.
But Northern Ireland is a small place and the history of unionism there has shown that all its different components have been able to function ‘choreographically’ without necessarily having to have formal linkages. Subtle networking is enough.
Perhaps it is upon this knowledge that Donaldson is depending when he says, in the hope of restoring Unionist hegemony, that “by one means or another” Sinn Féin will be removed from government.
It is beginning to look increasingly unlikely that the devolved assembly will make it through to next May’s elections -- neither David Trimble’s supporters nor the British government want to find themselves in a situation where the DUP and Sinn Féin come out on top at the expense of the UUP or the SDLP.
Yet, ever aware of the unpalatable alternatives of Burnside, Donaldson and Paisley slavering in the wings as they wait for the wounded beast to give up the ghost, Tony Blair and John Reid have done their level best, once again, to shore up Trimble’s shaky position.
However, even Trimble has openly expressed his disappointment at their efforts and his concern that they have not gone far enough to satisfy his viperous opponents, both inside and outside the UUP.
In the absence of the British government’s willingness to accede totally to the demands of Trimble and his rejectionist tormentors concerning the expulsion of Sinn Féin, collapsing the institutions, yet again, may appear to the embattled and myopic first minister as his only chance of political survival.
With the issue of joint sovereignty again beginning to rear its head, the question now is whether the British will allow Trimble to get away with it one more time, or will Blair and Reid decide that the UUP leader’s usefulness has finally run its course?
We may not have long to wait to discover the answer.
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