Unionism in Crisis?

From the Irish World September 2, 2005 :

The political season that cranks into gear this month looks set to provide one of the most intriguing phases of the peace process for some time.

It is likely to witness further outworkings from July’s IRA statement. The announcement that the IRA was standing down was the product of months of sustained pressure on republicans from the British and Irish Governments.

In its wake, however, there is every indication that the terms of political trade have altered decisively. As a result, it is likely to be unionism which faces political pain in the coming months.

It has responded by threatening to stall a resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly, ironically the one institution where its electoral strength might pay dividends.

Until recently, this threat appeared to give the DUP a veto over any deal that would enable Sinn Fein support for policing. Sinn Fein had insisted that any acceptable police service must be accountable to the Assembly. However, there are indications that the party may modify this stance in order to reach a deal in the absence of devolution. If so, that particular bargaining chip may turn out to be a dud.

Indeed, some observers believe unionism may be facing a fundamental crisis, one that has been in prospect ever since the DUP overtook the Ulster Unionists. For forty years, every unionist leader has had to look over his shoulder at Ian Paisley. Now, the leader of unionism is Ian Paisley.

Paisley destroyed many of his predecessors when they attempted to compromise, but the threat he posed also worked to their advantage in negotiations. In recent years, this became known as the ‘Save Dave’ strategy.

As former Trimble adviser Steven King put it recently: “Between 1998 and 2003, David Trimble’s vulnerability paid dividends for unionism. Now that the DUP have bought into the process, though, there is no loyalist hard cop. The cost to the Prime Minister of disregarding the DUP is negligible.”

The only unionist bogeyman left on the horizon is loyalist paramilitarism, but there seems little indication that the loyalists can take the kind of political role they played in 1912 or 1974.

Indeed if there is any pressure on the British Government as a result of the current wave of sectarian attacks and gang warfare, it is pressure to crack down harder on loyalism.

As Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey remarked ruefully recently: “unfortunately we have a situation now where loyalism is seen to be the bad boys on the block and the IRA are able to sit back with a halo around and their arms folded.”

The unenviable situation in which unionist leaders now find themselves perhaps reflects the fundamental flaw in unionism as an ideology, that it commits its adherents to a dependent relationship with a Government over which they have no real control, at the expense of the kind of accommodation within which they might enjoy real democratic rights.






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