Time for Unionists to set egos aside?

Alex Kane argues that there is a danger to the pro-Union position in the current stand off between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Peter Hain, he argues, is decidedly more pro-united Ireland than any of his predecessors. It is time for Unionists to grasp the nettle and accept the unpalatable now, rather than the unacceptable later. That he suggests is better done with a united unionist strategy than one divided by ‘petty little egos’.By Alex Kane

The UUP’s Sam Gardiner has been banging on for the past few weeks about the dangers of Plan B being foisted upon us if the DUP doesn’t cut a deal fairly soon. To be honest, it seems a little bit churlish to complain about the DUP, when it was, in fact, the UUP that brought down the last Assembly and Executive. And brought it down for precisely the same reasons which the DUP now refuses to resurrect it.

But Sam does have a point when he speaks of British “disengagement.” Mo Mowlem was the most pro-Sinn Fein of all our Secretaries of State; but because her approach to them was all flirt and flimflam, she was more of an irritant to unionists than a danger to the Union. Peter Hain, on the other hand, is the most pro-united Ireland of our Secretaries of State. It isn’t just a mere hold-all item in his political baggage, either, rather a thumping great trunk which takes up most of his trolley. He has a thirty-year commitment to a united Ireland and British disengagement. He is no friend of unionism and a positive danger to the Union.

From the mid-1970s, when he was listed as a sponsor of the Troops Out Movement, Hain has been, to all intents and purposes, an Irish republican. At the time of the Hunger Strikes he said; “Britain is actually part, the main part, of the problem, not the source of the solution. Britain’s presence…reinforces divisions, institutionalises conflict and thereby positively obstructs a solution.” In 1987 his solution was this: “It’s got to be a policy that recognises that the historic partition of Ireland is the root of the problem. That Britain’s presence in the North continues to be the main obstacle to the solution to the problem.” In March, 1994, the magazine of the Troops Out Movement quoted Hain as saying, “I am a longstanding supporter of British disengagement from Ireland and the Irish people’s right to national self-determination.”

The most damning assessment of Hain comes from Paul Dixon, a senior lecturer in Politics and an acknowledged authority on Northern Ireland: “The evidence presented here suggests that Peter Hain, rather than valuing the Union, has been a consistent supporter, over many years, of breaking the Union…There is no evidence to suggest that the Secretary of State has made a damascene conversion to support the Union and he has refused to renounce his previous views. This background makes him the most partisan Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ever to have been appointed.”

So, does Peter Hain (appointed by a Prime Minister who knew his views and background) sound like a man who will give a stuff if the DUP calls his bluff on November 24? Indeed, isn’t there a very strong case to be made for Sam Gardiner’s suggestion that Hain would probably welcome the opportunity to move ahead with a Plan B that will ultimately cripple unionism and undermine the Union?

The choices facing unionists aren’t particularly palatable. Devolution with Sinn Fein, even though the Agreement remains riddled with “constructive ambiguity.” (Why won’t the parties even consider the option of creating an official opposition within the Assembly and make the whole process more democratic, accountable and worthwhile?) Failing that, it seems to be a case of take your pick between panjandrum style direct rule, de facto joint sovereignty or first step disengagement.

In 1997 the UUP stayed in the talks process on the basis that “walking away” at that stage wasn’t an option. It was the right strategy at that moment. The problem is, almost a decade later and the pressure is still on unionists to cut a deal for fear of something worse around the corner. That is no way for negotiations to be conducted, for unionists, yet again, have been placed in an intolerably unfair and vulnerable position.

Between now and November the DUP and UUP will need to work together to ensure the best possible outcome for unionism and the Union. That suggestion will not please leading figures in either party, but they must face the fact that the Union is more important than their petty little egos.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 5th August 2006