GFA is dead but unionism lives on

For Alex Kane, one of Unionism’s strongest advocate for rapprochement with physical force Republicanism, the Belfast Agreement is over.

By Alex Kane

The Good Friday Agreement as we knew it is finished, shredded into a confetti of broken promises and dashed expectations. Matters weren’t helped, either, by the fact that the Secretary of State’s idea of tough sanctions is to withhold allowances from a party which has access to an IRA portfolio worth around £200 million. It was a pathetic and deeply offensive response; one step short of wrapping himself in a white flag and rolling over for Gerry Adams’ amusement.

The Agreement was created to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold and provide the IRA with an opportunity to disarm and disappear into the political ether. But that has not happened. Sinn Fein/IRA has taken unionism, both the UUP and DUP for a ride. And hasn’t it also taken nationalism for a ride? When over 90 per cent of nationalists endorsed the Agreement at the 1998 referendum, they were giving the nod of approval to inclusivity, power-sharing, continuing partition and decommissioning. They surely weren’t giving the thumbs-up to another seven years of IRA prevarication and the replacing of bombings with bank robberies, were they?

The IRA has confirmed the worst suspicions of hardline unionists, for it has proved itself incapable of cutting a democratic deal. And the IRA has also isolated and undermined moderate unionists, those who were prepared to believe that the organisation was ready to abandon the terrorism and the racketeering. In other words, the IRA has managed to unite unionists around one opinion, namely, that the IRA can’t be trusted.

It is now up to nationalists to sort out this mess, something they can do at the elections on May 5. If they choose to endorse and increase Sinn Fein’s mandate then they are sending out a clear signal to the IRA—we still support you, in spite of the murders, robberies, money-laundering and Mafia-style empire building. If, on the other hand, they withhold their vote from Sinn Fein and row in behind the SDLP, then they are sending an equal clear signal to unionists—an acknowledgement that a power-sharing deal remains the best way forward.

My real worry, and it is a matter I touched upon a few weeks ago, is that nationalists really do hate us more than they disapprove of the thundering dishonesty and congenital criminality of the IRA. I suspect that Sinn Fein will actually increase its vote, strengthening, rather than weakening the bonds between the Al Capone frontmen and the “resting” bombers. Also, I have never bought into the idea that you can prise Sinn Fein from the IRA and pretend that politics can then move ahead.

Anyway, if it is the case that Sinn Fein poll well in a few weeks time, then it probably means that Northern Ireland could be in for the roughest and most unpleasant phase of its recent troubled history. There may be no middle ground left within nationalism and no likelihood of a sustainable voluntary coalition between the SDLP and unionism. Sinn Fein will be cock-a-hoop and ready to flex its muscles again and the IRA, vindicated by such an electoral outcome, will continue with its own blend of hardball and baseball bat.

That is why it is so important that unionists vote on May 5. If you are not on the electoral register, or not sure, then make sure and get on it. The indifference, apathy and voting lethargy within the pro-Union community (almost a third don’t vote and a further 12-15 per cent are, at best, irregular voters) is something which republicanism relies upon to magnify its own turnout and successes. A number of parliamentary seats and upwards of 100 council seats hinge upon a relatively small number of votes and an increased unionist turnout would make a huge and crucial difference.

Unionism, in all of its forms, is still standing firm almost 120 years after the First Home Rule Bill. Our resilience has ensured that Northern Ireland remains locked into the Union eight decades after devolution was granted and after thirty years of relentless terrorism. The ballot box is the bedrock of democracy, of unionism and of the United Kingdom itself, and we must use it on May 5 to prove, to both republicans and the British and Irish governments, that unionism hasn’t gone away. And won’t be going away!

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday February 26th 2005

  • DessertSpoon

    Alex seems to make a good living out of writing this gloomy stuff. But come on maybe it’s time to think about why “(almost a third don’t vote and a further 12-15 per cent are, at best, irregular voters)”. There is nothing to vote for its just the same old crap every time. Most people feel their votes don’t matter and our MPs can’t affect the Govt anyway.

    The other day a debate was held on the future of academic selection and secondary education in Norn Iron and every NI MP there agreed that it was outrageous that the Govt was being so high handed in its dealings and simply NOT listening to the people. If we had our own govt (remember Stormont…big white place on the hill!) we could deal with issues like this ourselves just like water charges and all of the other policies being driven through and imposed on us. No the problem we have is not the people who vote or don’t vote but the people who stand and I don’t think this is just a unionist problem.

    I do vote and I take it very seriously. It’s my hope that everyone come the election takes a good long hard look at their candidates and asks themselves am I voting for a representative who will work for me and everyone in my community or giving another useless mouthpiece a meal ticket for 5 years!

  • Jacko

    There might also be a major problem around local politicians not having any stomach for taking responsibility for local services etc.
    Hard to leave the luxury of perpetual opposition, even harder to go round the doors trying to explain to people why things haven’t improved as much as you promised they would before the last election.

  • DessertSpoon

    Good Point Jacko. Maybe they just don’t have the right stuff. BIt sad for us though isn’t it.

  • IJP


    What you say is right, but the reverse is to some extent also true. Neither Unionist party has clearly separated itself from majority rule (i.e. by apologizing for it and conclusively coming out and admitting it is utterly wrong and indefensible), and a lot of people have trouble believing Unionists are serious about democracy (i.e. power-sharing) either.

    To ask a straight question: notwithstanding what you’ve said, do you recognize that your average NI Catholic (and indeed to odd Protestant) has great difficulty trusting Unionists’ democratic credentials? Might this be a reason (albeit a pretty pathetic one in this democrat’s eyes) for the ongoing rising SF vote?

  • IJP


    Essentially you seem to be agreeing with a point I made some time ago, namely that part of the reason we don’t ‘solve’ the problem is that those we elect don’t actually want to solve it…?

  • slackjaw

    ‘My real worry, and it is a matter I touched upon a few weeks ago, is that nationalists really do hate us more than they disapprove of the thundering dishonesty and congenital criminality of the IRA.’

    So, it’s pretty axiomatic that ‘nationalists’ hate ‘us’. The only matter that needs to be settled is how much.

    A real worry, reading this Newsletter article, for this particular non-unionist, would be that whatever ‘nationalists’ really think, (assuming, that is, that they are capable of thinking about anything other than hating unionists) it appears this matters little to the ‘pro-union community’.

    More important, it appears that ‘the pro-union community’ thinks it has no influence over what ‘nationalists’ think or do. Better to make minatory predictions about what this undifferentiated, ‘us’-hating mass is going to do, rather than to consider how unionism, or the ‘pro-union community’, can work for a lasting settlement.

    Whoops – looks like I spoke too soon. The panacea for the continued instability and mutual distrust in Northern Ireland is – wait for it – vote Unionist! Brilliant! I mean, it’s worked until now, hasn’t it?

    ‘What’s that you say? More of them are voting Sinn Fein? Nothing to do with me, guv. I was just standing over here the whole time, being a Unionist.’

    Mick, you describe Alex as ‘one of Unionism’s strongest advocates for rapprochement with physical force Republicanism’. Might part of the problem be that ‘Unionism’ is structurally incapable of rapprochement with those people physical force Republicanism would claim to represent?

  • Mick Fealty


    “Might part of the problem be that ‘Unionism’ is structurally incapable of rapprochement with those people physical force Republicanism would claim to represent?”

    Good question. Anyone with any answers?

  • vespasian

    “Might part of the problem be that ‘Unionism’ is structurally incapable of rapprochement with those people physical force Republicanism would claim to represent?”

    I would suggest that ‘unionism’ views physical force Republicanism as representing the forces that have tried to destroy unionists and Northern Ireland for the last 80 years and therefore is deeply suspicious of anyone draped in a tricolour who offers a hand of peace whilst the other hand is still firmly wrapped around the butt of an armalite.

    That is not to say that some in the ‘unionist camp’ did not try to overcome this deep seated problem and David Trimble took huge risks to achieve it. He however seems to have paid a heavy price in both personal and UUP terms.

    A question that should perhaps be asked is physical force Republicanism ready to get completely rid of its physical force to allow ‘unionists’ to have rapprochement with them. It would seem over the past 8 years that this has been most definitely not been the case as Trimble gave them several chances to do just that; however they used his generosity to destroy him and the UUP before moving on to the DUP.

    It may well be that it is the people of Nationalist Northern Ireland who determine the fate of SF/IRA over the next few weeks and months. If they ignore all that has happened and continue to abandon the SDLP and vote for SF/IRA in increasing numbers then indeed the out look is bleak for everyone.

    Northern Ireland needs a strong SDLP and a strong UUP to have any hope of progress towards devolution – a strong SF/IRA and DUP axis is completely incapable of moving forward at any time in the foreseeable future and probably not while RIP and GA are around, they both have too much baggage to carry.

  • Hektor Bim

    I’m sorry to say that I find Alex Kane’s contribution at this point to be profoundly unhelpful. Does Mr. Kane really expect nationalist voters to vote for the SDLP because he (an avowed unionist as he makes clear in the final paragraph) tells them to? People don’t vote for a party because their “enemies” or those they “hate” tell them to. They vote because they perceive it to be in their interests. This piece offers nothing to the nationalist voter to change his mind from Sinn Fein to the SDLP.

    In fact, the piece ends with an exhortation to unionist voters to vote and crush the nationalist vote in “upwards of 100 council seats”.

    There is no recognition here that nationalists have legitimate grievances or might have reasons to vote the way they do. The piece assumes they vote the way they do because they are consumed by hatred of unionists.

    I’m sorry, but this won’t cut it. If Alex Kane really wants to be a moderate unionist, he should write pieces where he exhorts people to vote for the UUP and the SDLP, because they are the only ones who can make a deal. He should exhort people to turn away from the practices of the past (both nationalist and unionist) and come together to support the Good Friday Agreement and get devolved government. He should criticize Sinn Fein and the DUP for their unwillingness to compromise, and exhort people not to vote for them.

    Voting unionist and telling the nationalists they are wrong and consumed with hatred has worked so well so far, hasn’t it? I agree with slackjaw.

  • aquifer

    Onionists are a hopeless bunch, publicly wedded via the Orange Order to a protestant exclusivism that would not pass in any part of Britain.

    They are semi-detached brits with nobody willing to live on the other side of the sectarian party wall. They invite red diesel republicans to come along with their eastern bloc JCB and demolish their half-baked political property.

  • JC47

    Unionists required the existance of physical force republicianism to justify the supression of the nationalist minority.James Molyneaux called the IRA ceasefire the “greatest threat unionism has faced since the foundation of the state”.
    Alex Kane’s notion that unionists can once again achieve dominance over nationalists through the ‘ballot box of democracy’is not only impossible but it is despairing that a liberal unionist like Kane obviously harks back to the good old days of a protestant parliament for a protestant people. If nationalists really do hate unionists it may be have a basis in the way they were treated since they were forced to live in an orange statelet created specifically to maintain protestant ascendency.
    There can never be a return to the dark days of unionist domination. It would be very wrong for unionists to believe that the current turmoil in the ranks of Sinn Fein and the IRA will lead to a
    collapse of the nationalist agenda.
    It is true that there are sadistic murdering scum within the ranks of the IRA – just as there are within the loyalist paramilitaries. They need to be dealt with. However their existance does not negate the funfdamental truth that the NI state was and is a failed political entity.
    Calling on your tribe to get out and vote the croppies out is a poor answer to the present crisis.

  • Hardy Handshake

    I’d love to believe Kane, problem is we’re likely in for years more of this infantile ‘will we-won’t we’ charade at the public’s expense in order to prop up meaningless wasteful embarassing institutions which perpetuate, and deepen, sectarian consciousness across the North and give succour to parhocial navel-gazers who seek to gain from a divided population.

    Alex, let’s hope the filthy nasty piece of dogshit is being flushed – once and for all. Doubt it, though.

  • IJP

    I think some of the above is very harsh, but I’m particularly struck by the point that Unionists have to realize that their actions can affect how Nationalists vote.

    That’s a good point, but to be fair to Alex, I think it’s the point he’s been making for some time in reverse. Nationalists have to recognize that every SF-1 vote is ‘two fingers’ to Unionists (and indeed to democrats).

    As I said above, however, that is essentially how many Nationalists perceive every Unionist vote, given the triumphalist nature of much of Unionism. That brings us to the question of whether Unionism is capable of rapprochement. My answer to that is that it clearly isn’t and never was, and nor is Nationalism generally capable of the reverse. The UU/SDLP combination (that Alex is called on to support above) didn’t work either.

    There can be no rapprochement between Unionism and Nationalism. People need to start working on one between Unionists and Nationalists – that is possible.

  • GavBelfast

    Aquifer, I think your diatribe against unionism is only fair if it is against unionist politicians and parties.

    If it’s against the many people in NI who are simply more comfortable with living as part of the UK state (I would be tempted to say those who feel “Simply British”, but maybe that has been trade-marked), then I think you’re out of order.

  • Moderate Unionist

    Many people have moved on. There is a willingness amongst Unionists and Nationalists to live and work together.

    but we appear to have developed an electoral system that institutionalises sectarin politics.

    The only effective sanction in a democracy is the prospect of an election every four or five years and the possibility that you might lose office. We don’t have that under PR and d’Hondt.

    What it’s loft idealism, the current system invites extremism. The more extreme you are, the higher your profile, the more likely you are to get elected. Meanwhile, the decent people just stop voting, because the current electoral group doesn’t represent they way they think.

  • IJP


    Spot on.

    There’s no easy solution to that, though.