And what precisely is the Unionist response?

In the first of a two part column, Alex Kane asks, now the price being asked by Sinn Fein has proved too high for any of its numerous opponents, what exactly are either of the two main Unionist parties planning to do about it?By Alex Kane

This column has never been very generous to David Burnside. Yet, in an article in last week’s Sunday Times, extracts of which were carried in the News Letter on Monday, he raised a number of points which deserve very serious consideration.

The thrust of his argument is that the continuing failure of Sinn Fein to act as a “normal political party is increasingly contaminating politics in Ulster and the Irish republic.” He has a point. The peace process – from the Ulster Unionist perspective at least – was built around the belief that the war was over for the IRA. It had, or so we were assured by military sources and a variety of “informers,” been worn down by intelligence and infiltration and its key figures wanted to come in from the safe houses and ditches and into the warmth of a political settlement in which they could participate.

But what if that analysis was utterly wrong? What if the IRA simply believed that the armed struggle had run its natural course and that the time had come to pursue the war by other means? If that is the case, then it explains why the IRA refuses to say that the war is over, refuses to offer visible and final decommissioning, refuses to stand down the volunteers and still refuses to actually sign up to the terms and conditions of the Belfast Agreement.

It may also explain why it has shafted both the UUP and DUP. At any stage between April 1998 and October 2003, the IRA could have bolstered David Trimble and stemmed the flow of moderate unionist opinion from the Belfast Agreement. Indeed, republican insiders were insisting that the only thing holding back the IRA was the view that Trimble wasn’t in a strong enough position to sell a deal to his own divided party. However, when the DUP became the largest unionist party, the IRA took them up exactly the same garden path and refused to deliver.

So what do the British and Irish governments do? Nothing. And they will continue to do nothing, irrespective of bank heists, Colombian convicts, evidence of ongoing training and recruitment and the inescapable conclusion that the IRA is doing everything required to sustain its paramilitary structures and maintain the option of “selective operations.”

Gerry Adams was right, they haven’t gone away. They aren’t going to go away, either. That being the case, David Burnside has drawn the wrong conclusion from his own evidence. He writes: “My own party and the DUP should raise their sights above and beyond Stormont and campaign together to marginalize Sinn Fein instead of splitting the vote and allowing republican candidates in through the back door.” He then goes on to argue that unionists should press for increased powers to reduced and reformed local councils and turn Stormont into a smaller upper tier.

How, exactly, does that marginalize Sinn Fein? They will still have a big enough mandate to take a key position at the very heart of government. They will still be in a position to “contaminate” Ulster politics. There will still be no exclusion of Sinn Fein from the political process and no pressure on the IRA to disarm.

Writing in this newspaper on Thursday, David McNarry urged a similar coming together of the DUP and UUP; “Consider the strength of a unionist bloc demanding the immediate removal of enforced institutionalized power-sharing.”

David, it won’t make a damn bit of difference to the British and Irish governments, and their ongoing policy of congenital appeasement. That aside, he does have a point about the entirely self-defeating nature of the inter-unionist squabbling rumbling on in the letters pages of local newspapers. The brutal truth of the matter is that neither the UUP nor DUP leadership has delivered the final deal.

The price for power-sharing with Sinn Fein has proved too high for unionists. So, what do unionists do now? That is the only question which needs to be answered, and there is little evidence that either party is addressing it. I’ll come back to the subject next week.

First publichsed in the Newsletter on Saturday 8th January 2005.