Alex Kane: Unionists may draw together but they will be let down

Threats have never delivered for unionism and probably will not for protocol

British prime minister Boris Johnson: Unionist anger is particularly bitter this time because the actions of the government look like personal betrayal. Photograph: Scott Heppell

British prime minister Boris Johnson: Unionist anger is particularly bitter this time because the actions of the government look like personal betrayal. Photograph: Scott Heppell

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I remember standing in Ormeau Park, Belfast, on March 18th, 1972. The fear and tensions in Northern Ireland were particularly high at the time and there were rumours the Stormont Parliament was closing “to appease the IRA”. I was just 17 and it was the biggest gathering I had ever seen (“the greatest since the days of Lord Carson” according to one of the platform speakers).

The headline speaker was William Craig, the former minister of home affairs and a darling of the unionist right because of his hardline response to civil rights and reform; and also because former prime minister, Terence O’Neill, had forced him to resign in late 1968.

Craig, now leader of the populist Vanguard movement, milked the crowd’s anxieties: “We are firmly decided to defeat anyone who tries to subvert our constitution. And we must build up the dossier on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country, because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.” The roar of approval seemed to go on forever.

The threats, rallies, protests and coming together of the unionist/loyalist/Orange communities had achieved nothing

But the words chilled me. They still do. They sent out a blunt, brutal message to elements of a younger, new generation of loyalism that he wasn’t going to be able to control. Many of them probably joined paramilitary groups shortly afterwards. But in the end the words and the roars of approval delivered nothing of benefit.

On March 28th, a crowd twice the size flooded into the grounds of Stormont (I was there, too) for what would be the last sitting of the Northern Ireland parliament. The threats, rallies, protests and coming together of the unionist/loyalist/Orange communities had achieved nothing. Their destiny was no longer just in their own hands.

Two years later, on May 28th, 1974, the same coming-together forced Brian Faulkner from his office as chief executive of the new power-sharing executive. A two-week strike, accompanied by power cuts, barricades , petrol and food shortages and the inability of many people to get to work, had made it impossible for the new executive to govern.

Yet having reduced the Sunningdale Agreement and the proposed Council of Ireland to dust, there was no follow-through from united unionism. Indeed, it would be another 24 years before they sat in an executive again; but this time Sinn Féin would be around the same table.

‘Never, never, never’

On the road to the Belfast Agreement, a British government had approved the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) and what looked to unionists like de facto joint sovereignty. Once again the unionist family came together. Around 250,000 gathered in Belfast city centre to reject the agreement and roar their “never, never, never” response to Ian Paisley.

There were other rallies and protests, disruption of local government and non-co-operation with the Northern Ireland Office. Again, it came to nothing. But in 1993 another British government added insult to the injury of the AIA by way of the Downing Street Declaration’s reminder that the British government had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland.

The DUP campaigned against the Belfast Agreement in 1998, describing it as a “one-way ticket” to a united Ireland and promised to destroy it. Yet in 2007 Ian Paisley sat in the executive with Martin McGuinness because the British government made it clear there would be no fundamental rewriting or a return to the drawing board.

There are warnings that loyalism is angry and 'may not be containable'. There is talk of bringing down the Executive

Sinn Féin was going to be in government and the DUP could like it or lump it. The agreement was staying and the DUP could like it or lump it as well.

Here were are, almost 50 years to the day since Faulkner was elected as NI’s last prime minister and unionism is again coming together to fight the latest threat. The anger is particularly bitter this time because the actions of the government look like personal betrayal. From 2017-2019, the DUP propped up Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

Johnson even addressed its annual conference in Belfast in November 2018, promising NI would not be reduced to semi-colonial status. And yet, with the full approval of the Conservative Party, he agreed a “solution” which created an entirely new border which separated NI from Great Britain, as well as leaving it in the EU.

Ante upped

So unionism returned to what it thinks it does best. Loyalists have withdrawn support from the Belfast Agreement. The Orange Order has withdrawn from the Irish Government’s Shared Island Unit. The DUP/UUP/TUV (unionist Assembly parties) along with David Trimble and others have launched legal action against the protocol. There are warnings that loyalism is angry and “may not be containable”. There is talk of bringing down the Executive if the protocol is not removed. Every day the ante is upped.

But here’s the thing: if the threats and coming-together have never delivered for unionism before, why does anyone think it will be different this time? As ever, there is no indication of what the alternatives are if the protocol remains. Another climbdown probably.

This is Brian Faulkner’s reflection as he drove from Stormont on May 28th, 1974: “I understood why many determined Ulster folk had supported the general strike. The statue of Carson around which they gathered in front of Stormont symbolised their conviction that Ulster was going through another 1912. A plot was afoot, they believed , to deprive them of their British citizenship and push them by stages into an Irish republic, so they rallied to the old slogans of No Surrender. They had been cruelly misled and conned by all the would-be Carsons into believing that the reactions of 1912 were all that was required in 1974.”

The would-be Carsons were still around in 1985 and 1998. They can still be heard today.

Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast and former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party

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