Unionists must end Sinn Fein's carte blanche

Alex Kane argues that the British government has engineered most of the outworkings of the Belfast Agreement on the basis that Unionists have no breaking point. As a result it has focused all efforts in billateral negotiation with Sinn Fein and the IRA, to the exclusion of all other players. He argues it is time for Unionism to call the governments’ bluff.

By Alex Kane

Speaking in the Dail on Wednesday afternoon, Bertie Ahern said; “What I find really offensive…is that there was an ability to turn off the punishment beatings while negotiations were in progress , but as soon as the negotiations failed there was a string of them, they are again a nightly occurrence. I will give Sinn Fein full marks for discipline, but not for anything else.”

So there we have it, the Taoiseach is offended by Sinn Fein. He quite explicitly links the political front to the punishment beatings. He has also stood by his view that the IRA carried out the Northern Bank job and that the Sinn Fein leadership was aware of the operation. Yet, according to Michael McDowell, the Irish Minister for Justice (and no slouch when it comes to putting the boot into Sinn Fein); “Mr. Ahern told Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness that he is strongly opposed to a policy of exclusion or punishment, because in our view putting people into victim mode is not sensible and doesn’t help the present process.”

Note the use of the term, “in our view”, for this is clearly the view of the Irish Government. The Taoiseach speaks of offence, the Justice Minister accuses Sinn Fein of bad faith, and the Foreign Minister confirms that the process is in great difficulties. But, be that as it may, there is no intention to exclude, sanction, punish or face down. In other words, Sinn Fein has got away with it.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair invites the Sinn Fein leadership for talks and sends his Chief-of-Staff to buy off the loyalist paramilitaries. And President George Bush, who really should know better, refuses to cancel visas, or put a stop to Sinn Fein’s fundraising exercises across the United States.

When unionists complain that they are being punished and deprived of the Assembly because of Sinn Fein/IRA activity, it is only half of the story. The Assembly remains mothballed because the British and Irish governments have no intention of doing anything to upset armed and active republicanism. It isn’t Gerry Adams and P. O’Neill who keep the shutters down at Stormont, it is Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern.

And that is why unionists are wasting their time at meetings in London and Dublin, and wasting even more time with their increasingly monotonous and desperate calls for alternatives to the Assembly. An alternative is a palpable admission of failure. Unionism has come too far and taken too many risks to be fobbed off with second best. Why settle for a consultative Assembly when we already have government by consultation? Why settle for scrutiny committees when Direct Rule ministers would not be accountable to an Assembly, nor bound by the votes that those committees may take?

Unionists are not to blame for the fact that the Assembly isn’t functioning, so they shouldn’t be seen to shoulder the blame by attempting to breathe life into an entity which would be very much inferior to what they had.

The British and Irish governments are convinced that unionists have no breaking point; indeed, their whole approach is predicated on that conviction. And since they believe that unionists will remain put, come what may, Tony and Bertie will play the long game, forget about sanctions and bank on unionists buckling first when new negotiations are kickstarted in a few months time.

Remaining put is no longer a serious option; for unionists, all of them, are being played for suckers by cynical and spineless governments. In essence, the governments are waiting for unionists to “settle down and face political reality”. They believe we will pay almost any price for devolution on other peoples’ terms. It’s about time we proved them wrong.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 29th January 2005

  • davidbrew

    Alex is again saying what many anti-Trimble people were saying three years ago-that the obvious lack of a bottom line did a disservice to Ulster Unionism and Unionism in general. The effect of his suggested strategy is likely a reversion to the Molyneaux policy of masterful inactivity. Against my instinct I have to say he may now be wrong, though for entirely good and proper reasons.

    That policy worked in its aim of containment-and I supported it then- because the Shinners were outside the door wanting in. All realpolitik since 1969 has been about managing the IRA after all. It becomes harder when they have now taken up residence and no-one seems willing to turf them outside, for more than a few symbolic weeks. The goalposts have now moved so much that new, unpalatable solutions may be necessary.

    Alex and I probably shared an integrationist background- we were both involved with the Campaign for Equal Citizenship after all,and have less of an attachment to the Assembly than many of the political leecxhes feeding off the bloated carcass at Stormont. Certainly the UUP is completely dependant on state subsidies of varying types , and I am sure the DUP and SDLP are similarly financed. I doubt that any of these parties- never mind Alliance etc- could survive the turning off of the Stormont tap. Also, the Stormont debacle has at least brought some new blood into local politics ( or should that be some new bloodsuckers?), and as the UUP Assembly party demonstrated over the last four years, the monthly paycheque outweighed conscience,and often common sense. Expecting a new principled self-sacrifice from our MLAs is nive in the extreme.

    Politics in the past 5 years has shown the limits of spin and the ease and sunprincipled skill with which the NIO and Iveagh House have manipulated us all. There can no longer be any illusions left about the intentions of our rulers.

    The only question therefore is “What is the best means to shift the focus on to the containment of Sinn Fein?”. If direct rule causes all other parties to atrophy while SF advances in the South , and here at local councils , will that happen? Or can an unloved and unlovely assembly -reconstituted in a form which marginalises them and compels their opponents to work together do that job better?

    I’m not saying Alex is wrong, but at this specific time this seems the wrong strategy, with the possibility of governments at least confining our unwelcome house guests to a cold and small room- as opposed to us leaving the house and hoping it will then fall down on top of them.

    Possibly after the election, and in the context of the confirmed realignment of politics in NI, Unionism will be prepared for a period of hardball and hairshirt. As the election in the South also drws closer, I believe there will be a concerted effort to squash the Shinners by all the establishment parties, which might also make Alex’s strategem one capable of producing more results.

  • aquifer

    Unionists once believed that being MPs in an English parliament could provide stable government in Northern Ireland, without them or their catholic countrymen even being in the party of government. Some believe it still.

    Is their own exclusion from power a price worth paying to prevent catholic UK citizens getting some?

    I have heard of oppression debasing the oppressor, but political self-abasement seems weird.

    Was the IRA campaign just a bit of consensual S&M that went too far?

  • davidbrew

    BTW, if Rebecca, or Unionist-observer, is reading, can we have confirmation that the Strangford UUP AGMlast week was unable to take place owing to insufficient numbers attending?

  • George

    And where will unionism walk away to Alexs? The British government has nothing to fear from unionism walking away. They have nothing (economic and political might is long gone) and will walk away with nothing.

    More worryingly, will unionism walking away basically be taken as a statement to the British government that joint authority is preferable to unionism selling its soul under the current arrangement?

    Don’t forget, the central reason of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was to stop the electoral rise of Sinn Fein. Unionism walked away from that and look where it got it. Nowhere.

    There is no point walking away unless you know where you are going. Unionism doesn’t know where it’s going, it only knows what things it wants to stay the same. However, it doesn’t have the economic or politcal clout to keep things the same any more.

  • gfhf

    This is a test