What happened to the middle ground?

Presumably substantially written before the UUP deadline was set last weekend, this Adrian Guelke article in the latest Fortnight magazine still manages to read like a political postmortem. However he formulates a number of interesting questions for mainstream Unionism. Not least, what has happened to the middle ground since the Belfast Agreement?

He returns to a previous era:

“Whereas Brian Faulkner behaved after January 1974 as if Gerry Fitt of the SDLP had just become his closest political ally, Trimble’s approach was quite different. The election of David Trimble as First Minister and Seamus Mallon did not prove to be the first act of a new partnership of the centre between the UUP and the SDLP.”

Then he hits on something that may prove to be vital in understanding the current departure in common understanding between Unionists and Nationalists:

“There has been no serious effort by Unionists to acknowledge, let alone address, the reality that there is a political asymmetry in the position of the paramilitaries. Thus, Sinn Fein’s expulsion from the Executive would be a large blow to nationalist representation in the government of Northern Ireland. By contrast, Unionist representation has been unaffected by the Secretary of State’s withdrawal of official recognition of the UDA cease-fire.”

This assymetry may have prompted Trevor Ringland back in August to urge fellow Unionists :

“…if we want to advance the benefits of living in a British society then we have to unequivocally stand against the wrongs on our own side as well as that originating from Republicans”.

However, though the author believes the responsibility rests mostly on the shoulders of one party, ie Trimble’s UUP, it is undoubtedly true that the retention of arms by the IRA after such a significant period in government remains a difficult moral dilemma, as much as it’s a political one, even for those within Unionism that are still firmly committed to the Agreement.

Guelke finishes by drawing an interesting comparison between David Trimble and Ehud Barak of Israel:

“Barak tried to squeeze a better deal from the Palestinians by giving priority to negotiations with Syria and by declining to implement the minimalist agreements that Netanyahu had entered into. Barak’s poorly conceived manoeuvring destroyed the peace process in the Middle East.”

“It would be a tragedy if Trimble’s embrace of compromise without accommodation does the same to the Northern Irish peace process. Unionists will naturally point to Republican misdeeds when the blame game starts, but they might do better to consider the question: who destroyed the middle ground?”

Update: There’s a discussion starting here on the unmoderated Friends of Slugger O’Toole bulletin board. You’re more than welcome to join in.