The curious evolution of leadership in Northern Ireland

The curious evolution of leadership in Northern Ireland

Two of the Good Friday Agreement’s architects, John Hume and Gerry Adams, shaped the dialogue around the peace process — but in the end their parties did not prosper

Through most of the Northern Irish peace process, nationalists and others argued that a key problem was the poor quality of leadership within unionism.

They looked to South Africa and saw how the president Frederik Willem de Klerk had realised the need to make a deal with Nelson Mandela. Where, nationalists asked, was our de Klerk?

We didn’t have one and we weren’t going to get one. De Klerk had surrendered the vital principle of apartheid because it had become untenable. No unionist was yet ready to regard the union with Britain as untenable and give up on it.

But David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was willing to make another attempt at a compromise agreed twenty five years earlier by his predecessor, Brian Faulkner and share power.

That’s how we got the Good Friday Agreement.

What was radically different this time was that unionists would not just share power with the moderate SDLP but also with Sinn Féin, the political party that represented the interests of the IRA and had delivered a ceasefire and a republican compromise.

And this new assembly would not be brought down as before by loyalist protest.

The form of the compromise had been worked out by SDLP leader, John Hume and Gerry Adams the president of Sinn Féin.

Were these men great leaders?

David Trimble had made a brave move and lost the support of half of his party.

Adams had effectively gained control of the republican side to the extent that he could deliver the hard men into a compromise. This was a huge achievement. Adams claimed he had done it while not actually being a member of the IRA himself. Beyond extraordinary if true.

John Hume, working with Adams and with Mark Durkan behind him had reframed the vocabulary in which the Northern Ireland problem was discussed.

Unionists and the British government had seen the problem as simply terrorism.

Others saw it as a problem of community division, potentially resolvable inside Northern Ireland by bringing people together across the divide.

Some saw it as an irresolvable stand-off between two irreconcilable ideologies.

Around the mid 1980s some academics started talking about the double minority problem, Catholics being an oppressed minority in Northern Ireland and Protestants being a vulnerable minority in the whole of Ireland.

John Hume’s genius was to say simply, we have a conflict. That’s the word the peace process was built on. Now practically every discussion of the problem calls it a conflict.

This removes any sense that one side has the moral authority to invalidate the other.

Cynics said this was like a bank robber drawing a gun on a cashier and saying, how much will you give to resolve this conflict between us?

The cynics were irrelevant. Leadership within unionism, republicanism and nationalism agreed to work with the concept and they reached a compromise.

Today nationalists are still accusing unionism of failing to produce a leader who can resolve the conflict that remains between nationalism and unionism.

They feel that we are at an historic moment. They believe that history has a narrative arc that tends towards Irish unity and they want a unionist leader to emerge who will acknowledge that and go with the flow.

This is not going to happen, at least not until such time as the unification of Ireland has become inevitable and that time may never arrive.

Currently the leader of the larger unionist party, Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP is boycotting Stormont and blocking all devolved government in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Donaldson is easily mocked for this since he argued for Brexit and helped create the necessity for the protocol but, crucially, his own party doesn’t hold that against him.

Recent polling shows his support increasing. And what is the job of a party leader if not to stimulate growth in the support base and win votes?

The largest parties at the time of the peace process, the parties of John Hume and David Trimble, now have single figure support percentages.

Donaldson’s dilemma might be that he builds up a support base that doesn’t want a devolved parliament to vote MLAs into, the alternative being to lose that base and, with it, the votes that would give him power.

But the precedent he most likely has in mind is the unionist compromisers of the past who all lost the support of their own people.

Nationalists can sneer at unionists who won’t dilute their principles and ease us all towards a united Ireland but they are living out a fantasy that unionism is not a sincere conviction. They imagine that a unionist leader can ditch his electorate and move on without them. That is the most unpolitical of political thinking.

The parties that thrived after the Good Friday Agreement and its reworking in St Andrews are the DUP, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party.

Both Sinn Féin and the DUP preserve their traditions. Sinn Féin continues to celebrate the IRA campaign as a good thing. The DUP retains its evangelical Protestant character. Neither reaches beyond its base so neither is fit to criticise the other for that failing.

Alliance aligns with neither tradition and is growing by building its popularity on that stand.

The party leaders are giving their factions what they want. That’s what leaders do.