by David Granville
AT FIRST SIGHT, it’s difficult to view the outcome of the recent elections to the Northern Ireland assembly as anything but a setback for the political process ushered in by the Belfast agreement of 1998.
However, like everything else involving the relationship between Britain and Ireland, and within the remnant of empire located in the north east of the island of Ireland, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it appears.
The Belfast agreement set out a peaceful path towards power sharing and the introduction of civil, democratic and human-rights reforms. In doing so it gave notice to unionists, formally, by way of an international treaty endorsed by large majorities north and south of the border in separate referenda, that a return to the era of reactionary unionist hegemony was no longer an option.
The historic deal did not mean that Britain was abandoning the union and putting in place a process which would inevitably lead to a united Ireland - far from it.
The cessation of conflict, accompanied by fundamental democratic reforms was for Blair and his ministers part of a wider devolutionary plan aimed at modernising, and securing, the union as a whole.
The wording of the agreement itself was neither pro-unionist nor pro-Irish nationalist. Significantly, however, the agreement did not rule out the possibility of a united Ireland and created the political conditions whereby the supporters of Irish national democracy could legitimately work towards such an outcome in the belief that it was attainable within a realistic time frame.
Furthermore, reforms based on principles of ‘equality’ and ‘parity of esteem’ helped to create the conditions for a further weakening and destabilising of Irish unionism, for whom opposition to such concepts had been the lifeblood of their previous hegemony and domination.
This has been a key underlying factor in unionist opposition to a speedy and full implementation of the agreement and to the faltering and uneven progress made to date. The ongoing suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly, as with all previous suspensions, has had more to do with this and internal party difficulties faced by UUP leader David Trimble, than whatever the IRA does with its silent and unused armaments or concerns about the supposed operation of a IRA spy rings at Stormont.
Yet despite a marked desire to slow the pace of change to suit their own political agenda, and the very real concerns of a majority of their constituents concerning the future of the union, David Trimble has maintained a nominally pro-agreement position.
Trimble is a political pragmatist who knows that the golden age of unionist domination is gone for good. He is also aware of the dangers for the union inherent in the reforms brought about by the Good Friday deal and the political process it has unleashed.
As a result, he has always avoided full-frontal opposition - knowing full well that immediate alternatives such as joint Irish/British sovereignty are even more unacceptable, and potentially more threatening to future of the union than power sharing with republicans and nationalists.
Unionists’ artificially-created majority within the north has also helped to assuage Protestant fears by providing the basis for a real, though weakening, veto on change.
Trimble has always worked on the basis of dragging out the process as much as possible, thus enabling him and his party to frustrate or water down some of the more unpalatable aspects of the agreement, in the process bringing a majority of moderate unionists around to the necessity of cutting a deal with nationalists and republicans in order to maintain key aspects of the political union with Britain. It is a strategy which has only partially worked.
Of course, Ian Paisley and the DUP have never been keen on this particular script, having opposed the Good Friday agreement from the off on the basis that for them it is little more than a sign of the UUP’s capitulation to republicanism.
At the same time, and despite the best efforts of successive British secretaries of state, Trimble has been under siege for much of this time from anti-agreement opposition elements within the UUP, who essentially share the same view as the Paisley and the DUP.
More importantly, increasing numbers of unionist voters have become disillusioned with the agreement and David Trimble’s leadership.
Despite a transformation in the security situation in the north since the early 1990s and the stability and prosperity that this has brought for significant sections of the north’s population, there is a not unreasonable feeling not unreasonable that the union is gradually slipping through their fingers.
For those brought up in a world innate unionist superiority underpinned sectarian domination, a world in which defence of the union was paramount and superseded all class interests, recent developments have been unnerving and hard to swallow,
The situation has been exacerbated by a politically impoverished unionist leadership, which, unlike the leadership of mainstream republicanism, has been unable to convince its constituency of the necessity for fundamental change -- largely as a result of its own ambivalence to the Good Friday deal.
The former job security of the unionist working class has evaporated in recent decades with the decline of linen, shipbuilding and engineering industries in Northern Ireland and throughout Britain and long-overdue intervention to end discrimination against Catholic workers.
While unemployment continues to affect more Catholics than Protestants by a ratio of 2:1, increasing numbers of Protestants have become victims of unemployment and poverty.
Nor have sectarian tensions have disappeared as a result of the Good Friday deal -- indeed in some ways they have been heightened, especially in working class ‘interface’ areas throughout the north, where unemployment and high levels of poverty and disadvantage within both communities are widespread. Even so, although attacks against Catholics continue to outweigh, considerably, those against Protestants.
As if to cap it all, unionists have witnessed the unprecedented growth in political support for Sinn Fein at the expense of the moderate and middle class nationalist party, the SDLP, with whom they were always encouraged to believe -- both by the British government and their own leadership -- that they could reach some form of agreement with.
The increase in support for SF was clearly demonstrated in the assembly elections where the party gained six seats and came within a handful of votes of another three-five seats.
The combined result has been growing disillusionment with the political process of the Good Friday agreement and with David Trimble and the leadership of the UUP.
It is in this context that the populist pronouncements of Ian Paisley and the DUP garnered enough votes and transfers to take them to the top of the unionist pile. Their message was simple, if essentially unrealistic: ‘vote DUP and save the union
The DUP’s political platform of outright opposition to the Good Friday agreement -- though they were clever enough to change this in time for the election to a call for it to be ‘renegotiated’ -- and a commitment not to sit down with terrorists, republican ones at least, was enough to bring on Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern’s worst nightmares and to sweep the faux Dr to the top of the unionist pile.
Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for either the the two leaders or the ongoing political process:
Despite what many commentators have said, the DUP and Sinn Fein dual eclipse of the UUP and SDLP does not necessarily mean the end of the Good Friday agreement -- though there now seems virtually no chance of the British government lifting the suspension for some time since failure to put another executive in place within six week would trigger a further election.
The DUP may yet prove to be more flexible than has been predicted. However, despite the willingness of Sinn Fein to sit down and discuss the DUP’s concerns with them, few politicians or commentators will be holding their breath on this one.
Even so, the bald political fact for Ian Paisley and his gang of ultra-traditional unionists and fundamentalist flat-earth christians is that the only way in which they are going to exercise their newly-won electoral advantage through a devolved assembly at Stormont is by sitting down and working something out with the hated Shinners.
It i also worth remembering that the Northern Ireland assembly means nowhere near as much to republicans as it does to unionists.
Despite the electoral rhetoric of the DUP and other anti-agreement unionists, there is no way that the equality reforms already introduced, including those relating to the police service, will be rolled back because the Ian Paisley has the loudest voice in the six counties. Indeed much of the Good Friday agenda contained in Stands two & three of the agreement, along with various equality measures already in place or in the pipeline, including reform of the justice system, will continue to be implemented regardless of Paisley’s rantings.
Paisley has finally succeeded in his long-held dream of ousting the UUP as the leading party of unionism and one of his key short-term objectives will be to further enhance the DUP’s position within unionism at the expense of Trimble and co.
However, Paisley’s strategy to ‘save the Union’ and halt the political dynamic leading inexorably in the direction of a united Ireland, remains unclear. Essentially a creature of opposition, he has shown no previous signs of the sophisticated the political skills necessary for dealing with the recent dramatic change of circumstances.
One particularly uncomfortable issue he will have to face very soon if, as predicted, the DUP refuses to sit down with republicans, is the possibility that Dublin will increase its influence in the north as Britain looks to share its responsibility for the north with its partner south of the border.
Despite the DUP win, a majority of people in the six counties, though not a majority of unionists, remain in favour of the Good Friday deal. Under normal democrat circumstances such a majority would present few problems. However, it’s difficult to see how this can be utilised given the bizarre d’Hondt system used for the assembly, whereby assembly members are required to declare themselves as unionist or nationalist and and a majority must be achieved in each section for a decision to be made or a ministerial appointment approved.
Even so, from the republican point of view things could hardly look rosier.
In addition to the gains secured in the assembly elections, the party continues to grow on both sides of the border.
While ever Trimble was in pole position within Ulster unionism, Adams and co had to contend with seemingly endless British government efforts to assuage unionist concerns in order to prop up the nominally pro-agreement Trimble in his position as leader of an increasingly fractious and divided party.
It is extremely unlikely that Paisley, whose opposition to everything the Good Friday deal stands for, will develop the same sort of rapport with Blair and other government ministers and officials -- a situation almost certain to further strengthen, and certainly not weaken, the republican position.
There are also signs that it may not be too long before Sinn Fein, which already organises on a 32 -county basis, is not the only party to follow this political route. Immediately after the assembly elections it emerged that five prominent SDLP figures had approached Fianna Fail about a merger with the party. In recent months the Irish Labour Party has also had informal talks with people in the north while advisers from virtually every party were ‘loaned’ to the SDLP in a forlorn effort to shore up their vote.
The real question now is what Tony Blair and his government are planning to do about all this. The ball is firmly in their court. However, given previous experience, Irish democrats and their friends abroad must be concerned that Blair will again capitulate to the demands of Paisleyism in what must almost inevitably be a forlorn effort to bring the DUP on board.
Unfortunately, Blair’s recent response to attempt to lay a large portion of blame for the October debacle, when Trimble reneged on his part of another delicately ‘choreographed’ sequence of events aimed at getting the Good Friday institutions back of track, at the feet of retired Canadian general John de Chastelain provides no cause for optimism.
Once again, Blair effectively stood by Trimble, openly voicing his disappointment at the general’s ‘low-key, lacklustre performance’ when delivering his decommissioning report in the wake of a third and, as no one appears to deny, significant act of decommissioning.
While the IRA, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and indeed, the British government, fulfilled their part of the negotiated deal and Trimble did not, it was not long before pressure was being placed on republicans to make even further immediate concessions.
If the British government’s attitude remains unchanged now that Paisley is in the unionist driving seat further moves towards demilitarisation and peace are unlikely to materialise, with potentially serious consequences.
Another opportunity to build on the peace process was lost to save the the UUP leader from his own party dissidents. Now his party has been overtaken by Paisley and the DUP will he finally be able to find the political resolve to convince the unionists that acceptance of power sharing with the democratically elected representatives of Irish nationalism and republicanism is their best option.
If all the achievements of the past decade and more are not to be allowed to unravel, it’s for Tony Blair to get Plan B out on the table. If there really isn’t one he’d better commission one, and fast.
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Copyright © 2003 David Granville