—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Politics
15 October 2005

Ulster Unionism: dead but not gone

As an Irishman living in Australia, I've discovered how easy it can be to lose track of what's going on back home when it's not on the TV every other night or at least featuring semi-prominently in the newspapers. Thus it was with some dismay that I learned many months ago via email from a Belfast friend that the SDLP and UUP (the moderate factions of Nationalism and Unionism, respectively) 'got hammered' in the elections by the DUP and Sinn Féin (the most militant factions). With peace surely an inevitability, it seemed inexplicable to me that the electorates of both communities would lurch to the extremes of the political spectrum. But in the case of Ulster Unionism, more recent events may have finally provided an answer.

The IRA is now conspicuously gone. It may not yet have disappeared, but it has certainly ceased operating, and has in fact destroyed its own capacity to function, as confirmed by independent witnesses. The self-ablation of the main militant organ of Irish Nationalism means that Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams now hold the reins, and thus it appears that the movement will be exclusively political from now on. Isn't that what we all wanted? The gun out of Northern politics, permanently?

If David Trimble were in power today, he would have done what every other statesman awaiting the IRA move did: cautiously welcome it. But David Trimble is not longer NI's First Minister. Instead his successor, the DUP leader Ian Paisley, distinguished himself by reacting with outright condemnation to both the IRA's standing down and their disarmament. As reported by the Irish Independent:
Within two hours of General John de Chastelain and his colleagues, accompanied by two independent witnesses, verifying the IRA had put its entire weapons arsenal beyond use, the DUP leader rubbished the entire process and those involved in it.
...
"Today was to be the day when the gun was finally take out of Irish politics, according to the IRA. But the people of Northern Ireland watched this afternoon an announcement which illustrates more than ever the duplicity of the two governments and the IRA," he said.
       Addressing a news conference in Belfast, he claimed that instead of openness they had witnessed the "cunning tactics of a cover-up; the complete failure from General John de Chastelain to deal with the vital numbers of decommissioning".[1]
There's just no pleasing some people, it seems. What are we to make of a man who stampedes to discredit the news that his bitter enemies are no more? A man who would be nothing without them, it seems. A demagogue whose world view has been characterised by antagonism for so long that he simply cannot conceive of any other political programme for himself or his electorate.

'Nationalism' as Christopher Hitchens once observed in his earlier, wiser years, 'is often strongest at its periphery. History has shown that ... inhabitants of Ulster and the Falklands are more ostentatious with the Union Jack than are Londoners.'[2] It might be more accurate to say that nationalism is strongest where it is most under threat. (A colleague recently told me something which I was later able to independently confirm, for example - that Quebec is the only foreign-language location in the world where the STOP roadsign reads ARRÊT.) Anxiety about the Other surrounding you can lead to a magnified projection of one's own ethnic, political or denominational identity. In some cases (Isreal, Quebec) this is perfectly understandable. In others (Gibraltar, NI), it's simply silly. The denizens of neighbourhoods up North where the kerbstones are painted red, white and blue and the chimneys fly the British flag never seem to ask themselves to what extent the people of Britain identify with them. Perhaps they fear the answer.

The answer appeared in the opening paragraph of a brilliant essay by Max Hastings in the Guardian:
Most British people greet Northern Ireland's reappearance on the front pages as if the local bad character had returned to the village after a long and welcome absence. It seems to Britons an injustice to be obliged to govern, fund and police such a thankless fragment of historical flotsam.[3]
Hastings adds that the concluding passages of his 1969 book similarly read:
"The British, whatever their politicians may say publicly, will shed few tears when that distant but inevitable day arrives, and Ulster and the Irish Republic are reunited as logic dictates."
       The statement still seems true.[4]
Aside from obstreperously refusing to leave, the Unionist movement of Northern Ireland has done nothing whatsoever in the last 35 years to cement its ties to mainland Britain, to which it clings, Remora-like. Conversely, Westminster has no use for Unionists save as a repository for some extra votes (as in John Major's time) useful to thwart domestic opposition.

It's hardly any wonder then that Hastings concludes that:
The latest riots seem a manifestation not of Protestants' power, but of frustration and impotence. They see their tiny world decaying towards oblivion. The unionists' transfer of allegiance to Paisley and his kind, the extinction of David Trimble, represent a rejection of rational politics, a resort to absurdity such as only desperate people could entertain. Most middle-class Protestants now expect a united Ireland, and are untroubled by the prospect. As so often in modern history, economics is achieving what politics has not. In 1969, Ulster's prosperity and welfare state, viewed against the south's poverty, provided powerful reasons for many Catholics, as well as Protestants, to fear a united Ireland.
       Today, the position is transformed. Northern Ireland has nothing to lose but its subsidies, while the south is rich and successful. No constituency which gives its political support to such a leader as Paisley possesses a plausible vision of its own future. We are witnessing the last writhings of a society left beached by the march of history.[5]
There is an echo in this of Tim Pat Coogan's memorable description of Northern Ireland as 'this relic of a retreating colonial glacier'[6]. When one side in a conflict decides to withdraw and disarm, this does not usually signal that its opponents' days are numbered. Yet this is just the feeling that is beginning to suffuse through Ireland and Britain. Ulster Unionism has always been a reactionary movement: with the deliquesence of its main bogeyman, the IRA, it now has little or nothing to react against. Ian Paisley's desperate attempts to keep the enemy alive during what may well be Northern Ireland's brightest moment for peace reached an apogee of absurdity with his insulting claim that the two clergymen acting as scrutineers of the disarmament process were 'IRA appointees'.

Paisley is now the crowned King Canute of Ulster, desperately trying to hold back a political tide with increasingly unimaginative demagoguery. His appeal is now exclusively to the lowest elements in his own constituenecy, which he notably refused to condemn during the recent anti-Catholic violence. Surely in his heart of hearts he knows what the long-term picture is. There is no oil or gas in Northern Ireland, no strategic advantage for Britain in retaining its ports (as there once was during World War II); there is no will among the British public to hold onto the North; in recent years Westminster has demonstrated by its establishment of Welsh and Scottish parliaments that it does not fear that the loss of NI will trigger secessionist movements elsewhere in the UK; and there is of course the demographic factor: the birth rate among the Nationalist community has traditionally outstripped that of the Unionists, and there is now a consensus that some day soon there will no longer be a Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, the very reason Northern Ireland came into being in the first place. What then?

It's plain now that Ulster Unionism, once poignantly described by Jad Adams as 'that graveyard of causes'[7] has no long-term future. Its entire political programme is based on ignoring or suppressing the political aspirations of half the community it lives among - and we all know what becomes of such regimes. The force of political gravity is slowly pulling the North back into the Republic. One senses that Britain is eager to disgorge its troublesome province; the absence of a militant movement trying to drive Britain out now affords it the best opportunity ever to quit NI with no loss of face; and with the rescinding of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, there is not even a United Ireland movement down south which the DUP can pretend to be threatened by. Meanwhile the electoral gains made by Sinn Féin on both sides of the border demonstrate that Gerry Adams' slow-burning efforts to pull both halves of the island together are beginning to work.

It's doubtful that Paisely will last long enough to witness the dread spectacle of a United island of Ireland, and peace (with tolerance) for everyone living on it. His reaction to the IRA's permanent ceasefire and surprisingly prompt disarmament tells us that the man who stood in front of cheering Belfast crowds shouting 'Never, never!' is now living in political Never-neverland.

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Notes:

1 Brian Dowling, 'Nothing but a Cunning Cover-up', Irish Independent, 27 September 2005
2 Christopher Hitchens, Cyprus: Hostage to History, Verso, London & New York, 1997, p. 52
3 Max Hastings, 'A society beached by history', The Guardian Weekly, 23-29 September, 2005.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, HarperCollins, London, 2000, p. xxii
7 Jad Adams, 'Scowelly Powell', The Guardian, 5 December 1998.