Unionist crisis shakes Blair's plans

Submitted by Anon on 23 October, 2003 - 5:20

Amidst much whipped-up anticipation Tony Blair flew into Belfast on Tuesday 21 October, as did Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, to be in time to cop the glory for a new, "historic" agreement between Northern Ireland Unionism and Irish nationalism.

The day had been "choreographed" so that step by step it led up to a triumphant announcement of a major "success" by Tony Blair. Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government, suspended a year ago, would be restored after a late November Northern Irish general election.
Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein made a speech. General de Chastelain reported on a new "decommissioning" of its weaponry by the IRA. Then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble spoke.

But he did not say what his alloted role required him to say.

David Trimble departed from the "script" to announce that he was not satisfied with de Chastelain. Instead of a wedding, Blair found himself at something akin to a funeral.

De Chastelain's flat, laconic statement that more IRA arms had just been "decommissioned" than in the two previous such "events" lacked all detail. He needed the IRA's permission to give details, and he did not have it. Trimble found this unacceptable. He "needed" dramatic "transparency" - details, film of the arms being "decommissioned" - to "convince" his electorate.

Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein/IRA had effectively said that the IRA's war is over. In a terse announcement the IRA had "endorsed" Adam's statement. Even so, without "transparency" in "decommissioning", Trimble could not play his scripted part.

He had been led to believe by Gerry Adams, with whom he has - so the spinners of official half-truths had said - established cordial relations, that the decommissioning would be done "transparently". The Republicans had ratted on him, he claimed.

Adams responded that one side's "transparency" is the other's public "humiliation". The "transparency" Trimble needed for his "constituency" would not play at all well for Adams in his...

In the last five years, the Northern Irish "peace process" has on a number of occasions seemed dead in the water and then started moving again. This is not necessarily the end of it. Given time, something could most likely be cobbled together. But that is their problem now. Time is running out.

Elections to the Belfast Assembly, were due last May. They were postponed. A date has now been set - 27 November - in which Northern Ireland's electorate will give their verdict on the Good Friday Agreement and on those who have shared power with Sinn Fein/IRA. That - Trimble's fear of the Protestant-Unionist electorate - is what is "behind" the latest events.

Trimble was candid about it. He "needs" a "public", "transparent" and dramatic act of IRA self-decommissioning if he is to have any hopes of avoiding defeat in the Unionist camp by the Democratic Unionist Party of Ian Paisley which "rejects" the Good Friday Agreement and want to "renegotiate" it.

Every Northern Irish election is in fact two distinct elections - one in each community. In the Catholic-Nationalist camp Sinn Fein competes with the constitutional nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party. Sinn Fein is expected to win a majority - perhaps a big one - of the Catholic vote.

In the Protestant-Unionist camp, the Trimble Unionists, the Ulster Unionist Party, compete with the DUP. Without some palpable "success" to vindicate their involvement in power-sharing with Sinn Fein, the Trimble Ulster Unionist Party will most likely be replaced by the DUP as the majority Unionist party. The UUP is already split, with three of its Westminster MPs, critics of Trimble's support for power sharing with Sinn Fein, expelled from the Parliamentary party.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement a majority of each community, in practice of Assembly members, must support a power-sharing Belfast government. Strictly speaking, the UUP, as a result of defections since the general election five and a half years ago, no longer fulfils this requirement, though it is still the majority Unionist party.

There is a great deal of bluff and demagogy about the position of the Paisleyites - who have in fact, despite what they say, involved themselves in power-sharing. If the election goes as expected, would a Sinn Fein-DUP dominated power sharing government be inconceivable? No, but it wouldn't be wise to count on it either.

And even if they could get the dramatic symbolism of public IRA decommissioning - and that is all it is, symbolic, for everybody knows that the IRA could very quickly rearm -the Trimbleites might go down before their Unionist critics. Large numbers of Protestant-Unionists feel that they have been the losers in the Good Friday Agreement. Only a bare majority of them voted "yes" in 1998. That majority has eroded over the last five and a half years.

The prolonged wrangling over IRA disarmament and disbandment has undermined the pro-Good Friday Trimbleites. Power-sharing has been power-sharing with Sinn Fein whose para-military wing, the IRA, has continued to exist. The IRA, as Gerry Adams expressed it, "has not gone away, you know."

That is why such things as the disclosure that the IRA had an information-gathering operation, with Unionist politicians on its targets, going on inside the Assembly building, Stormont Castle, had the effect it did, triggering the suspension of power-sharing government last October.

But Protestant-Unionist dissatisfaction with the results of the Good Friday Agreement is deeper and more fundamental than that. And it is not only a matter of the symbolism and appearance of things.

Protestant-Unionists believe that the IRA won the long war and that the events of the last five and a half years prove that. Compulsory, institutionalised, power-sharing government instead of majority rule - the Protestant-Unionist rule to secure which the Six Counties was set up - is only one example of it.

The Catholic Nationalists feel this too, and there is overwhelming Catholic support for the Good Friday Agreement and its promoters.

There was always a big chance that a general election, producing a Sinn Fein and Paisleyite majority in the Catholic and Protestant communities respectively, would plunge the Good Friday system into prolonged, if not terminal, crisis. Whether Trimble's last minute refusal to "perform" will rally Unionist voters to the UUP or convince them to go with the consistent critics of Trimble and the Good Friday Agreement, will be seen on 27 November - if they go ahead with the election.

Despite the occasional militarist actions of physical-force-on-principle Republican critics of Sinn Fein/IRA, the last five and a half years have demonstrated that Sinn Fein/IRA remains firmly entrenched on the Catholic Nationalist side.

There is no sign that the nine-year "peace" will give way to a new war if the intricately sectarian political structures set up under the Good Friday Agreement collapse. The further disintegration of Unionist that now seems imminent will strengthen, not weaken, Sinn Fein/IRA on the Catholic side of the Northern Irish divide.

The underlying truth is that Northern Ireland is unworkable as a political unit. The only way out is a federal united Ireland with regional autonomy for the Protestant north-east.

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