The challenge to Unionists over the next four months

Alex Kane ruminates on the innate challenges of the next four months in the interrim before the two IMC reorts delegated to adjudicate on the integrity of the IRA ceasefire are published. The DUP has to seriously consider the political choices that face it: namely an imperfect situation with devolution; or ongoing powerlessness under direct rule. The UUP must invest the time in re-connecting with the party’s grass roots.

By Alex Kane

Being an atheist I tend to the view that clergy have a professional obligation to believe in something that they can’t easily prove to non-believers. So in that sense they strike me as ideal witnesses for an act of decommissioning. I don’t doubt their integrity, but I do question their credibility. Their mission last Monday was simply to bear witness to the fact that an act of decommissioning took place; but they certainly can’t confirm that the act represented total decommissioning and nor can they affirm that the act should be interpreted as a final and absolute renunciation of the IRA’s “armed struggle.”

But truth told it wasn’t the integrity or credibility of the witnesses that really concerned the DUP. It was the fact that an obviously substantial—and possibly total—act of decommissioning took place at all. Remember this comment from Peter Robinson; “It is very clear that they have no intention of decommissioning. The people realise it and we realise it in this House.”? Or this from Nigel Dodds; “Will the First Minister accept that the IRA/Sinn Fein movement has no intention of decommissioning. Will he now apologise to the Assembly and to the people of Northern Ireland for so grossly deceiving them”? Or even this from Ian Paisley; “The IRA will never decommission.”?

The DUP has found it impossible to welcome the decommissioning, because the DUP hasn’t got a clue how to behave in a political environment in which the rest of the world believes that the IRA really has gone away. Let’s be honest, this is nightmare territory for the DUP. Sinn Fein has bought into partition and the IRA has crossed its decommissioning Rubicon. The pressure on the party to recognise “this new attitude within republicanism,” and cut a quick deal to restore devolution, will be relentless and intense.

That pressure started ten days ago, with a speech from Peter Hain (which I wrote about last week), and continued with a follow-up performance at the Labour Party Conference, where he announced that his NIO team, in the continuing absence of devolution, will introduce a “radical agenda.” In essence both speeches were a clear threat to the DUP; take power into your own hands at local level and provide your own solutions, or the NIO will do it for you.

So what does the DUP do? A significant section of its core vote doesn’t want to share power with Sinn Fein under any circumstances and the party must avoid the sort of internal showdown between the pragmatists and the fundamentalists, which almost destroyed the Ulster Unionists. Yet it also has to be seen to start delivering for a unionist community it now claims to lead. Some DUP strategists argue that its voters would prefer Direct Rule to Sinn Fein in government; but I suspect that those voters will feel differently if Direct Rule now brings water tax, school closures, an overhaul of local government and higher rates all round. The DUP cannot afford to be seen to be abdicating its devolutionist responsibilities in those circumstances.

Messrs Paisley and Robinson have a simple calculation to make: how much do they need devolution, what price will they pay for it and what will the consequences be if they refuse to negotiate with Sinn Fein? My instinct is that the party will move into direct talks much more quickly than most people imagine. They have already prepared their agenda for negotiations (over fifty pages of concerns and issues they want addressed) and will seek the promise of an Assembly election to ratify the new deal. Put bluntly, the DUP will pay the required price to kickstart the Assembly.

The UUP, in turn, has to play a canny game. It needs the DUP to cut a deal with Sinn Fein, because if it doesn’t, then I don’t believe that a deal will be cut by anyone. So the UUP needs to be cautious. Since nothing much will happen before an IMC report next January, it should use the time to re-energise its grassroots and shore-up its internal structures; whilst maintaining a watching brief on the bigger political picture and bringing fresh faces and new thinking to the talks table.

Unionism, all of it, faces its greatest challenge ever. An editorial in Tuesday’s Times noted; “Unionism will seem implausible if it fails to react rationally. It will also render itself irrelevant…It has to deal with reality. It must now come in from a very bitter cold.” The two unionist parties must display courage, radicalism, vision and statesmanship. The DUP has failed to display any of those qualities in the last few days. In its first real test as the majority voice of unionism it has reacted irrationally and returned to its negative and bombastic roots.

The political landscape has been overturned in this past week and unionism, particularly that wing represented by the DUP, has been seriously wrong-footed. The endgame of this process will be determined by who wins the propaganda war. The unionist parties really have to get their act together, for their electorate is looking for action, as opposed to mere and entirely predictable reaction.

First published in The Newsletter on Saturday 30th September

  • no-hope-here

    Excellent and well argued article. The issue is who does the calculation in the DUP?

    If Papa Doc or Ian og do the calc we can safely assume we are going nowhere. If Pete or Nige do the calc, who are hungriest for power, then the outcome might be different.

    The issue for the OUP is that they should be shouting from the rooftops thet they were right and Ian and Co were wrong. Their silence is bewildering.

  • George

    I’d take issue with “The political landscape has been overturned in this past week and unionism, particularly that wing represented by the DUP, has been seriously wrong-footed.”

    The political landscape changed utterly in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement and unionism has been seriously wrong-footed since then.

    When I write political landscape, I mean the political landscape between Britain and Ireland, which is the actual landscape we all live in.

    Kane is maybe writing about the political landscape within unionism?

    The sad reality is that it appears to have taken many of the most thinking of unionists seven years to realise this British/Irish landscape was here to stay, even if the builders were still pottering about.

    The reason the UUP isn’t shouting from the rooftops about the DUP is that they have the sense to realise they haven’t played the last seven years too smartly either.

    The unionist people want to hear sense not more crowing.

    Kane is right to say it should proceed with caution but the only problem is that time isn’t on constitutional unionism’s side.

    Change will not come dripping slow from here on in.

  • heck

    I spoke with a friend of mine who still lives in Northern Ireland and he felt that the DUP would split over the decommissioning issue. His view was that people like Dodds and Robinson want to exercise government power while the F*** the Pope wing just doesn’t want fenians in government.

    I was rather skeptical. From what I remember living in Nor Iron the DUP was nothing, if not disciplined and had an almost cult like reverence for their dear leader. I could not see any party member going against his wishes.

    Do you guys on the ground think this is a realistic scenario?

  • heck

    I spoke with a friend of mine who still lives in Northern Ireland and he felt that the DUP would split over the decommissioning issue. His view was that people like Dodds and Robinson want to exercise government power while the F*** the Pope wing just doesn’t want fenians in government.

    I was rather skeptical. From what I remember living in Nor Iron the DUP was nothing, if not disciplined and had an almost cult like reverence for their dear leader. I could not see any party member going against his wishes.

    Do you guys on the ground think this is a realistic scenario?

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    Alex is bang on with this one I think. The DUP will have to step carefully from here on in. My guess is talks in January following a clean IMC report or 2. Then if an agreement comes out of it Assembly elections May/June 2006. The big issues now are for the DUP to get some results on shifting some of the structures and tidying up some of the strand one stuff that proved to be less effective in practice than was envisaged in 1998.

    For the UUP its all about internal stuff and getting properly organized for an assembly election so they don’t end up with just 12 seats. Time for a serious look at UUP structures and personnel. Reg promised it and now its time to get it done. Maybe I should buy my plane ticket after all!:)…

  • Mick

    George:

    Change will not come dripping slow from here on in.

    Then who or what precisely is holding the clock against all participants? What are the obvious penalties for tardiness or default?

  • Alan2

    The first thing to take issue with is the fact that Ian Paisley did NOT reject decommisiioning, nor the witnessess.

    Transparent? That’s The Lie Of The Century
    http://www.newsletter.co.uk/story/22888

    By Stephen Dempster Political Correspondent

    Tuesday 27th September 2005
    The British and Irish governments have broken their promise that decommissioning would be ” transparent and verifiable”, DUP leader Ian paisley said last night. The disarmament process had been shrouded in a veil of secrecy, he said.
    Unionists could not see nor judge for themselves the extent of decommissioning and whether or not it was significant. He claimed that London and Dublin had colluded in a cover-up with the IRA. Mr Paisley indicated that yesterday was a big step forward when he told reporters that he now accepted that IRA weapons had been put beyond use. But he added: “The fact remains that the promise made by the Prime Minister, that decommissioning must be transparent and verifiable and must satisfy everyone, was broken. “There were no photographs, no detailed inventory and no detail of the destruction of these arms. “To describe today’s act as being transparent would be the falsehood of the century. “The people of Ulster are not going to be forced by IRA/Sinn Fein or by the two governments along the path of deceitfulness and treachery.”

    His deputy, Peter Robinson, said: “This was a more substantial event than all the others put together. “But, while we accept there was a significant number of weapons put beyond use, we are still to be told how they were put beyond use and still to be convinced that they will never be used again.”
    Unionists were left “underwhelmed” by General John de Chastelain’s report, the role of independent witnesses – the Rev Harold Good and the Rev Alex Reid – and the IRA statement that decommissioning was complete. Mr Good and Fr Reid said that, “beyond any shadow of a doubt, the arms of the IRA have now been decommissioned”.

  • Alan2

    Secondly and I hope the DUP are reading this (Christopher Stalford?). Now is the time to stop standing in the middle of the road and jump aboard the bandwagon, ensuring we are steering.

    Whlst we wait on Sinn Fein being given a clean bill of health of the next x months the DUP should be bringing forth proposals, trust building and confidence building initiatives and various changes to the Assembly mechanisms AND constructive dialogue with the Southern government and business people.

    I would like to see funding for regeneration projects, substantially increased Ulster-Scots funding (the Agency had to implement a moratorium on funding until this month due to lack of funds (yes less taxi trips to Dublin might help), Ulster-Scots language, history and culture brought into the curriculum of schools, rates relief for Orange Halls and other community halls (STILL waiting on this), th right to a British passport for those in the South that chose so (and obviously will be required for any future United Ireland incorporating 1m Northern Unionists), a look at the Irish language requirement for Southern civil service jobs. The parading issue to be sorted out once and for all including the parades commission, address the issue of speaking rights in the Dail – that infact it should be the Northern Ireland Assembly as a whole which has speaking rights in the Dail and not individuals thereby making speaking rights in the Dail accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly on a cross community basis…..I`m sure there are plenty more….

  • ricky

    “rates relief for Orange Halls”

    Should this include lodges who display paramilitary emblems during marches ?

  • Colm

    Rather than waste public money on Irish or Ulster-Scots , it would be better spent improving the written verbal and grammatical knowledge of English for every schoolchild in Northern Ireland. That is what will help them make something of their lives in this world.

  • George

    Mick,
    I have always seen the GFA as the much-needed final peace deal between the British and Irish peoples. British-run Northern Ireland, and the welfare of the Irish minority it contains, is a constituent part of that deal, but not the deal.

    Part of this peace we have made with each other meant the British government has to get really involved and implement wholesale changes in how Northern Ireland is run.

    Root and branch reform was and is the order of the day since the Good Friday Agreement.

    Everything has to change and there is quite a backlog as a result of the shenanigans of the past 7 years (apportion blame according to political outlook).

    The British government is holding the clock in one hand and the purse strings in the other.

    The penalty is: reform or die. There is no greater penalty than becoming obsolete.

    I believe that, deep down, a majority of people in Northern Ireland want change and the British government knows this.

    They want their children to have a future, Northern Ireland to have a dynamic economy and the problems that come with success not with failure.

    It reminds me a bit of the Irish Republic before the dam with the Catholic Church broke. 1983 and the 83% vote against abortion was the high-water mark for them.

    Within a decade, it had collapsed and, when it finally broke, everything went.

    I envisage the same kind of collapse of the previous controllers of Northern Irish society and those who don’t adapt will be swept away in the coming flood.

    Call me an optimist.

  • aquifer

    Uncharactaristically sober and interesting analysis from AK this time. Unionists were fooling us all, and can get their negotiating head together when it matters. Maybe it took radical Hain to re-energise these wannabe conservatives.

    There is hope yet.