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