The third in a five part article about the McCord/O’Loan Report. This analyses why Unionism responded in the way it did.So why did Unionism adopt such an approach?
First, there is the fear that acceptance of criticism of the security forces places them on the same moral level as paramilitaries. This is patently untrue. A fundamental organisational aim of a terrorist group is death and destruction. No one can credibly sustain the argument that this was a fundamental aim of the RUC, UDR and Army – the body count would have been in the tens of thousands if it had been. The vast majority of those who served in the security forces can say they did years of service without firing a single shot and where not directly or indirectly involved in causing anyone’s death rather they saved lives. How many members of a paramilitary group can say that?
Second, there is Unionism’s perceived need to defend the state and its actions. As the security forces are instruments of the state/government so criticism of them is criticism of our state. To justify our support for the maintenance of that state we must defend them from criticism. This ‘because of, therefore’ thinking is a mistake on a number of levels:
Unionism and the State – This is a deeply held misconception that the state and Unionism are one and the same. The interests of the national powers and our interests as a regional political community are not automatically the same. Unionism ceased to be the state on 20th March 1972. Unionism was not politically responsible for any of these decisions so which should it volunteer to pick up the can for it? Also take note of some of the individuals Unionism’s desire to defend the state is potentially protecting. John Major, who was the Prime Minster who gifted Unionism the Framework Documents and his successor Blair who gave us the Belfast Agreement. Others with questions to answer or face danger to their reputations are the likes of Patrick Mayhew, Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and John Reid none of whom could be described as poster boys or girls for Unionism. Why should Unionism waste its political capital in protecting these individuals?
State and Government – The actions of a government are grounds for criticising a government not a rational basis for bringing down an entire state. There is a Lockean stream to Unionism, supporting the state’s existence but disagreeing with a government that is worth drinking from now and again. It will not bring the state crashing down round our heads. Furthermore, if Unionism is genuinely interested in our state its failings are not something Unionism should hide but something we should demand a light be shone upon. Our commitment to the British state should mean we want it to always aim for the highest standards.
But here is different – Northern Ireland has experienced things that no other part of the UK has. True. This difference justifies lower standards that what would be acceptable in Great Britain. “NI is different” is a perceived political wisdom that has made Unionism’s task much more difficult. Is it seriously something unionism should be encouraging? If we accept an emergency did justify such lower standards, that does not mean a ‘blind eye’ approach should be accepted. If a robust response is needed it should have been done full measure and publicly. Anything else was an act of political cowardice and why should Unionism encourage political cowardice in its government when faced with a sustained rebellion?
Third, the vast majority of those who served in the RUC were from a Protestant or Unionist background, so apparently community/ethnic solidarity leads to Unionism coming to their defence. For decades the RUC had communicated its desire to be separate from the Unionist community. Hermon would talk of them being the ‘third’ religion in Northern Ireland. This was clearly demonstrated when the RUC enforced the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By word and deed they communicated their desire not to be a Unionist possession and acted against Unionism’s interests. This was particularly communicated from a senior level in the organisation.
Now it is these same senior personnel who are now looking to Unionism for cover. As with the politicians lets look at some of these individuals Unionism is being asked to spend political capital protecting. Freddie Hall was the police commander at Drumcree. Sir Ronnie Flanaghan embracing of Patten pretty much doomed the campaign to save the name and emblems of the RUC. Again why should Unionism waste its political capital to provide cover for these individuals?
This lack of a hard-headed approach is a persistent Unionist problem – the finest example of it being the UUP propping up the Conservatives even after being done over in the 1990’s. The phrase “What goes around comes around” is a nice conciliation after you have been done over. However, Unionism response seems to be “What goes around comes around but don’t worry we’ll take the hit for you”.
This is some electoral justification for Unionism’s position. The Patten reforms proved a useful tool in breaking into the Unionist middle classes and the UUP’s core vote. The number who had served in the RUC through the years, their extended family networks and geographical concentration in East Ulster constituencies were important to anti-Belfast Agreement Unionists. However, this overlooks that within the RUC, Special Branch was not particularly liked. Also many RUC officers are outraged that their years of good service are being potentially besmirched by some in Special Branch apparently acting under orders from on high. A message can be crafted that doesn’t threaten the vast majority of such support.
Furthermore, anti-Belfast Agreement Unionists overlook that past criticism of the process included the claim that a deliberate blind eye was being taken to ongoing paramilitary activity – public references to ‘house-cleaning’, the startling poor conviction rates for post-ceasefire murders by the PIRA, UDA, UVF and LVF, the explosion of other forms of crime etc. In this context the actual findings of the report should not have come as a particular shock.
NOTE: I would ask commentors to stick to the topic, resist ad hominen attacks and not to feed the trolls.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are solely the personal views of the author.