Unionism unsettled


Here is a further selection from the final chapter of ‘Resurgence’ (due for publication soon). It deals with the retreat of Peter Robinson from 2013 to 2015 as Ulster Unionism becomes increasingly unsettled by the consequences of 1998:

The settlement made on Good Friday 1998 has come under attack due to the discomfort of Unionism in the face of its equalising process. This had the effect of disabling the Paisley/Robinson accommodation with Sinn Fein that lay at the heart of Stormont’s brief functionality.

The first stirrings of discontent came within the Unionist mass base, particularly in the Unionist capital, Belfast. Marginalised Loyalist unease at the Agreement was not just about what flag would fly over Belfast City Hall. It had another fundamental cause—a new Census result that was predicted to show a position of relative numerical equality between the two communities in ‘Northern Ireland’. The population balance of two-thirds Protestants to one-third Catholic, established in 1921, had been sustained for 40 years without much movement. The majority fear of being out-bred by the minority was not increased by the Censuses of 1971 and 1981 which still put a Catholic majority way into the future. But the Census of 1991 had a significant psychological effect on the Protestant community as it suggested that a Catholic majority was only a generation away.

As the prospect of Northern Catholics achieving a small majority in the entity established in 1921 became more of a probability with every Census, more ingenious ways of disguising that fact had to be come up with by London. The raw facts of life of a sectarian headcount, in which there appears to be an irresistible momentum in one direction, intrudes into a situation that is usually tightly controlled by the media in the province. The new ‘identity’ questions in the 2011 Census were undoubtedly an attempt at sociological mystification on Whitehall’s behalf. What Unionists were being told by the Census propaganda department was that, though Catholics had increased, the numbers describing themselves as ‘Irish’ had declined! A similar piece of subterfuge was engaged in by the Census makers during the 2001 Census when returns were ‘cooked’ by reallocating ‘Others’ overwhelmingly to the ‘Protestant’ category in a desperate attempt to save Trimble as First Minister against the Unionist electorate. But it was ultimately in vain, like all the other methods employed in the losing battle of ‘saving Dave’.

There were about twice as many Protestants as Catholics when ‘Northern Ireland’ was concocted. To prevent the numerical superiority from being eroded, it was necessary that the Protestant breeding rate should be kept up. But Catholic life, being based on a lesser attraction to material things, was more child-friendly and tended to produce a higher breeding-rate (even independently of political concerns). This was, of course, compensated for by a higher rate of emigration that affected Catholics disproportionately, due to the lack of work and housing provision. But that head-counting constituted the basis of ‘Northern Ireland’ politics for two generations. The

Catholic community was demographically curbed to prevent out-breeding but it was otherwise left to its own devices and given up as a lost cause to Unionism—until the point when it has become demographically threatening.

There is the growing probability that there will be either demographic equality or Catholics becoming the slight majority in ‘Northern Ireland’. This suggests there will be an extended transitional period in which life within the Six Counties is shaped more to the liking of nationalists—if that isn’t occurring already. The Unionists would be in the novel position of being a minority in their ‘own wee Ulster’, with the maintenance of their detachment from an all-Ireland state depending on their coming to terms with the Catholic community. It was the realisation of this predicament which caused the growing discomfort among Unionism which began to destabilise the political settlement.

Despite the Census manipulations to reassure Unionists that a Catholic majority would not mean an instant United Ireland, the partial removal of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall (bringing its flying into line with British practice) at that moment indicated that the Unionist citadel was no longer a Protestant city and would henceforth have to be shared. The reality of the demographic danger to Unionist supremacy in ‘Northern Ireland’ spoiled the carefully engineered Census mystification and could not disguise the fact that the results marked the formal end of the ‘Protestant majority’ position and made the ‘majority’ in the territory carved out for them in 1920-1 into just another minority.

Disputes over flags and marching are the routine of politics in ‘Northern Ireland’. The conflict in the Six Counties is formally about the Border but in actuality it is never really about Partition, since Border Polls are rare. By the same token it is never really about the Union—most of which went in 1921, a little more in 1985 and even more in 1998. It is about the political limbo of ‘Northern Ireland’ in which communities adopted shibboleths with little practical political meaning beyond the eternal routine of conflict they were condemned to.

From 1921 the Union was reduced to the mere ceremonial symbols of the State—the Crown, the Queen, the Union Jack, etc—for Unionists. And one of the chief petty concerns has been the flying of flags around localities— or more accurately the flying of them in the face of Catholics—presumably to show who still holds the whip-hand (or doesn’t, as the case may be). That is why the restriction on the flying of the Union flag above City Hall provoked such consternation.

Flag waving certainly became a prominent feature of Protestant com- munal identity after the community was cut off from the UK state in 1921 and asked to perform a new Imperial duty as a semi-detached outpost. There is some evidence that it greatly increased in the Terence O’Neill years when the Protestant masses became uneasy about concessions to Catholics. Flag waving is a sign of insecurity in the sense that it seems as if it has to be done to reassure Unionists that they are still ‘British’ and still top-dog in their backyard—in ‘our wee Ulster’ as it is sometimes put. It is proof that the Unionist community was vitally damaged by the arrangement of 1921 which cut it off, along with its Catholic neighbours, from the political life of the State.

In resisting the Equality Agenda of Sinn Fein within ‘Northern Ireland’, the mass base of Unionism helps to fragment the Protestant bloc and produces the further withdrawal from politics of its middle-class component, accentuating Unionism’s yahoo and religious fundamentalist character. And that in turn leads to the production of increased discontent among the Unionist mass base that transmits itself into Unionist politics.

In the middle of the Flag Dispute, during May 2013, Jim Allister, the one-man opposition at Stormont, scored a rare political success for the Unionist ethnic bloc in the passing of a Private Member’s Bill on Special Advisers (SPADS). This was an anti-Sinn Fein measure on the part of the Traditional Unionist Voice that managed to ensnare the SDLP. The Assembly voted to bar anyone with a “serious” (i.e. 5 year) conviction from being a special political adviser at Stormont. It was passed with the support of Unionist and Alliance MLAs. Sinn Féin and the Green Party voted against the Bill, while the SDLP abstained. If the SDLP had united with Sinn Fein to call for a Petition Of Concern to ensure that the measure enjoyed the support of both communities, the Act would not have passed.

The Act was called ‘Anne’s Law’ after Anne Travers, the campaigning sister of the woman who had been accidentally killed by the IRA in an attempt on the life of her father, a senior Catholic judge. It was this aspect— the Catholic victim—that enabled the SDLP to be ensnared and separated from the Nationalist bloc.

The issue of Special Advisors itself was minor but the small Unionist victory had repercussions. From the contributions of some of the DUP members in the Assembly, it was clear that they greatly enjoyed this sojourn into the past and the indulging of fundamentalist instincts, after being nudged into a more accommodationist position by Robinson in the aftermath of the Flags dispute. As a result of the letting loose of basic instincts, the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship, which depended much on Robinson, began to fracture. Under pressure from the Flag protesters, the Orange Order, the TUV, and Victims campaigners, Robinson decided to pull down the Long Kesh Peace and Reconciliation Centre project (which was to be symbolically sited in the former Maze Internment Camp) he had unveiled only four months previously, to steady his party. Sinn Fein had agreed to a DUP majority on the Board of this project and it was a massive blow to the relationship built up between Sinn Fein and the DUP when Robinson unilaterally ditched agreed plans and it led to deterioration in the relationship between the two parties.

It was said that Republican “insensitivity” pushed Robinson into this change of course but the issues cited in Robinson’s letter (written from his American holiday home), on which Unionists had found Sinn Fein “insensitive”, had all occurred before June 2013, at a time when he continued to support the Long Kesh Peace Project against its detractors. One of the issues cited was the Tyrone Volunteers march, which had taken place for many years without comment, and which took place in Castlederg (without incident) after Robinson had written his 13 page letter from America. In fact, as Liam Clarke revealed in a radio interview with a New York-based station, Robinson and other DUP members had told him that they pulled down the project because they feared that it would be used against them within Unionism in elections over a considerable period, as the project was being built.

Robinson became vulnerable after the small TUV victory in the Assembly, which caused rejectionist Unionists to scent an opportunity to undermine his relationship with McGuinness and thereby destroy the coalition with Sinn Fein. The nonsensical behaviour of Dublin down the years, which was aimed at undermining Adams and Sinn Fein by highlighting the fate of victims, also sent out a message to those wishing to break the functional arrangement. The Northern rejectionists thus found that they were part of mainstream politics across the island. Up until then Robinson had risen above this fundamentalist behaviour, by pursuing Paisley’s broader strategy of implicating Sinn Fein in the government of ‘Northern Ireland’, hoping thereby to quell the Republican storm and halt its momentum.

Robinson gave an indication of the broader policy in a speech to Castlereagh Council. Here is the report from the Belfast Telegraph:

“Insisting that the Union was stronger than ever, he cautioned unionists not to ‘turn the clock back to a bygone era’ and urged them to have more self confidence. ‘Unionism has historically had a siege mentality’, he said. ‘When we were being besieged it was the right response. But when we are in a constitutionally safe and stable position it poses as a threat to our future development. Demographic changes and social change mean that we need to build bigger and broader coalitions and not to retreat into an ever- diminishing core.’

“He said unionism should not be defined simply by the issues of ‘flags and parades’ but by what he described as the benefits of living in the UK. ‘Unionism needs to think and act strategically… because if unionists are not seen to make Northern Ireland work within the Union then no one will. Unionism will only succeed if it is a broad coalition of interests. I accept that not every person who wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom will share my affection for the national flag or even my cultural heritage. My responsibility as leader of the largest unionist party is to seek to hold that broad coalition together for it is only the capacity to bring together those with differing views under a common banner that gives unionism its strength.’

“Mr Robinson… challenged the view that unionist culture was being eroded. ‘Unionists are the purveyors of unionist culture. Nobody can take our culture away from us. It’s within us… Outsiders might try—and from time to time succeed—in limiting our cultural expression in a specific place or manner but they have no power to stop us increasing our expression in other ways. Such a nationalist strategy doesn’t make me feel culturally diminished. It just makes me angry. Angry that people cannot respect and tolerate diversity. But that anger should be channelled into overcoming such intolerance…’ The First Minister said unionists and nationalists had to work together to secure progress.

“Mr Robinson said it was foolish to think that the collapse of the Assembly would not result in further conflict. ‘Happily, it’s only an academic argument but I have absolutely no doubt that if the Assembly were to fall it would leave a void which every malign force would seek to exploit and profit from’, he said. ‘Paramilitary organisations which are presently contained would be reinforced and bracing themselves for an opening to wage terror’…” (19.10.13).

There was much sense in Robinson’s argument to Unionism. The former days were over where the ‘minority’ could be presided over as a second- class community. They were no longer a ‘minority’ because of demographics and soon they might be a majority. And, as a result of the Republican War, they were no longer second-class. So Unionism had to take account of them and even court them, or a section of them, to survive. Robinson was also aware of the antagonising effects of ‘Protestant culture’ on Catholics. Whilst many aspects of the British State are attractive to Northern Catholics, the Ulsterish variant of Britishness repels them.

It was not those who had the Union flag waved at them who took away the Union. The Northern Catholics led by Joe Devlin were enthusiastically Imperial. Devlin’s Hibernians were helping to integrate Ireland into the developing British welfare state, and West Belfast was one of the great recruiting centres for Britain’s Great War. It boasted of being more loyal to England’s cause than the loyalists. But they don’t make Northern Catholics like that any more. ‘Northern Ireland’ saw to that. The major political effect of ‘Northern Ireland’ has been to make its inhabitants less and less British as the years rolled by—something which Carson predicted and feared.

The symbolism of the flag dispute set off a chain of events that resulted in the bulk of the DUP and the Protestant middle-class—which had not retreated from politics altogether, was discontented with being hustled into the Agreement, and was never comfortable in the potential of the Paisley/ Robinson strategy to blunt Republicanism—losing its faith in the strategy.

The success of the Paisley/Robinson project depended on Unionism being amenable to Six County Catholics and making ‘Northern Ireland’ possible for them to live in contentedly. And that meant holding a tight control over all the instinctive reflexes of Ulsterish Unionism. That was proving a difficult project to see through, given the nature of ‘Northern Ireland’ and its communal blocs. By 2013 the Unionist mass base had been on the streets, Jim Allister was harassing the DUP, and its rank and file were growing in discontent.

With the Northern Ireland institutions under threat, talks were held under the Chairmanship of American Rich Haas. Unionist discomfort over issues like flags, parading, and coming to terms with the past was clear during the Haas Talks on these issues in late 2013, despite the ‘hush-hush’ nature of the negotiations. Surrendering ground on unrestricted flag-waving and parading through the territory of other communities is a painful, divisive and fragmenting experience for a Unionism whose remaining Britishness was almost entirely based on such things. It was caught in a contradiction between making the necessary compromises to establish the required equality under the 1998 Constitution to please the British and the US Governments on the one hand, and keeping its base happy by preserving some majority/dominant status, on the other. And all the time the secular Protestant middle-class was walking away from politics, or voting Alliance, at the unpleasantness of it all. For both Unionist Parties there was the realisation that any compromise with equality could be used opportunistically by the other and, if both compromised, Jim Allister, leader of the tiny Traditional Unionist Voice, would be the winner. And increasing Protestant fragmentation and withdrawal from politics could only benefit Sinn Fein electorally, turning it into the dominant party in ‘Northern Ireland’, the territory carved out for Unionism.

The failure of the Haass Talks demonstrated that the ‘Northern Ireland’ system was not capable of autonomous functioning beyond anything but the mundane. It is a system that requires active supervision from London and Dublin. And, when necessary, Washington intervention is needed to jump-start it when it stalls. That is because, within its delegated affairs, it operates as two separate communal blocs voting on matters in parallel—so it is incapable of resolving issues of fundamental difference internally.

The Good Friday institutions lack the dynamic of internal development. Any dynamic that has existed has centred on the tying up of loose ends, of completing unfinished business from the 1998 Agreement. And the local parties are incapable of following through on even this without the requisite muscle from London, Dublin and Washington. In a speech to the British- Irish Association Conference in September 2013 the Secretary of State for ‘Northern Ireland’ signalled that what was required from Haass was an “internal solution” and a blame-limiting process confined to the two communities.

Robinson and McGuinness called in Haass presumably in order to implicate the Ulster Unionists and DUP rank-and-file in a deal on the issues that were destabilising the functional settlement in 2013, but to no avail. The Nationalist bloc made compromises, feeling able to compromise because it had no opposition outside the negotiations to worry about. But the Unionist ultras and the volatile yahoo element of Unionism lay in wait for the Unionist bloc delegates and they did not dare to make the necessary compromises by signing up to the Haass Document No.7. The Nationalists salvaged a moral victory out of the wreckage by accepting Document No. 7 and pleasing Washington. But that was that.

There was another crisis in February 2014, when DUP First Minister Robinson threatened to bring the devolved system down if Letters of Comfort given many years earlier to republicans liable to prosecution were not withdrawn by the British Government. A Judicial Inquiry was conceded by the British Prime Minister. This concession was something entirely different to what the First Minister was demanding and much less consequential. However, Robinson accepted it, drawing back from the abyss.

The Westminster Government helped to accentuate the instability within Unionism. From 2011 the British began stripping the North of about £1.5 billion pounds of its annual Block Grant. Large cuts to public services pushed the administration to breaking point. Westminster also required Belfast to impose welfare cuts in line with Britain but found that, due to the Good Friday Agreement, this was now a devolved matter. This meant that Nationalist consent was necessary. Although the decision not to cut welfare benefits when they were being cut in Britain was made within the authority devolved to Stormont, Whitehall decided to override that authority. The Cameron Coalition, in line with its austerity policy, imposed a cut of £1 billion a year in the North, over four years, and demanded that welfare cuts be implemented largely on the same basis as in Britain.

When the Government of the State decided to impose cuts on its sub- government’s welfare provision and Sinn Fein and the SDLP attempted a stand against the cuts, Whitehall replied with drastic fines on Stormont, starting at £87m for 2013-4, rising to £114m for 2014-5, out of its general Budget. NI does not have its own revenue streams as such: taxes are raised as an integral part of the UK (whilst being excluded from the politics of the State). As such, it can only distribute what is given to it by Whitehall, and its electorate can do nothing about it every five years, even if it is unhappy about such things, as it does not elect the governing parties.

Sinn Fein made two reasonable proposals for resolving the issue: either let the Assembly, freed of communal voting rules in this instance, decide it, or put it to a referendum. These proposals were rejected. The Government of the State replied that it was exploring “all options which were legally and constitutionally possible” to impose its will, including a suspension of the Assembly but a leaving in place the façade of an Executive on the Stormont hill. Another option was a short suspension and return to Direct Rule, to impose the new financial arrangements (BT 1.11.14)

Around this time the Tories were courting the DUP as possible electoral support at Westminster in the event of a tight 2015 election. The DUP broke ranks by accepting the cuts, to show their amenability.

Sinn Fein, as the only party which aspired to govern a state, and as the only cross-Border party in ‘Northern Ireland’, was vulnerable to political manoeuvres by its opponents in Dublin. It was attacked by Charles Flanagan, the Fine Gael Irish Foreign Minister, for having “failed to take the tough budgetary decisions that have to be made in government”. And, of course, if Sinn Fein had tamely accepted welfare cuts in the North, it would undoubtedly have been the subject of the opposite criticism—opposing austerity in the South whilst implementing it in the North. The SDLP was absolved from such criticism being only a local party of ‘Northern Ireland’ and having no pretensions for real politics or government. However, it was again placed in an awkward position by the British economic assault on the North.

In the event, Sinn Fein negotiated the Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 that ameliorated the welfare cuts in return for Britain making concessions on three key issues discussed by Haass. However, Sinn Fein made it clear that it was protecting both present and future claimants from the full impact of the ‘reforms’. It appeared that Sinn Fein had managed to avert the fall of Stormont and agree to the social welfare cuts in a way that prevented political damage to itself. The Dublin Government publicly implicated itself in this deal and was thereby disabled from criticising Sinn Fein for accepting austerity, admitting that it was an external imposition from London, one which it supported. The rest of the Stormont House deal was a kind of ‘keeping the show on the road’ operation, with nothing of substance solved but everything put up for negotiation/conflict. The deal included: a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition; a transfer of the business of the Parades Commission to the Assembly; the establishment of an oral history archive; a Historical Investigations Unit to deal with legacy issues; an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval to help relatives of victims to gain information confidentially; the possibility of establishing an Official Opposition; and a reduction of the Stormont Ministries from 12 to 9.

Just before the 2015 General Election the DUP, which had been courted by the Tories (fearing they were not going to get a working majority) and seeking to establish distance from its Sinn Fein partners in government for electoral purposes, decided to use an accounting manoeuvre to welch on the deal. It restricted protection to existing claimants. Learning of the manoeuvre, Sinn Fein responded by opposing the Welfare Bill by tabling of a Petition of Concern— a legitimate mechanism of the Good Friday Agreement. Stalemate ensued again.

During the UK election campaign Unionists were reminded again that they were not fully British or part of the Union. ‘Northern Ireland’ parties were excluded from the TV Election debates, as inclusion of NI parties would have made them too unwieldly. Lord Hall, replying to a DUP complaint about the unfairness of this, when other regional parties in the UK were included in the debates, pointed to the fact that the parties of State do not compete for seats in the ‘Northern Ireland’ region. This is the fundamental test of membership of the Union and its politics. ‘Northern Ireland’ is a place, formally part of the UK, but actually apart from it. Cameron, embarrassed at this blurting out of the political facts of life when he was attempting to court the DUP as future lobby fodder, said he was in favour of including the party in the debates. However, he was only playing political games, as TV debates did not favour his position.

In May 2015, Cameron, having secured a majority for the Tories at West- minster without requiring support from the DUP, moved to strip public services and welfare in the North of a further £25 Billion. This would have made the financial situation of the Executive at Stormont unsustainable. The DUP, having thought it would be indispensable to Cameron, found itself expendable. However, Unionism went along with the cuts, even though a substantial part of its own community was affected. Presumably the issue was judged a useful diversionary action to avoid a compromise with Sinn Fein on legacy issues, flags and parading.

Sinn Fein is the only party in ‘Northern Ireland’ which aspires to govern

a state. Its constituency in both States demands that it opposes the Tory welfare cuts—which were actually opposed by many in the UK, including a substantial number of Conservatives. Stalemate set in. Then in August 2015, after the shooting of two former members of the Provos in Belfast, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, after media provocation promoting political policing, claimed that the IRA still existed and had carried out one of the killings. This enabled the Unionist Party to attempt to out-flank the DUP. UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt withdrew his only Minister from the Executive, to distance the party from the DUP: the two parties that had drawn together in support of the Tory welfare reform cuts. In this way, the subordinate part of Unionism hoped to recapture lost ground to the dominant part in the 2016 Assembly Election.

The UUP leader described the Executive as a “busted flush” and stated he was going to form an opposition (BT 26.8.15). The UUP walked away, calling for the DUP to withdraw from the Executive: effectively a call to bring down the institutions.

Robinson, not wanting to do the UUP bidding, and also reluctant to end power-sharing, then “stepped aside” with four of his five Ministers, but failed in a motion to have the Assembly adjourned as the SDLP supported Sinn Fein in opposing the proposal.

Robinson then called on the British Government to suspend the institutions, but the proposal was rejected. The conflict within Unionism was all about who could push things closest to tipping point without actually taking everything over the cliff.

It was clear that Robinson, after a period of maintaining stability at Stormont, had been unsettled by a revival of the fundamentalist instinct within the DUP. On top of this, the recent semi-resurgence of the UUP under its new leader, had stirred up discontent amongst the DUP to a level that made Robinson’s earlier project, outlined in his Castlereagh speech, of stabilising ‘Northern Ireland’ in the Unionist interest, untenable.

All in all there was little reason to doubt Sinn Fein’s view that the crash of the Stormont House Agreement in late 2015 was “a contrived crisis”, brought about by the electoral rivalry between the two branches of Unionism. The casus belli of the crisis was flimsy in the extreme—the killing of two former Republican prisoners, not usually a concern of Unionism.

The impasse that developed threatened the continued existence of devolved government. All-party talks were convened and these led to a deal called “Fresh Start”, under which the devolved administration would be able to partially protect welfare recipients until the next British General Election.

Stormont temporarily ceded the devolved power of welfare to Westminster to enable the sovereign Government of the State to over-ride it and impose its policy on a UK-wide basis. If it hadn’t done so, Westminster could have taken back the powers by suspending the Good Friday Agreement or restricting devolved powers—it is the sovereign power after all. But that would have endangered the Agreement.

Sinn Fein could have called Britain’s bluff on the matter and provoked a major crisis. However, if it had, it would have made itself dependent on Dublin’s will to defend the Agreement, as its Guarantor in 1998. It chose not to risk what it had gained on that and agreed to deal with Westminster. The SDLP took the opportunity to make some easy criticisms of Sinn Fein for bowing to the Westminster diktat by giving away powers devolved to the Assembly. It could bask in the luxury of irresponsibility being a provincial party with no ambitions to govern a state. In essence it was a protest party against Unionism with no purpose since 1998 but to be a recipient of votes that London and Dublin could shave off Sinn Fein through ideological warfare.

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