David Adams, writing in the Irish Times (subs needed), believes it is time for unionism to “jettison the self-pity” and “accept the heavy responsibilities that come with public office” or suspicions will remain that “supremacy within unionism matters a lot more to many unionist politicians than trying to establish a peaceful and settled Northern Ireland”.
Adams begins by noting how former Ulster Unionist Party leader James Molyneaux remarked in 1994 that a prolonged IRA ceasefire could be the “most destabilising thing to happen to unionism since partition”.
“In fact, destabilising goes nowhere near adequately describing the condition unionism now finds itself in; turned on its head and seemingly rudderless would be nearer the mark,” he says, pointing out that we are now living in a world where unionists are resisting pressure from the Irish and British governments, SDLP and Sinn Fein for a devolved assembly while nationalists are now defending heavy-handedness of the local police and unionist politicians are defending violent attacks on them and are threatening to withdraw their support.
While saying senior Ulster Unionists have been more welcoming of the recent decommissiong move, the reaction of the DUP (the largest party) is what matters and is the “main reason unionism is in the state it is in”.
“Throughout the peace process, rather than seeking to make any real contribution, both the UUP and DUP have opted for a negative and entirely reactive approach,” he says.
“Both the DUP and UUP seem devoid of anything that bears even passing resemblance to a coherent and realistic plan for delivering political and communal stability to Northern Ireland. And that, after all, should be the primary objective of all unionists.
“Worse still, neither party seems the slightest bit interested in developing such a plan. Given all that has happened over the past decade, unionist leaders should, long ago, have stopped playing on the base fears and concerns of their constituency and began celebrating the many positive developments there have been.”
By positive developments, Adams means the acceptance by republicans of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK, an ending of the IRA campaign, the handing over of weaponry (“as close as ever could be accurately assessed”) and an end to the Republic’s territorial claim.
“But, still, unionist leaders continue to talk and act as though the IRA had been victorious. Where they are correct is in claiming there is a widespread sense of despair and alienation within unionism, particularly the working class.
“But they pointedly neglect to mention their own role in helping to create the situation,” he says.
Adams concludes by saying politicians who present every victory as a defeat can hardly feign surprise when their voters lose faith in politics, become defeatist and enter into a collective state of paranoia, depression and fear of the future.
“It is time political unionism moved beyond the comfort zone of self-pity and began to accept the heavy responsibilities that come with public office.
“Until they do that, it will be hard to quell the suspicion that supremacy within unionism matters a lot more to many unionist politicians than trying to establish a peaceful and settled Northern Ireland.”