The stark reality of unionist tactics

The stark reality of unionist tactics

ANY LONG-TERM settlement in the North requires acceptance by the unionists, no matter how inconvenient a truth that is

A caller to a radio programme I was on offered a simple solution to the problem of political deadlock in Northern Ireland. He said if the unionists won’t grow up we have to move on without them.

I hear variations of this comment often. There is the standard joke that unionists have only one word in their vocabulary and that word is ‘No!’

Hillary Clinton said, absurdly that those unionist leaders who were protesting against the Northern Ireland protocol by boycotting Stormont should simply stand aside and let others get on with the job.

This is so naive she can hardly believe it herself but it fits with an easy dismissal of unionism as stupid and intransigent. It fits also with an assumption that Northern Ireland is destined to move in one direction and that the job of those parties which think differently is to simply wise up and not seek to influence change in their own preferred way.

There is indeed a long history of unionist resistance to change, but not just because party leaders are slow dullards.

When the Troubles were at their worst in the early 1972 and the British government was trying to entice unionists into compromising with nationalists, or ‘the minority’ as they were routinely called then, even those would ultimately compromise had little sense of how far they would have to shift.

Brian Faulkner, the Northern Ireland prime minister conceded that he might include Catholics within committees advising his ministers but would not accept that people who actually wanted a united Ireland should have any place in government.

A year or so later, at Sunningdale, he accepted power sharing with the SDLP, and the basic model which became the Good Friday Agreement. His party split and the majority of unionists sided with opposition to the new assembly and brought it down, aided by massive street protest and the Ulster Worker’s Council strike of 1974.

When David Trimble, twenty years later, revisited the idea of a compromise, he also split his party.

And he got little appreciation from nationalists for the risk he had taken. The nationalist stereotype of unionists is that they are homogeneously obstinate and Trimble seemed to fit that.

He was a difficult man given to flashes of temper.

One day I met with his SDLP partner in the executive, Seamus Mallon, standing on the steps of Broadcasting House in Belfast waiting for a taxi. I asked him how he was getting on with Trimble.

He said, “That man hasn’t got it in him to be big about anything.”

This was a cruel assessment. The taxi that Mallon was waiting for would take him to Poyntzpass in Co. Down, the scene of a double murder the night before of Phillip Allen and Damien Trainor, one a Catholic, the other a Protestant, ad close friends.

He and Trimble would together visit both grieving families to express their sympathies together and that gesture was presented by the media as an example of cross community generosity and an assurance that both victims had the sympathy of the whole community.

And years later Mallon admitted that Trimble had been badly treated given that the political risk he had taken was so great. Nor did that risk really pay off for him. He accepted the Good Friday Agreement but ultimately lost his party and the Democratic Unionist Party inherited the benefit of his courage.

Even then, the new leader of unionism, Ian Paisley, long seen as the uncompromising hard man, was brought down by his party for being too conspicuously genial with his partner, Martin McGuinness, or Oglach Martin McGuinness as he is remembered on his gravestone.

So over and over again we have the clearest illustration of the fact that Unionism is not homogeneous and that compromising leaders who try to settle deals with nationalism get brought down by their own people.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the current leader of the Democratic Unionist Party took the top job against resistance from the more conservative and religious wing. Those who think the solution to the current deadlock is for Donaldson simply to make a brave decision and stand over it forget that party members have to move with him or they will destroy him as they destroyed Faulkner, Trimble and Paisley. These are three strong precedents suggesting that the most astute political career move for Donaldson to make is to do nothing.

There is no point in imagining, as Hillary Clinton appears to, that internal party democracy in unionism can be waived aside as a mere nuisance.

The unionist leader who compromises with nationalism always loses support because a big section of the community on which it draws is religious and chauvinistic and wary of change, but also fears that it is being outflanked by nationalism, Sinn Féin and the SDLP clearly having slicker, more eloquent operators in charge.

And many are averse to partnership with Sinn Féin which still celebrates the IRA as patriots.

Nationalism also has the demographic advantage while it draws on a C

atholic community which is younger and growing faster.

Some unionists think it is not stupid to simply hold fast and resist change, trusting that no matter how much they are reviled as doggedly negative no ultimate political deal can be made without them.