Unionist fears are not based on sectarianism


Many fail to recognise that much of the distrust of the Belfast Agreement derives from the best instincts of the unionist community, writes Paul Bew, in a continuing series on the state of unionism

The British State is puzzled. Why, it asks, can unionists not make more of their victories: the principle of consent, the return of Stormont, and decommissioning? The police reforms may have been hard to swallow, but everyone knows that former RUC officers will be the backbone of the new force for many years to come. The irony is that if the reforms work, they will merely bring about the situation desired in the early years of the unionist government - a police force with substantial Catholic presence.

Why, the British ask, does unionism insist on dwelling neurotically on its apparent setbacks? Does it not see that the concession of Westminster facilities to Sinn Féin is a concession only "on the margin"? Indeed, as Kate Hoey MP shrewdly pointed out in the debate, it represents the conversion of Sinn Féin to if not exactly to a unionist then at least to a Redmondite view of the centrality of Westminster in Irish affairs.

The IRA campaign was, after all, based on the attempt to destroy the consent principle. Its greatest political victory was to blow away Stormont and the IRA leadership has always insisted, until now, that even a token act of decommissioning would represent a surrender.

The "Trimbleista" response to this argument is invariably one of irritation. One senior Stormont figure muttered: "Don't they have any understanding what it is like to have Martin McGuinness as a Minister of Education?" The recently published biography of Mr McGuinness has revived painful memories.

Mr Trimble's supporters ask if London is so self-absorbed that it has no capacity for empathy. More seriously, has it taken on board the political arithmetic of the great victory in the referendum in 1998? Then, only a small majority of unionists could bring themselves to support the agreement. A significant proportion of the unionist Yes voters believed there would be no legitimisation of the terrorist campaign that appeared to be coming, falteringly, to an end. They anticipated that the subsequent months would see a steady but perceptible erosion of terrorist organisations and of the terrorist mentality.

But, counters the voice of the British and Irish governments, this can all be done in time. Just look at de Valera's progress from the "slightly constitutional" to the constitutional politician and reformed revolutionary.

But de Valera's own reflections in 1957 on this matter give us some clue as to the weakness of this argument and help to explain why matters remain so fraught. The perceived enemy in the 1919-21 War of Independence campaign was the British presence. De Valera, commenting on the IRA campaign launched in l956, viewed it as an inter-Irish civil war. In our latest campaign of communal conflict, the Troubles, republicans inflicted the bulk of the killings (2,139 deaths) while suffering themselves 392 of the fatal casualties.

The legacy of bitterness is substantial. In the eight decades following the Irish civil war, when did Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil overcome their residual bitterness and enter government together?

It is as well to say these things openly. The agreement has to be the only civilised way to move the North forward. But it will not be served by a failure to grasp the nature of the persistent crises which constantly grip it, nor to underestimate the crisis of legitimacy it has in the eyes of a large section of the unionist community. This is not a simple expression of unionist sectarianism, as so many believe. Sectarianism among unionists there certainly is - as the recent explosion of hatred in north Belfast reveals for all to see. The simple truth is, however, that David Trimble could not have got half so far as he has if an exclusivist sectarianism had been the driving dynamic of the unionist community.

Not one of those writers whose stock in trade has been the denunciation of unionist sectarianism came close to predicting the course of the last five years - the negotiation of the agreement and the successful establishment of a power-sharing government. These writers also fail to see how much of the distrust of the agreement derives from the best and not just the worst instincts of the unionist community.

In the interests of peace and power-sharing, we have a form of government that ensures representation for former terrorists. So be it. But some preoccupations of the No voter - having a political party with guns exercising power, the issue of crimes that go unpunished, paramilitarism on the margins, and the interpenetration of political power and crime - are crucial to many ordinary unionist Yes voters, too. The surest way to tip the balance of opinion against the agreement is to ignore them.

It is necessary, however, to be honest. Not all the problems of the agreement can be laid at the door of either the British government or the republicans. In a recent interview in Parliamentary Brief, David Trimble acknowledged how unprepared unionists were for a return to government. "We talked a good game," he says dryly.

Mistakes were made and the unionist performance in government has not been strong enough to shift sentiment in their own community. The solid core of support for the agreement which remains, remains principally because it regards the agreement as the necessary form of historic compromise which is the most reliable way of preserving the union.

This is hardly surprising. Most of the political energy of the unionist community has been devoted to an internal, debilitating feud. In such a context, some of the hoped-for positive effects of the agreement do not appear to have materialised. There is no sign, for example, that young Protestants are less likely to leave Northern Ireland and take up university places in the rest of the UK. The return of the "respectable upper middle classes" to unionist politics, while significant in some constituencies, has been a patchy process thus far.

And there are fears - exaggerated, say some academic demographers - about the relative demographic decline of the Protestant community. If the latest survey evidence is even remotely correct, it could well be in the unionist interest to see the results of a Border poll. But instinctively - ever since Brian Faulkner turned down Edward Heath's offer of one in 1971 - unionists have disliked Border polls, regarding them as destabilising. Faulkner went down a different route, which included the illusion of the retention of security powers. This led to a humiliating defeat, but the lesson has never been fully grasped.

We are entering a critical phase. In his recent Liverpool University speech, Dr Reid bravely attempted to address the issue of unionist alienation. His speech may well be seen in the long run to have had a profound significance as the first sign of the British government's awareness of the scale of the problem. But framed as it was for a formal academic environment, it lacked bite; above all, it lacked an explicit acknowledgment that there may be such a thing as a siege mentality, but there is also such a thing as besieging behaviour.

Why is this moment of such importance? The high water mark of concessions to republicans will soon be reached when the government delivers amnesties to paramilitaries on the run and further extensions of the inquiry culture. At this point, the issue becomes: does the British state have the resolve to protect the settlement in Northern Ireland?

In principle it has the room to manoeuvre, as since September 11th fears about an IRA return to violence have diminished markedly. In spite of the way the agreement was sold in Northern Ireland as marking the end of violence, fears of a return to violence seem to have exercised a surprisingly strong influence over the considerations of the British government since 1998. But the events in the US must surely mark a watershed.

One the great advantages of the agreement is that it has moved the political and ideological struggle to the forefront. In this respect it has fulfilled its promise.

But the devolution experiment throughout the UK is not working in quite the way advertised by Dr Reid in Liverpool. Indeed, it is clear from the new British Social Attitude Survey that the new devolved constitutional settlement has actually eroded a sense of Britishness throughout the UK. In his recent Castlereagh lecture on the 1801 Act of Union in the House of Lords, Mr Trimble noted how the patchy history of the Union can be attributed, in part, to the lack of interest in London to devoting the intellectual and political resources to making the project work. A similar fear now haunts the workings of the new constitutional settlement: it is one thing - in 1800 as in 2001 - for London to establish new structures for the Union; it is another thing to breathe life into them.

It is increasingly obvious that Mr Trimble's analysis of the evolution of the republican movement was correct. But his recent remarks display a renewed concern about the British state. Quite simply, does it have a bottom line, or will it continue to allow, by default, the republican movement to impose an ideologically green tinge on what is, institutionally, a structural, unionist deal?

Paul Bew is professor of Irish politics at Queen's University Belfast