Any talk of compromise with traditional enemy is a red rag to unionists
Opinion: Flag protesters seem less concerned about the DUP’s failure to represent their interests than with old conceptions of surrender and sell-out
Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying the union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast last January. Photograph: Reuters
Richard Haass appeared to be both angry about and baffled by the rejection by unionists of his proposals to deal with the past, flags and parades. What has happened shows once again that history, with its old lessons of defiance, distrust and obduracy, still blazes up like an 11th night bonfire in the unionist mentality whenever there is talk of a compromise.
In December, during the negotiations, a Belfast judge jailed a member of the Holywood True Blues band for breaking a Parades Commission ruling. The bass drummer had been convicted of bashing out the Sash in front of a Catholic church in east Belfast during a march. He denied the offence, claiming he marched with his head “buried” forward and had not noticed the large illuminated and flashing signs instructing that “sacred tunes” were at that point the only permitted music.
The judge dismissed this as ‘incredible”, noting the drummer’s playing had been enthusiastic, accompanied by gestures to the crowd, and that he was looking straight ahead.
The fiery DUP MLA and Orangeman Nelson McCausland protested it was “draconian” to jail someone whose only crime was “playing a traditional tune”.
Such disingenuousness lies at the heart of unionism’s rejection of Haass. The proposed legally binding code of conduct for parades was a problem. The Rev Mervyn Gibson, one of the DUP’s negotiators, is the Orange Order’s chaplain and a leading figure in the campaign to “get rid of” the Parades Commission. One lodge to which he was chaplain compared the commission to the Taliban, accusing it of waging “a Holy War against Protestants”, while Rev Gibson charged it with “fanning the flames of division”.
The parade at which the drummer misbehaved was a commemoration of the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, when the Presbyterian moderator declared that the Irish question was at bottom “a war against Protestantism” .
Speeches by Rev Gibson and others up at the Drumcree-style “peace camp” at Twaddell in north Belfast are punctuated by shouts from the crowd of “no surrender”, the cry of the Protestant apprentice boys who shut the gates of Derry against Catholic King James in 1689.
During the talks, the DUP consulted with a dwindling hard core of unionists who remain fiercely opposed to powersharing. Flags protesters, instead of protesting at the DUP’s failure to invest in their future, surround themselves with banners harking back to the good old days of Carson and Brookeborough, who warned that Catholics were not to be trusted. These people lament the loss of the old Ian Paisley who bellowed “Never! Never! Never!” and didn’t spoil it all b
y explaining what he meant was that Catholics should have civil rights.
But if the Orange Order still dreams of reuniting the unionist family against its traditional enemies, there is an equally pressing reality for unionism – the immediate future. The DUP has almost wiped out the UUP, but with elections to the new super councils and to the European Parliament coming up in May, the British general election in 2015 and the Assembly elections in 2016, there is still work to be done. With Paisley’s old acolyte Jim Allister sniping away in the background, neither party had the courage in the end to do a deal with nationalists and republicans.
it said “an awful lot” that the two nationalist parties were “jumping up and down” about the proposed deal while “no unionist is prepared to go with it”.
Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long, who had bravely argued for the negotiation of a challenging and strong document and who said she had no interest in “making fudge”, ended up fudging her own party’s reaction to the deal, appearing to reject it on the grounds that it didn’t do enough, but denying this was the case. Long took Robinson’s Westminster seat and the DUP wants it back. In the end, Alliance seems to have decided it was too risky to go with “the other side”.
Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness made a joint appearance in Dublin on Friday for an event about the first World War. They sat side by side. Each spoke well, and without
recrimination. However, at Stormont, OFMDFM, as the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers is known, is afflicted by paralysis.
Take the allocation by Sinn Féin Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill of more than €100 million worth of grants from Europe to rural development groups. No sooner was her decision announced than the DUP Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, took her to the High Court to block it. Last month, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, agreed with him that she should have brought the matter to the Executive, noting that this was a case about “political failure”.
Nesbitt shabbily blamed the “innocent” victims of the conflict for his failure of nerve. They told him, he said, to have nothing to do with “Haass 7”. It was “airbrushing terrorism out of history”, he said. Unwisely, he invoked the Dublin-Monaghan bombs as an example of terrorism, apparently disregarding the irrefutable evidence that members of the security forces, including the RUC and the UDR, were deeply involved in the loyalist gang responsible. Retired members of the RUC, and particularly its special branch, exercise a strong influence on unionism.
The past, flags and parades won’t go away. If the British and Irish governments play their part, and Sinn Féin and the SDLP continue to behave responsibly, unionism will do a deal, eventually. It will be done grudgingly. For unionists, compromise is never going to be something to celebrate. Never.
Susan McKay is the author of Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People.