‘Northern Ireland’: Unionism in Crisis?

Unionism is in crisis. It has been in crisis for around 50 years now. But it hasn’t gone away you know.

The speedy demise of Edwin Poots as DUP leader has given great satisfaction to nationalists of various hues. There is, of course, the traditional satisfaction of the communal grind in which all bad is wished upon them’uns. But today there is also a form of satisfaction generated out of antipathy to those who adhere to traditional ways of looking at social life and who have not transitioned to new identities in the same way as nationalist Ireland has.

Nationalist Ireland has somersaulted in a way Ulster Unionism is incapable of. All that was bad 50 years ago is for the good today. A little bit like how Britain transformed itself from running an industrial slaving system to policing the world against minor slavers; how it went from being the globaliser of the racial hierarchy to multi-culturalist defender of ethnic minorities; how it fiercely repressed homosexuality to now championing Gay Pride and condemning any country who dared to not change traditional ways of looking at marriage and the family to ones more in the interests of global capitalism.

Protestant Ulster seems to know what it is—as do Russia, China and the Muslim world. The new Ireland has abandoned its bearings in favour of California.

Edwin Poots attempted to stabilise things in the brief period of his leadership. He was caught in a bind. The DUP had moved toward its heartland in an attempt to get the Protestant vote out in a coming crucial election. That is what communal politics is all about in Northern Ireland, despite any fine words that might dress up the system. He failed because opposition was mounted on two fronts to his attempt to stabilise things. The ‘moderate’, Donaldsonites, combined with the ‘fundamentalists’ to unseat Poots.

Edwin Poots attempted to allow the British to deal with the thorny Irish Language Act issue. That policy had its advantages for the DUP. It meant they were not seen to be collaborating in bringing in an Irish Language Act and the issue was put off until October, when marching was over. The heat would be taken out of a situation in which loyalists were using the Protocol and the Bobby Storey funeral against the DUP, fragmenting the Unionist vote. Sinn Fein would have liked the DUP collaborate in an Irish Language Act but were content to let the British do the dirty deed on the DUP if necessary, as they had done with the issue of abortion.

But the fundamentalists were not content with this. They had seen off Paisley, overturned Robinson’s 2013 Castlereagh speech policy of feeding the crocodiles/Fenians. They now combined with the moderates to see off Poots, and presumably the new First Minister will have to go too to make way for Sir Jeffrey.

Pat Leahy, political editor of The Irish Times, apparently believes Jeffrey Donaldson, the new DUP Leader, to be “a man Dublin can do business with”. When he was a part of the UUP, Donaldson’s Leader, David Trimble was cajoled and bullied into signing the Good Friday Agreement by Tony Blair. The Irish Times (07.06.98) claimed at the time that the British Prime Minister threatened to hold an all-UK referendum on the future of the North – that would have supposedly led to dire prospects for Unionists, if Trimble did not sign up to the Agreement. Such a high risk gamble on Blair’s part seems to have called Trimble’s bluff and induced him to sign up to something he was not at all in favour of.

Because Trimble signed the Agreement while disagreeing with it, the result was that the effective leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party passed to Jeffrey Donaldson, whose conscience had made him head for the car park when the UUP signed up.

Donaldson and his supporters in the UUP wanted assurances on the future of the RUC and IRA decommissioning before a Sinn Fein entry into government and the release of any prisoners. The Orange Order backed Donaldson in refusing to support the Agreement. Trimble claimed that the only difference between his position and that of Donaldson was on the effectiveness of mechanisms that were to be used to exclude Sinn Fein if decommissioning did not take place. Trimble relied on Tony Blair’s letter whilst Donaldson wanted an effective rewriting of the Agreement before he would support it.

The effect of this was that everything that Trimble did and said after Donaldson walked out on Good Friday was thereafter determined by Donaldson’s obstruction to the Agreement and resulted in a hardening of opposition to the Agreement within the Ulster Unionist Party itself and the Protestant community as a whole.

Because of this Trimble fought a half-hearted campaign in favour of the Agreement he had signed up to and then continued to try and re-write it ever after, as Donaldson wished.

The Irish Political Review made the following comment about the ‘sham fight’ that was being developed within the UUP in which the Ulster Unionist Council became the continuous arena of struggle between Trimble and Donaldson:

“We have assumed throughout… that Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson were performing a double act. Trimble felt he had to sign on Good Friday, lest something worse befall Unionism. He had to pretend (or let others pretend for him) that he wanted to work the Agreement, but was prevented by hard-line Unionist opposition led by Jeffrey Donaldson. It was remarkable how nationalists on all sides were taken in by it, and effectively set the Agreement aside in order to make concessions to help Trimble in his shadow-boxing with Donaldson. (In shadow boxing there is only one boxer in the ring, and in this case it was Donaldson. Trimble was assumed to be the opponent. His opposition to Donaldson was contributed by nationalist imagination, without a shred of hard evidence from Trimble that he wanted to see the Agreement implemented.)

“We will not speculate about states of consciousness, which are usually beside the point in political affairs. Conduct is what counts in politics. And the assumption that Trimble and Donaldson performed a double act to enable Trimble to sign the Agreement under great pressure on Good Friday, and to prevent its implementation thereafter, is in accordance with Unionist conduct.

“We will not speculate about how this was arranged between them, or whether any formal arrangement was needed. But, when the Agreement institutions were suspended, Donaldson came on television to explain that Trimble had to threaten to collapse them by resigning because Sinn Fein had not met its commitments under the Agreement. At that juncture, the viewer with a short memory – and television is conducted in a way that presumes its viewers have no memory – would supposed that Donaldson was a disillusioned supporter of the Agreement. But Donaldson’s argument against the Agreement for a year and a half was precisely that it did not make prior disarming of the IRA preconditioning of Sinn Fein participation in the Executive” (IPR March 2000).

At the end of each meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council there was the same result – give or take a couple of percentage points – 57 to 43, 55 to 45, 54 to 46, etc. always to Trimble, as the 860 odd members of the UUC held the peace process to ransom with the British Prime Minister’s connivance. On 11th February 2000 with the Ulster Unionist Council scheduled to meet again and Trimble, under pressure from Donaldson’s manoeuvrings, and likely to fulfil a promise to resign, the NI Secretary Peter Mandelson suspended the Assembly and the long over-due establishment of the Executive. The Good Friday institutions did not recover from the obstructive manoeuvrings of the Trimble/Donaldson double act and become functional until Ian Paisley did a deal with Martin McGuinness 7 years later.

That is the man The Irish Times believes Dublin can do business with. Does it at all wonder why the DUP has opted for Donaldson now instead of Poots.

The big problem for Unionism this decade has been the prospect of a Catholic majority, resulting in the installation of a Sinn Fein First Minister in Stormont, with the implication that carries for the Union. Should the crocodiles be fed to sate their appetite, or not fed to temper their insatiability? That is the question that has tormented Unionism. Perhaps only a bringing down of the whole house will finally resolve it.

The Irish Language issue could easily be sorted. It could be sorted within the British context. After all, the Irish revivalists could only dream about a situation in which they were as successful as the British Welsh with their language. But the anti-Irish Ulsterish Unionists seem incapable of Britishness and the ability of outmanoeuvring their opponents on such a basis.

Westminster seems to have had enough of Ulsterish defence of the Union. The Johnson Government is the first Unionist government of the UK for long years. It is Chamberlainite (Joe Chamberlain) in its social reform unionism. It is redefining Britishness as NHS, diversity and levelling up. It is defending the Union on this basis, and who is to say it will not be successful? It has scattered the pathetic opposition and it will be interesting to see if it will burst the Scottish nationalist bubble. If it can do this, Ulster Unionism will be in the game again, after it fell foul by interfering in the British party political struggle and got shafted by Johnson.

The Ulster Protestants are the least British element in Northern Ireland. The other community is far more British. If it appears anti-British it is because it has been antagonised for nearly a century by Ulsterish politics, and cut off from the British political system. What is Britishness today? When one thinks NHS, diversity, levelling up, which community does one think of? Certainly not the Ulster Protestants.

The Britishness of the Northern Catholics presents a bigger danger to the independence of the Irish State (the real one). Leo Varadkar has now bought into the “failed state” narrative advanced by Sinn Fein. He has indicated he wants to create a new state, just like the Northern Republicans. Will that state be rooted in the independence won or will it transgress such redundant narratives and be a transition to the past, “a blessed oblivion of history” in the words of John Redmond.

The perverse political entity of ‘Northern Ireland’ still fulfils the purpose it was established for in its centenary. Let us give it its due. Far from being a “failed state”, it has been a tremendous success for those who set it up one hundred years ago. And it has certainly not outlived its usefulness.

Published in Irish Political Review of July 2021

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