Agreement proves there is no third way forward

 

The French have a term for it: politique du pire, catastrophism. The big question in Ulster unionist politics is a simple one: has politique du pire had its day? Politique du pire has its uses: if you think things are going to get worse - as most unionists did (quite accurately with respect to violence) after the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 - there is no point in understating the case.

But is there any point in behaving the same way in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement of 1998? Senior DUP politicians privately do not believe that the agreement signals the end of the Union. Even prominent UKUP people are agnostic, so why behave in public as though it does? Perhaps because it is hard to break a habit so ingrained.

There is, of course, a serious case to be made against the Belfast Agreement, for all that it promises a new and more harmonious epoch on the island. This case was powerfully made in the Ulster Hall by Ian Paisley and Bob McCartney in the immediate aftermath of the Stormont deal. Both men denounced what they saw as the abject betrayal by the British government in the face of terrorism.

But the problem remains: what if a democratically-elected British government is set on this course, abject though it might be? Then the rationale of the Paisley and McCartney position is quite clear: an independent Ulster, a Northern Ireland bereft of the UK subvention which sustains its standard of living.

As Ulster Nation, the theoretical journal of Ulster independence, commented on the rhetoric of the Ulster Hall rally: "This was all very good and we generally accept their analysis, but the question must be faced. Where are they going? They want to defend the Union but that is not a viable option in the face of three governments. The logical way is to seek Ulster independence."

But it does not need Ulster Nation to point this out. Many people feel it in their bones. This leads to a moment of recoil as they count the cost, both material and ideological. That is why there is a school of thought within the rejectionist unionists of the DUP which wants to blame Mr Trimble for everything and then take up its ministerial positions. Mr Trimble made all the rotten compromises, but the deed is done - so they imply - and we have no choice but to defend our positions by taking up our seats in government.

Currently, the Northern Ireland Bill winds its way tediously through the Houses of Parliament. Remarkably, its provisions have provoked no serious discussion in either part of the island of Ireland. It is true, of course, that a unionist revolt is supposed to be impending, provoked especially by the prisoners issue. Jeffrey Donaldson, and others have indicated their displeasure. John Taylor, the most important Trimbleista in the parliamentary party, it was reported on Thursday, was likely to say something of great negative importance the next day. Come Friday, John Taylor said nothing at all; instead, he flew off to Cyprus for a well-deserved rest.

Yet the Northern Ireland Bill retains its joy and delights for those who wish to pursue them. The reference to the ultimate supremacy of the Westminster parliament - it is there in the Belfast Agreement - is repeated in the Bill a la the Scottish and Welsh legislation. The UKUP McCartneyites who proposed to make a fuss on this point are silent: as are most nationalists who hailed the great significance of the removal of Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act (1920) only to see essentially the same provision re-enacted in the new legislation.

Executive power in Northern Ireland remains vested in Queen Elizabeth. Where does all this leave Mr Adams? At the weekend, messages were sent out: Sinn Fein would not at this point appoint anyone to liaise with Gen de Chastelain's decommissioning commission. But the agreement explicitly expects all parties to co-operate with this body. In the face of united calls from the First Minister and his deputy, it is hard to believe that the Sinn Fein position will not be modified in some way, especially after the earlier signals sent out by senior republican prisoners.

Better republican language, embodying more explicit commitment to purely peaceful methods, is also likely before too long. Then the issue will be quite simple: will enough unionists be prepared to move forward on the basis of a calculation that, according to the agreement, the year 2000 sees the 200th anniversary of the Union and the completion of the decommissioning process?

The British state desperately wants the agreement to work. But in Ireland, in particular, the British state does not always get what it wants. It got what it wanted in 1921, thanks above all to Michael Collins. At other moments it has lost it: during the height of the land war in 1880; the collapse of the power-sharing executive in 1994; and also in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

But this time it is armed with a double referendum of the people of Ireland supporting the new deal. Surely this time not even the British state can lose it? The answer is: probably not, but prepare for many excitements before the new all inclusive government of Northern Ireland is put in place.

Of course, there is another side to all this. After his failure to achieve a compromise with John Redmond on 1916, Edward Carson sadly commented: "I believe the moment you shake hands over anything you'll go further than you ever thought you would." Carson, of course, assumes here a continuing Irish constitutional linkage with Britain, as does David Trimble.

We are now at the beginning of a new era which presumes a widespread unionist engagement with all the forces in Irish society. As Seamus Mallon pointed out, the principle of agreement has the capacity to transform our politics, but not everyone has quite grasped the point as yet.

In particular this is true for the group around Jeffrey Donaldson, who could still potentially play a positive role. This group contains some of the ablest young unionist cadres. Morally many of them still cannot come to terms with the agreement. They dream of a third way between Trimbleism and Paisleyism. But in this case, there is no third way; the 71 per cent vote for the agreement has seen to that. Nor, incidentally, is there any third way for the republican movement. Peaceful methods are the only way forward.

The North is now seeing a rather nasty summer lull punctuated by bombings and shootings. Inevitably and rightly, having recently been through such stressful times, the first Minister and deputy First Minister need to recuperate, and a vacuum of sorts is created. When they return, however, they intend to stamp their character on events, and that can only be stabilising. Let no one be in any doubt. The battle for the Belfast Agreement has not yet been definitively won.

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