UUP should leave the Assembly now!

Alex Kane argues that Unionists can expect little in the way of executive punishment of Sinn Féin by the Westminster government. Instead, he argues that the best the UUP can do is to up and leave the Assembly with immediate effect, rather than enter a potentially damaging electoral deal with the DUP to minimise the Sinn Féin returns at the next Westminster election.By Alex Kane

Listening to Paul Murphy in the House of Commons on Tuesday was a bit like watching a feeble sheep bleating the merits of vegetarianism while a pack of wolves circled him with mint sauce and gravy. Wake up, Secretary of State, and smell the Colombian Three coffee! The peace process as we knew it is dead, buried under a van-load of stolen dosh and a lorry-load of Sinn Fein dishonesty.

The decent and democratic thing for the British and Irish governments to do, would be to exclude Sinn Fein, face down the IRA and then promote and shore up a government formed from the remaining parties. That would be the moral thing to do, as well as being the right course of action politically.

But they won’t do that, and we all know that they won’t do it. Oh yes, they may pretend that they will impose some sort of sanctions at some unspecified time, but it will amount to little more than an effete and entirely harmless version of a punishment beating. Sinn Fein and the IRA have nothing to fear from Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern.

I have always believed that the Ulster Unionist Party was right to take political risks and put the IRA to the test. I also praised the DUP for proving itself to be more flexible and imaginative (or U-turning hypocrites, as others have put it) than many of its critics believed it could be, in the wake of its election victory in November 2003. In other words, I believed that unionism was right to remain in the process.

Yet, I also wrote that I had my own bottom line; and that was that unionism should never put itself in a position in which it was actually compounding immorality. It is now in that position. The government will not exclude Sinn Fein, even though it accepts that the IRA remains active and inextricably linked to Sinn Fein. It will not lift a finger to support those in the UUP and DUP who have made a genuine effort to secure a power-sharing settlement. It will not embrace an alternative which doesn’t include Sinn Fein, even though that means punishing democrats and depriving Northern Ireland of devolution.

Unionists cannot remain in a position in which they are collecting salaries, knowing full well that there is no immediate prospect of the present Assembly being restored and no prospect whatsoever of Sinn Fein being booted into the wilderness. To remain is to compound the immorality, as well as convincing Tony Blair that they have no breaking point. The Agreement isn’t going to work in its present form, for, to paraphrase a republican mantra, “Sinn Fein don’t want a unionist about the place.”

The process has been tested and tested to the point of destruction. It was the right thing to do and the UUP has no need to apologise for its post 1995 policies. Unionism needed to know, the British and Irish governments needed to know, if republicans were serious about democracy and inclusivity. It is now clear that they are serious about neither.

So, instead of making futile calls for the government to close down the Assembly if it isn’t going to move on without Sinn Fein, unionists should leave it and leave it with immediate effect. But if a unionist withdrawal is to have a maximum and effective impact, it must be accompanied by a ballot-box endorsement. It is essential that the pro-Union electorate send a clear message to Number Ten at the general election, not only in terms of seats won, but in terms of votes cast. In effect, that election, along with those for local councils at much the same time, should be used as a referendum.

While I sympathise with Danny Kennedy’s call for the unionist parties to work together to prevent Sinn Fein gains, I’m not sure than an electoral pact is the best way forward—and I don’t think the UUP is in a strong enough position to get the best end of any deal. But I do think it is sensible for both parties to campaign with one primary end goal, that of increasing and maximising the total pro-Union vote. My own view is that the unionist electorate, an increasing number of whom are thoroughly disillusioned, will respond to a strong and united moral stance from both main parties. And surely that is preferable to a cobbled together marriage of convenience and the ongoing inter-party cat-fight?

First published in the Newsletter, on Saturday 15th January 2005